Some people love being in front of the lens. Others, not so much. Whatever the reasons you have your subjects on a shoot – modeling jobs or even family photos – it’s your job as the photographer to get your subjects to feel more comfortable. That’s not an easy task when you just met someone, but it’s not impossible.
In fact, I kind of like this part of the challenge, if I’m honest. It helps me to unlock my creativity to help best capture the portrait. Because as we know, photos aren’t just pictures. They’re capsules of time, moments where artfulness in life comes alive every time we look at them.
Want to make your photography subjects feel more comfortable? Here are my 11 tips for your continued success in portrait photography.
1. Assess the subject’s personality
Part of this will have to do with why you’re there. Are you shooting models for a catalog? Or are you taking family portraits that they’ll treasure forever? Each person, or group of people (like that family with the son that acts a lot like Dennis the Menace) will have a different relationship with the lens.
Everyone has their own personality and it’s your job to capture it with your lens. Each person will take to the camera a different way. Some will adore all the attention, while others will look like they’re silently praying to be swallowed up by a hole. The latter is most difficult to work with, because you’ve got to get them to relax. They look at your camera the same way they do their dentist when he has a drill in his hand.
The tougher ones will insist they look horrid on camera and you’ve got to capture their beautiful side. Beauty truly lies in the eye of the beholder. You probably know this to be true outside of photography when someone you know talking about that hideous… hum… I meant beautiful jacket they just bought, a piece of garment you’d surely pass on given the choice. The same is true in photography in that you must find the beauty in your subjects and trying to get them to let that shine through is your toughest mission.
A few test shots can help you get a feel for them. How do they act? If they joke and relax, it’s going to be an easier shoot for you. If they smile stiffly and pose awkwardly, you’ll need to put in more work to make their portraits look good. Do your job right and you’ll have them like putty in your hands by making them feel comfortable to be there. It’s about reading people and putting them at ease as much as it is a creative art. Don’t be afraid to use your creativity to get your subjects to open up, relax, and be themselves.
2. Develop an actual relationship with the person you’re shooting with
One of the best ways to make your subjects comfortable is to form a bond with them. This is particularly useful when you’re doing a big shoot, like a wedding for example. Yes, you’re being hired to do a job of capturing beautiful moments on camera that they will treasure forever, but that’s just part of it. The other part you can’t forget is that you ARE part of that moment, even if you’re behind the lens.
Make your subjects feel like you’re more than the photographer, that you’re a friend too. Someone they can trust with these most personal moments in their lives. If you get that feeling of trust from the people you shoot, you’re going to get those photos that look comfortable and real, just like they want. No one wants wooden-looking posed photos. I always think of that scene from the movie Overboard (the original with Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) when he gets his friend to fake wedding photos to keep up the rouse that she’s his wife. Granted, those are post-edited but it still hits my point that she’s uncomfortable and looks tense, exactly what you want to avoid in reality.
3. Take some time to warm up
Whether you’ve photographed this person before or not, whether they’re comfortable or uncomfortable, you need to allow time to warm up. Even professional models need a little warming up, and guess what? You need it too.
Plan all your shoots with an extra 15 to 20 minutes built in at the beginning to allow for all of you to get into the groove. I like to do this whether my subjects are ready or not so they can get comfortable being near me and my camera. I find that most people really begin to relax about 15 minutes in, which is why I advise this. Rarely will you get good photos from those beginning candid shots but it’s good for opening up dialogue as well as ensuring lighting is good, your histogram is spot on and that you yourself are set up the way you want to be.
4. Communicate with the people you photograph throughout the entire shoot
Some of your subjects will be in a crunch for time, perhaps in a need to get to another appointment not long after, while others will have plenty of time. For all of them though, you should keep asking questions. Think of how hair stylists ask lots of questions of their clientele. It’s to help them relax, so use this technique for your portrait work too.
If you know they’re from out of town, you can ask them where they are from or how they like the city you’re in. Even simply asking how their day is going is a good one, though if they’re having a bad day, be prepared to steer it toward something positive to help them channel good energy for the shoot, be genuinely interested in them. The key is getting them to talk and you to LISTEN, because the more they do, the more open they become and show their true selves. You don’t need to be a comedian either, but if you do have something funny that’s guaranteed to get a laugh, it might be worth trotting out when you get someone that’s hard to break through to.
Some people genuinely don’t like being photographed. They think they don’t look good in any lighting or in any situation, but the way you put them at ease can get them to loosen up and lose the stiffness in their positions and facial expressions, remember to be hearty in your appreciation and lavish in you praise, but you should avoid flattery, because flattery is cheap. Again, I’ve got to say you have to learn to read people and know how to work with them. Your personality goes a long way in portrait photography for getting the best photos out of your subjects.
