Annie Leibovitz is famous for saying it’s not a photographer’s job to make her subjects feel comfortable. Like many other photographers, I fundamentally disagree.
Photography is a sophisticated dance, and as photographer, you are the lead. That means that if you want your partner—or in this case, your subject—to behave a certain way for a photograph, you’ve got to know what cues will draw out the most authentic and precise version of that behavior; you’ve got to know how to move and charm and anticipate your subject’s unique personality in order to make her feel the emotion you are there to capture.
By now, I’ve worked not only solo, but alongside several other photographers on different projects. It’s fascinating to see how the way two different photographers treat the same subject on the same shoot can result in entirely different images—so I can say with certainty the information I’m sharing today definitely isn’t fluff! I’ve both learned from other photographers on shoots we did as a team and created my own “success secrets” that have been passed onto peers in the process of our working together.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to put my subjects at ease, whether they’re new to the spotlight or seasons pros in front of the camera.
Tip #1: Arrive early and extra-prepared.
Most people are a little nervous arriving to a photo shoot. There’s no reason to make them more nervous by arriving later than they do.
I always try to arrive at a shoot’s location at least 10 minutes ahead of time so that when my client arrives, she sees a familiar face, knows she has the right time and place, and can relax and let go of any need for control.
Part 2 of this tip is to show up extra-prepared. Anticipate needs that your client might not—for instance, have hairspray or safety pins on hand for quick fixes, or a tiny makeup kit for touch-ups. It can be handy to carry and umbrella or poncho to protect your client from wind or rain if you know you’ll be moving between locations, and for longer shoots to carry bottled water and light, healthy snacks to share.
These little details demonstrate not only that you are a seasoned pro, but that the client is in good hands—she made the right decision in hiring you over someone else; and this knowledge will be empowering! She’ll realize that you see “all the things” and aren’t there to judge her for not knowing how to pose just right, but to make her feel comfortable and to get the best possible photos—so she can relax and enjoy the process.
Tip #2: Take some “test shots.”
Whenever I’m working with someone new, as we set up for the very first photos, I always take a few “test shots,” even if I’m already confident with my camera settings. I let the client know that I’m just checking my settings, so they can relax and I’ll let them know when I’m going to actually start shooting.
This isn’t foolproof, but the idea is to get the client used to the sound of the shutter when she’s calm and there’s no pressure to look perfect. I’ll chat and make jokes while I hit a few buttons on the back of my camera body—and the first time she laughs genuinely, I snap the first real photo. She doesn’t even know the process has begun! I’ll look at the back of my camera and say, “I’m glad I caught that!” or, “Wow, you’ve got a great smile for pictures,” and this eases the transition to her being in front of the lens.
Tip #3: Smile. Constantly.
Unless you’re trying to get moody photos, you’re probably hoping to capture a genuine smile, candid laughter, pure joy. In my experience, the fastest way to achieve this is to smile yourself—people are natural mirrors to the energy and cues around them. The more you’re able to smile and laugh, the more your subject will want to, too.
It’s actually become a subconscious habit for me to smile extra wide right before I snap the shutter. This almost always makes my subject smile wider, since I often have her looking right at me, rather than at my lens.
Tip #4: Chat while you work.
This is something that takes a little practice—I’m still no master. That said, I’ve been on the other side of the camera when the photographer doesn’t talk, just waits for the shot to line up, and… well, it’s really uncomfortable. I’ve heard there’s no such thing as over-communication, and when it comes to photographer and subject, I believe that’s true!
When I’m on site for a shoot, I practically narrate everything I’m doing. It comes pretty easily to me since I was an equestrian as a teen, and when you work with horses you’re taught to talk to them while you groom and work around them so that you don’t accidentally startle one and get kicked! Working photographer-to-subject, though, it often looks and sounds like this:
“That’s perfect, hold that!”
“I’m just gonna climb up and get a shot looking down.”
“Turn your head a little to the left—okay, a little back to the right—right there, good.”
“Okay, I thought this would be genius, but I gotta own that it just isn’t working. Let’s try…”
“Just going to switch my battery. Don’t move.”
“Do you mind if I fix this weird loop of hair you’ve got going on?”
“Want some water?”
“Pretend to laugh.”
And it’s like this the whole shoot long. This is probably the number one way I put my clients at ease and make the time we spend together go by quickly. Talking takes some of my clients’ attention off of trying to figure out what they normally do with their hands, or remember exactly how they tilt their heads to take selfies, and they relax just enough. We end up laughing a lot, bouncing ideas off one another—and, side benefit, I typically end up with a lot more “winner” shots at the end of a shoot!
Tip #5: Look at your shots and tell your subject when you’ve got a winner.
Heard of serotonin? It’s that chemical your brain releases when you get a compliment or hear you have a new notification on your phone. It’s the happy hormone.
When I tell a client that I just got a great shot, I can almost see the serotonin release in her brain and cause all the anxiety in her body dissipate. I know not all photographers would be willing to do this, but I’ll even show the client a shot I love—and if she loves it, too, then she’ll suddenly become eager to build on that momentum and get even more amazing shots. She’ll loosen up, become more playful—it’s a super effective tool!
Now obviously, not all clients are the same, and different techniques land differently with different people. These aren’t the only ways to help a subject relax and give a photo shoot her all, but they’re a start! And if you try all of them in one shoot, you’re bound to find that two or three of them increase your rate of success almost immediately.
Was this helpful? If so, pin the post so you never lose it! Then leave a comment below telling me your favorite tip!