Editor’s note: this week we will be featuring a series of articles on posing for portraits. Look for a new one each day. If you miss any make sure you subscribe to our newsletter and you’ll get a reminder of all our articles once a week.
One of the trickiest parts of doing a portrait photo shoot has nothing to do with operating your camera, mastering your lenses, controlling the light, or even dealing with uncontrollable weather. Getting your clients to relax, take it easy, and enjoy themselves during your time with them is just as important as making sure you have all the technical aspects of your equipment figured out.
This is often the key to a successful photo shoot, and yet it’s so easy to get caught up in learning about your camera equipment and buying new gear that many people forget to invest time in developing the human element of a photo session. Portrait posing and how to help your subjects relax is key to taking better people photos.
If this aspect of your craft is not managed properly you could easily find yourself in the middle of a photo session where your clients are confused, agitated, bored, or worst of all, frustrated and angry. Every photographer has their own unique style, but generally speaking if you can get your subjects to get comfortable and relax, you can get more of the photos you (and they) are really looking for. It’s a tricky situation to be sure, and every photo shoot is different, but here are three techniques that may be helpful:
1. Get to know your clients beforehand
At its most basic level taking photos for clients is a simple business transaction wherein they pay you money for a service you provide. But it’s really much more than that: people are inviting you to record a point in their lives that they will hold dear for decades to come. When you order a sandwich or cup of coffee it doesn’t matter who you are, what hobbies you enjoy, what professional goals you have, or whether you woke up on the wrong side of the bed that morning. You hand over some cash, get what you ordered, and go about your day. However, taking portraits is almost the polar opposite because everything matters. A good portrait photographer will strive to capture the essence of the people they are working with, and getting to know them first is a key element of making this happen.
On my website I have three simple questions on my Contact page:
- Families. What was the best family vacation you ever went on?
- Children. If you could have the perfect birthday party, what would it be like?
- High School Seniors. If you had $1000 to spend, and a week off from school, what would you do?
The answers to these questions help me understand more about my potential clients, but also send a message to them that they mean more to their photographer than just a pay-check. This helps with any pre-session discussions we might have, as well as the photo shoot itself, because the seeds have already been sown for good conversation and a relaxed atmosphere.
I’m a teacher by trade, having taught in K-12 schools as well as at the college level (in addition to six-week classes for other teachers), and one common thread that I have found among people of all ages, is that most of them just want someone who will listen to and take an interest in them. With this foundation laid, classes are always much more productive for me and my students. So it goes for the photographer as well: if you show your clients that you are interested in them as people, you will find them to be much more cooperative as photography subjects. It might take some time to get to know them before you photograph them, but this will pay off handsomely for you and your clients throughout the entire picture-taking experience.
2. Don’t treat the photo shoot like a photo shoot
I did a photo session recently for a bright, intelligent, outgoing young man who simply did not want to have his picture taken. He was nearing the end of his time in high school and his parents wanted to get some nice photographs before graduation, particularly of him in his cap and gown. He would much rather have been at home playing video games or hanging out with friends, but instead was obliged to spend the late afternoon with me taking photos – a prospect that was about as much fun for him as getting a tooth drilled. How on earth can you possibly get someone like this to relax, have fun, and enjoy a photo shoot? Simple: don’t make it about the photos.
One of the first things I said to this student as I hoisted my camera bag to my shoulder was “What video games are you playing right now?” He immediately relaxed and started telling me about one of his current favorites, which then branched into discussion of what his friends were playing, which then led to a dialogue about the recent school year and even his career goals. All the while I was snapping photos,
while giving him subtle directions without interrupting the flow of our conversation. I got more good shots than I ever thought I would, and he enjoyed our time together far more than he had anticipated.
This girl was a bit nervous about having her picture taken so instead we just talked about music. I don’t know much about the clarinet, but she was more than happy to tell me about it, and in the process gave me plenty of good photo opportunities.
This is just one example, but I have seen the same scenario repeat itself over and over: people tend get nervous and self-conscious when getting their photos taken, so if you want them to relax, have fun, and enjoy the photo shoot, try treating it as an hour of just hanging out. They’ll enjoy it much more and you’ll be surprised at the nice results you can get.
3. Build long-term relationships
When you order a pizza or pick up a tool from the hardware store you’re not looking for any type of lasting personal commitment. It’s merely a simple business transaction that serves a functional purpose, whereas photography is quite the opposite. Because you are dealing with people, and not objects, you should not only get to know your clients and seek to build a rapport with them, but find ways to build a professional relationship with them after money and pictures have changed hands. This won’t necessarily improve a current photo session, but it will pave the way for many successful future sessions while also helping to spread the word to the client’s friends, family, and co-workers about your photography services. A few ideas to try include:
Send a real thank you card
Send a thank-you card to the client (not an email, but a physical handwritten card) a few weeks after they receive their photos. Let them know how much you enjoyed working with them and appreciated their business, which is a good way to build a positive professional relationship that will last for years to come, and help make future photo sessions much more relaxed and enjoyable. You can also slip in a discount for a future photo session, which will give them even more incentive to do business with you again. This is especially important if you work with children or families, as you can easily lay the groundwork for many years of photo sessions by letting them know how much you appreciate them and enjoy working with them.
This boy’s parents had such a positive experience on his photo shoot that they asked me to take pictures for their whole family a few months later.
Post about the session on social media
As more clients share their lives online, you can take advantage of the medium to publicly say how much you enjoyed working with a particular client, how good the photos turned out, or how you are already looking forward to a future session. Clients often respond quite positively, and this type of public recognition helps to reaffirm their good opinion of you as a photographer. Note that you will want to get your client’s permission first, and posting about a client on Facebook is not the same as friending a client. I don’t necessarily recommend that, though I know several photographers who do.
Scratch their back, and they’ll scratch yours
Many of your clients (or their parents) are working professionals and would appreciate your patronage as much as you like to have theirs. Remember the father of the cute kid from last week’s session who is a local plumber? Give him a call the next time your sink overflows. What about the upcoming wedding shoot with the couple who owns a local deli? Take your family there the next time you go out to eat. Building these types of professional relationships is a good way to help ensure that future photo sessions are relaxed and comfortable for your clients. They will start to trust you, be at ease around you, take directions from you, and also recommend you to their friends and family. This also sends the message that you are interested in more than just taking pictures, but are an active and supportive member of your local community, which is filled with people who might be looking for a photographer to do their next portrait session!
Getting to know this family, finding out about their interests, and building on experiences from previous photo shoots helped make this session fun and enjoyable for them and much easier for me as a result. The children knew me from their photo session earlier in the year, which not only helped them relax but put the adults at ease too.
These are just three ways to help you get people to relax in your photo sessions, but there are many other ideas as well. What about you? What tips and tricks have you learned over the years to help your clients relax, enjoy themselves, and help you get the best shots you can? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University, and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty.