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Tips & Tricks

5 Ways to Help Your Clients Look (and Feel) Less Awkward In Portraits

By Hanssie on October 1st 2014

Some people are just awkward in front of the camera. Why do you think I became a photographer? As soon as a camera is pointed in my direction, I look like a deer in the headlights, my smile freezes and I don’t know what to do with my hands, like a robot or Ricky Bobby. Let me point my camera at someone, though, and I know exactly how to pose them and what to do to loosen them up and bring out some emotion.

As a photographer, one of your most valuable tools is to know how to get your client to forget you are there, and capture the emotion/feeling in that moment and translate it onto paper (or disc/flash drive). Otherwise, your subjects will look posed, awkward and uncomfortable. The smiles will be stiff, the face will be strained, and there will be little emotion in the eyes. The magic is then gone from the photograph. It may be a nice portrait and technically correct, but emotionally void. It could be so much better.

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Here are some things I do when I interact with my clients so that they don’t look or feel awkward in their photos.

1. Pose them, Then Leave Them Alone

Unless your client is a professional model (or one of my clients was a dancer and knew exactly how to pose her body naturally), they won’t know how to stand, where to put their hands, which way to angle their face and have a genuine smile right off the bat.

I am not a fan of the super posed look, but I do pose my clients. I situate them exactly where I want them to go, and then I give them the following tips:

  • Make sure their weight is “away from the camera.” Have them distribute the weight on the leg that is farthest away from you.
  • “Bend the joints” – elbows, wrist, knees – just a tad so they look relaxed and not hyperextended

I move them around, angle their chins, fix their hair and then I fire off a few shots to “test my light.” While I am doing that, I start distracting them by having them fix a lapel or tell their significant other/child/whomever they are posing with what their favorite color/food/whatever, is. Once they begin interacting with each other, that’s when the real images start to emerge. From there, I try to give them minimal direction, but I will give them things to do, such as “Squeeze closer and pretend you like one another,” or “Everyone give me your best fake laugh” That’s when the real laughter and the fun starts to happen.

The image below as taken at a wedding during bridal portraits. I can’t remember what exactly was said, but it was something to the effect of, “Look at how beautiful your baby girl is…” That led both parents smiling at the bride and then a joke being told and this shot:

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For tips on posing, check out these articles on posing couples from the Natural Light Couples Workshop DVD.

2. Make Them Laugh

I have had many people tell me that they “take terrible photos.” To which I quip, “Good thing I’m the one taking the photos today!” I try to keep my sessions lighthearted and fun. One of the first things I do on a wedding day or at the start of the portrait session is assess the situation, figure out how the subjects are interacting with each other and then just run with it. For example, at my last wedding, the groomsmen were on this #hashtagging joke. I made sure I chimed right in with my own hashtagging when I gave them direction – “Put your hands in your pockets. #you’reawesome.” I’ve also been known to grab a seat and watch the football game in the grooms room for a few minutes, just to build up the camaraderie and make them comfortable with me.

You don’t have to brush up on your knock knock jokes. Just start by making fun of yourself or telling them about something funny that happened to you the other day. Getting people to laugh not only relaxes your subject(s), but sometimes allows them to forget that you are a stranger pointing a camera in their face.

**Note: just make sure that when you get them laughing, to take the photo right before or after the ugly part of the laugh. You know the part I’m talking about, we all do it. At the midpoint of a laugh, when we look like a horse neighingyeah, that part.**

My second shooter caught this image of me while I was shooting my friend’s wedding. I can’t remember what exactly was happening here, but let’s just say all the bridesmaids were super comfortable with me after that.

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3. To Get What You Want, You Have to Show Them Exactly How You Want It

If you want your client to bend their elbows a certain way, you should model it first. It’s hard to convey to someone else the look you are envisioning with only words. At one recent wedding, I wanted the couple to do a Dirty Dancing-esque type pose, where the bride throws her arms around the groom, jumps up on him, kicking her legs back while looking at him lovingly. She wasn’t quite understanding what I wanted, so I set my camera down, grabbed my second shooter and demonstrated. It was hilarious, the bride and groom knew exactly what I was trying to go for and I got the shot I wanted.

Sometimes, you may not be able to actually show them what you want and in those cases, use as many descriptive words as possible. For example, right before the wedding ceremony starts I always pull the groom aside and I tell him that when it’s time to “kiss the bride,” I want him to do it right and make sure to plant a nice, long kiss on his new bride. That way I get some great first kiss pictures. (I also ask the officiant at this time if he wouldn’t mind stepping to the side as soon as he says, “you may kiss the bride.”)

The groom in the image below not only complied, but then afterwards, gave me the thumbs up sign to make sure he did it correctly.

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With bridesmaids and groomsmen, (depending on time and temperament), I’ll have them act like they are on “America’s Next Top Model,”  in a boy band, in the secret service or anything I can think of off on the fly. It’s fun, everyone’s being a bit silly and it beats the standard wedding party  posed pictures. (I still get the standard ones as well, but the client almost always chooses the relaxed, goofy ones).

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4. Affirmations and Encouragement

You may do this photography thing every day (or weekend), but remember that your client (most likely) does not. Not only do you need to give them direction and make them feel comfortable, but you have to tell them that they are doing great. Keeping up a steady stream of positive encouragement will hopefully help your subject become more confident in what they are doing.

You don’t necessarily have to complement them and try to flatter them, you can also talk about how great the shot looked or how cool the location is with the outfit they have on, or any number of praiseworthy things.

I’m always showing how excited I am with certain photos, and I’ve been known to squeal a time or two because a shot is exactly what I wanted it to be or better. Don’t be scared to show your client an image or two from the back of your camera. One of the first tips I learned as a new photographer was to show the bridesmaids an image of the bride during the bridal session and say, “Doesn’t she look amazing?!” Of course, they will all chime in and squeal with you and the bride will feel like a supermodel.

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5. Give Them Tips on What To Wear and Tell Them What to Expect

For portrait sessions, especially family portraits, I’ve always found it helpful to help them with what to wear and what they can expect. I put together a little guide for my clients with tips and tricks on clothing that I email to them when I send the contract. Gone are the days where everyone shows up in white T-shirts and jeans (thankfully). I give them examples of color combinations that might look good for their location. I let them know how long the shoot will probably take, how many outfits they should bring, how to accessorize and even suggest what shoes they should wear/bring.

Remember that they don’t do this everyday. Many clients have no idea what may or may not look good on camera, but you should. Here are a few of the general tips I give them:

  • Pick a theme or color scheme
  • Don’t be afraid to mix it up with different textures, a splash of color
  •  Patterns are not necessarily bad, but use them wisely.
  • Accessorize, Accessorize, Accessorize (They don’t have to all be worn either!)
  • Unless they sponsor you, stay away from the logos

I go into more details for my clients, but you have the general idea. If the client knows what to expect and feels like they are dressed appropriately for the occasion, that goes a long way to making them feel more comfortable.

The image below is of a family portrait session I did where the theme was 1950’s vintage. The entire shoot was planned around their vintage car.

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This is also why I always try to do an engagement session with my wedding clients. It is an icebreaker for the wedding day, there is no pressure and by the time the wedding comes around, they know exactly how I work and we usually have a few inside jokes, making it feel like we are old friends.

Conclusion

The key to making your client look less awkward in front of the camera is to make them feel less awkward. Your job as the photographer is to interact with them so that they forget that you’re there with a camera in their faces. The more comfortable they are with you, the more genuine emotion you’ll get from them. You’ll not only be capturing their memories, but making them as well.

What are some client interaction tips do you use to make your clients more comfortable? Share them in the comments below.

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About

Hanssie is a Southern California-based writer and sometimes portrait and wedding photographer. In her free time, she homeschools, works out, rescues dogs and works in marketing for SLR Lounge. She also blogs about her adventures and about fitness when she’s not sick of writing so much. Check out her work and her blog at www.hanssie.com. Follow her on Instagram

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Anastasia Borisyuk

    Great tips! Though I’m still learning a lot with each session and wedding, all of these I’ve tried and have had great results. I think working to understand your own personality also helps. Knowing the differences between introverts and extroverts, as well as a bit of basic psychology, really helps read people and to avoid situations where instead of getting them to open up – they shut down. :)

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  2. Ipek Amdahl

    Actual interactive shots turn out so much better than the stiff posed ones. It’s always great to be able to glimpse into the relationships of the subjects!

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  3. Rui Pinto

    Ok I admit! When I read “we look like a horse neighing” I started to laugh and…you are absolutely right!! Ahahah :D Great article! Thanks.

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  4. Matt Owen

    Being the most awkward person in the room definitely helps relax people. I’ll often demonstrate a pose for women and tell them “Now you’ll look fabulous in comparison.” Once they start thinking they can’t look as bad as I did it gets a lot easier.

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  5. Clare Havill

    Great tips, thanks Hanssie. I find encouragement and showing a few great shots really helps people to relax.

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    • Hanssie

      Thanks Clare! I agree. Gushing about how great they look definitely helps. Though at my last wedding, the bride kept saying how terrible she felt like she looked and no amount of affirmations, bridemaids and gushing did anything. Her bridesmaids finally convinced her to do some shots. That did the trick. Whatever works, I guess :)

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  6. Brandon Dewey

    Great Tips. I find #1 and #2 work well. I give my couple a basic pose and then stand back and watch them interact with each other.

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    • Hanssie

      Getting them out of the mode of having to “pose” for the camera really helps! I have a family that I photograph each year that the kids all sing “Cheese” in harmony. Strangely, it works and I get a mini concert :)

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