If you want to capture amazing portrait photos, then you must make your subjects comfortable. A comfortable subject looks natural and genuine; an uncomfortable subject looks stiff, withdrawn, and frozen.
So how do portrait photographers do it? How do they keep their subjects feeling relaxed, day in, day out?
I’ve been shooting portraits for years, and over time, I’ve developed a handful of techniques that help my subjects loosen up. While I can’t guarantee that my approach will work for every subject – some subjects will never relax no matter what you do – most of them will rise to the occasion if you can foster the right environment.
Below, I share my best advice for making your portrait subjects comfortable, so let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Assess the subject’s personality
Before you take a single photo, consider your subject. Everyone has a different relationship with the camera! Some subjects will have done portrait sessions previously and may be all business. Some will be extroverted and love the attention. Others will be uncomfortable at first but will open up after a little time.
The toughest folks to photograph are those who come in looking incredibly uncomfortable and stiff. To these people, a portrait session is worse than a trip to the dentist. (Seriously, there are many people who would rather go to the dentist than sit for a portrait session!)
These subjects will be the toughest to work with. They often feel they look terrible in front of the camera – in fact, they often do look terrible because their discomfort is instantly noticeable in their photos.
So make sure you spend some time analyzing your subject. Are they extroverted or introverted? Do they like to joke and talk or are they more reserved? Are they in the middle of a busy day, or do they seem more relaxed? Do they give you a stiff smile? These are all indicators that you can pick up on, and you can use these cues to figure out the best way to get through to them.
Bottom line: The better you can understand your subjects, the better you’ll be able to get them to enjoy working with you. And eventually, if you take the right approach, they’ll become comfortable in front of the camera (and take some great photos!).
2. Talk with your subject before the session
Whenever possible, as soon as you meet your subject, introduce yourself. Don’t get straight to the photography; instead, ask them how their day is going. Get them talking, then explain what you’re going to do and how the session will work.
Tell your subject that you are looking for natural images, casual smiles, and comfortable poses. Let them know that you will direct them over the course of the session, but also mention that they can always bring up ideas if they have them.
Is there a way that they feel comfortable standing? Tell them to speak up. Do they want to try something new? Tell them to communicate it. In my experience, the best shoots are those that turn into a collaboration between the photographer and the subject.
3. Help them pose, then change it often
Many subjects are nervous about posing, so before you begin shooting, explain that you will direct them in different poses, but that you ultimately want them to stand in a way that feels comfortable.
If you have the time, you can have your subject collaborate on the poses. Ask them: How would you naturally stand or lean here? If you have specific poses in mind, demonstrate them. And if necessary, show them a few example images on your phone or tablet.
As you work, keep your subject moving. Start with a clear pose, then ask them to change it slightly every few shots. This is about keeping them fluid and comfortable; the constant movement will prevent them from becoming stiff and still.
It’s hard to overemphasize the value of a pose change. The second your subject starts to look uncomfortable, get them to do something different. Change their hands or their stance. Move them to another location. Every time you change the pose is another chance for them to reset themselves and get comfortable.
One more thing: The hands are at least as important as the body. If the subject’s hands feel comfortable, there is a good chance the rest of their body will fall into place. Some subjects can get very stiff with their hands if you don’t give them direction, so be sure to offer hand posing suggestions. Do you want the hands in front, in the pockets, or crossed over their chest?
I usually start by giving some suggestions, then I ask them to position their hands the way that they would normally stand (this often yields a very comfortable pose). When I’ve exhausted those photo opportunities, I’ll ask them to cross their arms, then go from there.
4. Tell them what they are doing right
If your subject is doing something right, tell them! Give them positive reinforcement. Never tell them they look awkward; they will just freeze up even more. I constantly say some variation of, “That looks great!” or offer more specific compliments. Positivity just keeps things heading in the right direction.
If you like someone’s smile, let them know. They will instantly feel good, and it will help them recreate the look when you need it. You can later say, “Give me that smile from before.” If they have trouble doing it, plead and beg them for it in a funny way so they feel comfortable again.
You can tell subjects not to do specific things, but be careful with your phrasing. You don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable or kill your momentum. Instead of saying, “Your hands don’t look right,” try, “I think your hands might be a little better this way.” Even criticism can be spun in a positive way.
5. Prepare conversation topics and jokes
It might sound cheesy, but if you prepare a few lines of conversation, you’ll have a much better chance of getting through to your subjects. After you introduce yourself, ask a couple of simple questions, such as “Are you from [blank]?” or “How has your day been?”
And if your subject isn’t in a rush, keep asking questions, even as you shoot. Try to hone in on a topic of interest. I find that a good conversation over the course of a session can make the whole thing much more comfortable. The more you get your subject talking, the more they can break out of their shell. At the very least, they’ll like you!
You don’t need to write knock-knock jokes, but I do recommend you think of some funny things ahead of time to talk about or to use in tough situations. When a subject begins a session by explaining how much they hate being photographed, I try to say something like, “Well, you’re going to hate me, then!” A dentist joke will work, as well. I then tell them that they are in good hands and not to worry. A quick and funny comeback will make them feel like you are prepared.
And I’ll always have conversational topics that I bring up as needed – on current events, sports, the weather, and more.
6. Use your strengths to your advantage
Are you an extrovert who can charm and joke with anyone? Then use your social skills! You’ll definitely have an easier time getting your subjects to laugh and open up, though you’ll need to be careful not to overdo it. If you talk too much, you risk stopping the subject’s personality from showing through in the images.
Instead, bring the jokes and conversation, but also make yourself ask questions. Stop and listen a little bit more. Don’t just lay on the charm; create an environment where the subject feels comfortable enough to open up to you.
Are you an introvert who is uncomfortable trying to joke and talk with subjects? If you play your cards right, this can actually be an advantage – but you’ll need to gain some experience working with people.
You see, your advantage is your ability to listen and react. Ask your subjects questions, then play off what they say. Pay attention to their emotions. Get them talking about things they are passionate about. Have them open up to you.
Be confident and explain what you are doing, but take on a more reactive role. Watch videos of other portrait photographers, both the talkative ones and the quieter ones, and pay attention to what they say. Think about funny things you can say.
In my experience, introverts initially need to put in extra effort to get good at in-session conversation, but after enough experience, the advantages can swing back in their favor due to their listening skills.
7. Don’t show the subject images while you are shooting
I always try to avoid showing subjects the images until the very end. Sometimes they’ll insist on seeing the shots and you’ll have no choice, but do what you can to prevent this.
You see, when subjects look at photos of themselves, especially if they seem self-conscious, it can quickly ruin their ability to feel comfortable later on in the session.
Plus, only about 20% of your shots will actually be good, and if your subjects look at the back of your camera, they’ll see the 80% that you’ll end up deleting.
Finally, for the most uncomfortable subjects, the photos at the very beginning of the session just won’t be good. The first group of shots is about going through the motions to make them feel comfortable over the course of the session. In such cases, showing your subjects the images midway through the shoot will throw them off their game!
8. Know that you can’t win them all
No matter how charming or funny or thoughtful you are, and no matter the number of many tricks you try, you will probably fail a few times.
You can only work with what your subject gives you! Portrait photography can be stressful, so always keep that in mind. Always put in maximum effort, and spend more time with the subjects that are having trouble, but at the end of the day, you can’t force an uncomfortable subject to feel comfortable. That’s just not how it works.
Making your portrait subjects comfortable: final words
Capturing natural-looking portraits might seem hard, but now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to handle nearly anything!
So remember these tips. Prepare the necessary jokes and conversation topics. And have fun!
Which of these tips do you like best? Which will you use in your next portrait session? Share your thoughts in the comments below!