Portrait photography, or ‘people pics’, can be one of the more challenging forms of photography to master. As with any skill, practice makes perfect. If you're not made of money and do not have the means to hire a Heidi Klum, what do you do? Where do you go to find willing models to help you improve and hone your skills? With a little work on your part, you can probably find more models than you think.
Obviously one of the first sources for models can be family and friends. Not only are they fairly willing, they are also usually patient and understanding. A patient model is key when starting out because portrait photography can take a little time to properly setup, especially if you are using artificial lighting. It is also much less intimidating to take pictures of people you know fairly well than it is to take pictures of someone unfamiliar to you. Don’t burn them out though. Unless they are enjoying the experience and are having as much fun as you, keep your shoots reasonably short. I probably have a bad habit of hounding a few friends for pictures more than I should only because I know the images would turn out great. Don't be too pushy or demanding. If they're not into it, they're not into it. Find those that are!
Once you have exhausted friends and family, consider other sources for models. Most aspiring photographers can’t afford a professional model but still want to practice portrait photography. Luckily, most aspiring models can’t afford a professional photographer either. Look for online modeling sites such as Broken Doll Models, Model Management, Model Mayhem, and similar sites These sites have some great advantages. First, most sites will allow you to search for models in your area. Second, you can search for models that are willing to trade their time for prints (TFP). This allows the model to use the pictures from the photographer to build their portfolio and gives the photographer a model to help build his/her skills. Third, you can run across some models with a fair amount of experience. Their experience can benefit you as well. Lastly, most of these sites are free to use.
Finally, you can hire a model for a shoot. I would only suggest this once you are fairly comfortable with portraits or ‘people pics’ as you are usually paying them on an hourly basis. This is definitely not the time to be figuring out lighting or poses unless you have the income to do so. However, there are some great benefits to a paid model. Simply put, they know how to pose. They are usually very prompt and professional. They are far less camera shy and can get into ‘modeling mode’ very easily. They also know how to position their body in relation to the lighting. They will know which light is the key light and which light is a fill light or a separation light. Knowing this, they will make sure they don’t place an arm or hand between the light and their face that would cast an unpleasant shadow.
Having said all of this, you do not necessarily need a professional model to create great images. If you can find a friend that loves being in front of the camera, take advantage of that. Sometimes you can get much better results with a friend that is just as passionate about your shoot idea than you can from a paid model that isn't as passionate about it. Don’t be afraid to try unconventional ideas! These kinds of shoots are simply a blast and even considering supplies, aren't that expensive. Although, compensating models with pizza, chocolate fountains, and mimosas probably doesn't hurt either.
Don’t be afraid of portraiture. Start with friends and family. Try looking for models in your area online that are willing to trade services and don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. My more unusual ideas seem to attract more willing models than just a normal portrait sitting. Respect your model’s time and comfort level and have fun in the process. Once you get comfortable with portraiture and start creating a decent portfolio, something very interesting happens. Instead of having to search for willing models, models will start contacting you. Nothing surprised me more than receiving messages from people I did not know asking me how much I would charge for a ‘creative’ shoot. Don’t get me wrong, I still bug the crap out of friends and family when I have an idea or two I want to try out, but it's a nice confidence boost when a stranger wants to follow my work, or better yet, shoot with me.
Keep the interesting parts of life in focus.