5. Be specific about the poses
As a photographer, I know how people should pose with their hands or how they should hold their head for the most flattering photos. Even the most beautiful of subjects can look bad if they’re holding their head in an odd position. Thin people can look like they have 5 chins. Don’t tell your subjects they look awful though, but merely guide them to where they should be.
You’re the professional and they’re trusting you to give them glorious photos. Walk them into position where you’d like them to stand, suggest putting an arm around a family member, and help them keep hands, limbs, and heads in the perfect position. You know what looks good in pictures and how your lighting and shadows can play upon them to make the people in your portraits look their best.
6. Don’t touch your subjects without permission
Of course, with positioning people, it can be tricky because some people hate being touched. To counter this, you should ask first. “Do you mind if I move your arm in a different position?” Asking something like this not only helps build trust but also gets them to relax. It’s also important if you get back behind the camera and see something that needs an adjustment. Some people are jumpy and surprising them will only make them look edgy and stiff in photos.
7. Be yourself
Just like each of your subjects has their own personality, so too do you. And every other person on the planet. Just be yourself. If you’re not a funny person, don’t try to crack joke after joke. Of course, if people always naturally laugh around you and you’re the center of amusement in your family and circle of friends, then go for it.
I tend to be rather funny myself (as I’ve often been told) and making people laugh naturally has always been a strong suit of mine. But I also know when I need to be serious. I can’t very well start cracking jokes during a wedding ceremony in an austere church, can I? So, I tone down the jokes but I’m largely just myself. I advise you to be yourself. Let your own personality shine through because, realistically, here it is… you’re not the only photographer out there and luckily so because there are too many subjects that need one. Some people are going to adore your portfolio and your personality, while others aren’t going to jive well. It’s all fine though because you WILL find many people that are comfortable in your presence and with your capabilities as a photographer so don’t put on a phony act.
8. Show your models some of the photos you took
Ariana Grande famously got upset because of photos taken of her from the side she didn’t like (I believe it was her right side). It’s really not unheard of though. Plenty of non-celebrities are particular about a certain side of their face or having their hair a certain way.
You can ask, and often be delighted, to see if they will let you photograph them in a different way. Some will refuse but more often than not, they’ll want to see how they look from a different angle. This is great for someone you’ll have to shoot again. It helps you to learn what makes them self-conscious about their appearance and allows you to focus on what they feel most confident about.
9. Be hearty in your appreciation and lavish in your praise
They say flattery is cheap and I completely agree. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t keep your subjects motivated by telling them how great they look, how perfect that image was you just got, and how much you’re enjoying photographing them.
Very few people feel completely at ease in front of a constantly clicking camera. Add to that fact that everyone feels insecure about something, even the most successful of people.
Keep the reassurances coming so that your subjects continue to relax in front of the camera. If something doesn’t work in a particular pose, don’t ever say so. Simply snap a few shots and guide them to another pose. It’s all positivity and how you present it. Staying positive in photography (and in life too) always yields the best results.
10. Avoid negative reactions
And while we’re on the subject of staying positive, I must insist that you never, EVER make a negative reaction. Train your face not to frown even if a pose looks blah, because if your subjects see it, their confidence will waver. Not just in themselves but in you. Just like you wouldn’t tell them they looked awful when they moved their head a certain way and turned for a different pose, you should never show it. It’s your job to steer them in the right direction and get the best out of them.
It’s not just a small frown though. It’s your voice and how patient you are. If you start getting shouty, tense, or make huffy puffy sighs every other minute, your portraits are going to reflect that ugliness. Your verbal and non-verbal cues are what your subjects are watching for and if they feel your negativity, it will transfer to them.
Instead, go back to what I said about leading with positivity. If something isn’t working and your subject isn’t looking glorious, suggest a change with positivity, like you just got a ground-breaking idea. By framing it this way (pardon the pun), you’ll get a positive response out of them which is exactly what you want.
11. Be ready for the shoot
I know I said plan on warming up for the first 15 to 20 minutes of your shoot as an automatic. But there’s one last thing I want to leave you with and that’s this: you have a specific job to do so start with the absolute basics of that job by being there on time and being set up. This might require you to be there much earlier than your subjects, but professionalism is critical in photography.
Being late, shifty, forgetful, or rummaging around for things that should already be set up when your subjects arrive will make you look unprofessional and will tarnish your reputation. If you’re just starting out professionally and trying to build your reputation, please heed this warning and always be ready for every shoot.
In portrait photography, a relaxed subject makes for the best photos. In an ideal world, they’d all show up for their sessions completely chill, but all people are different. Some are incredibly chill off the bat while others will be uptight until you get them to loosen up. And some will never be nice people, but you have a job to do. Knowing how to work with ALL kinds of people and personality types is very important to your livelihood as a portrait photographer. Make sure you get your people skills on par with your talents as a photographer, so you’ll get the best sides of your subjects at any angle.