Photographing people is a deceptively simple process these days. It seems with the wide availability of high-quality photo equipment and digital editing software that every Tom, Dick, and Harry is now a professional photographer. The reality is that true pros know technical knowledge is not the only thing that sets them apart from the amateurs. Connecting with your subject when taking photos is the real difference in professional photography sessions. The ability to get to know your subject relatively quickly and put them at ease can turn a session into a fun, easy experience where, as a photographer, you’re able to capture the true essence of your subject.
Getting amazing smiles from your photography subjects is as easy as one, or all, of these 11 tips. We hope these will help you create memories that your clients will treasure for a lifetime.
Creating a moment of uncertainty can shake up the subject or subjects and shake them out of their tension or nervousness that might be impeding their participation. Creating a quick moment like this can work wonders, both directly after the moment and for the rest of the session.
How do you do this? Well, it depends very much on the type of session, the type of subjects, and the environment. Yet, no matter the situation, a good photographer can create this moment themselves with their own behavior. By pretending to find something funny, showing off your true, eccentric personality or interacting in a surprising way with one of your subjects you can throw people off guard enough to get that “real” smile.
If you’re working with a group there is often one person that will stand out as an easy “target” for this exercise. Teasing (in a friendly manner) or gently prodding the most outgoing person in the group will cause the rest of the group to let their guard down. Obviously, do this in the kindest way possible and if you have any doubts maybe even bring your target aside and ask their permission.
You can also use the uncertainty that will naturally occur during your photo session. Taking pictures very early in the shoot, right as the subject walks in, or waiting until the subject thinks you’re done are easy ways to catch a subject off guard and reveal an honest smile. You can also create artificial stops and starts during the shoot. Blame equipment malfunctions or pretend that you have to sort out the lighting or flash attachments, and then capture your subject in a relaxed manner as you make casual small talk with them, or photograph the interactions between the subjects in a group during this downtime.
Recruit a Partner in Crime
This works well with a group, but also if you’re shooting just one subject. The idea is, again, to shake up your subjects and get them genuinely involved and comfortable. If this is a group photo try to recruit a more outgoing member of the group to help you loosen up the rest of your subjects. This can be anything from telling you an inside joke that you can then use to playing an outright prank on a large family sitting for their annual photo.
You might think this technique won’t work well with an individual subject, but most often individual subjects don’t come alone. If you’re photographing a child, talk briefly with their parent or guardian and see if you can come up with something to motivate, fascinate or distract the subject. If you’re shooting a celebrity or even an adult, use the same tactics with their spouse, makeup artist or assistant to garner a real, genuine, and often beautiful, reaction from your subject.
Instruct them in the Impossible
This technique also works by distracting a subject into displaying a real reaction. Giving your subject crazy, silly, foolish, or even downright strange instructions will create a moment of confusion and doubt as they consider whether they have heard you correctly or if they are interpreting your instructions properly.
Of course, this moment of confusion is not what you want to capture. You’re looking for the relieved, laughing reaction when they realize that you are being foolish. This brief distraction often results in a more relaxed, looser, atmosphere that will result in more natural photographs.
Compliment the Unusual
Of course, your subjects are beautiful, and complimenting them can elicit a pleasant reaction, but it’s not likely to get a genuine or dazzling smile. In fact, simply saying, “You look lovely!” might have the opposite reaction, and instead put your subjects on edge or make them more self-conscious.
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Paying your subject an unusual, odd, or strangely specific compliment will catch them off guard and often make them react in a way that is honest and unexpected. This will, again, give you a quick opening into their true self, allowing you to capture a picture that is truly special. Try telling a subject that they have the most “mermaid-like hair,” or that their eyes sparkle like “two Japanese beetles” and you’ll surely see a genuine response!
Approaching your subject with honesty, openness, and warmth can do more than anything else to help them become comfortable with you. However, this won’t always help subjects trust you completely. Don’t just be friendly, be real with them. One way of doing this is by thinking back through your career and coming up with a few experiences where you were unsure of yourself. Don’t forget to finish the story by telling them how you overcame your lack of confidence! Sharing these experiences with your clients can help them realize that you’re just a regular person trying to do your job, and can remove some of the mystique around the image of the photographer.
Encourage Connection Between Your Subjects
While it is important to connect with your subjects as the photographer, connection between your subjects can be just as effective and important for producing an honest and dazzling smile in your subject. This tactic works very well when your subjects are an engaged couple, husband and wife, mother and child, family, or close friends.
Ask them to look at one another in the eyes, give each other a quick kiss on the cheek, or a loving hug. You could also instruct them to hug each other. Aside from making great pictures, these brief moments of connection will often result in real laughter and mirth, allowing you to capture a truly beautiful moment.
You can also foster moments of connection between subjects by asking them to tell each other a secret or whisper an inside joke. These often make wonderful images that relay the real connection between your subjects.
Coach Your Subject Like They’re a Pro
If your subject is a layperson, treating them like a professional model can often result in a surprisingly excellent reaction. You can also combine this tactic with a sense of humor. Instruct your subject to give you their best “Blue Steel” and see what happens! Of course, a photo of your subject making a Ben Stiller face isn’t likely to garner a terribly flattering photo, the moment afterward is certain to be a gold mine of beautiful, laughing shots!
Use Slapstick Humour
This tip works especially well with a family or a couple. Instruct your subjects to participate in a silly, physical activity. Throwing a child up in the air, spinning a wife around, literally sweeping someone off their feet are all great ways to create a sense of fun and physical ease. This will lead to realistic and honest smiles, as well as great action shots.
You might think that this won’t work if you have an individual subject, but it actually can. Simply pick a prop that’s around, a tree, a chair, or the like and ask your subject to interact with it in a robust way. Jumping off or over a chair, swinging around the trunk of a tree or even running towards you are all great scenarios that are likely to create a true moment of joy.
Alternatively, you can also take part in the physical humor to effect a laugh or grin from your subjects. Pretending to fight with your equipment, tripping or talking to yourself are all lowbrow tricks, sure, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to work wonders when it comes to putting a subject at ease!
Pick Your Environment Carefully
Being sure to choose a setting that has interactive elements. These give you plenty of opportunities to engage your subject with the above techniques. Even if you’re working in a studio setting try to have some minimal props like chairs, ladders and the like available to use with your subjects. Nothing is more uncomfortable or intimidating for a photography subject than a completely bare setting.
Outdoor spaces really give you a lot of options for your subject to engage with. Of course, parks are great places to shoot. Not only is there playground equipment, but also trees, flowers, and possibly even animals! Even if a park doesn’t fit your theme, try roping bystanders from the street into your shoot. Direct your subject to flirt with a passerby or capture a formally dressed couple purchasing pretzels from a street vendor. This develops a great sense of fun and camaraderie with your subject and can often result in simply incredible photos.
This tip works on several levels of meaning. You can create an uncomfortable moment by moving in very close with your camera. The subject will feel uncomfortable, and then almost certainly will break the tension with a real laugh or giggle. A great way to execute this tip is to slowly move closer, and closer to your subject. When they eventually realize what you’re doing they’re sure to crack up and you’ll be ideally placed to capture their peals of laughter and looks of glee.
You can also get closer to your subject emotionally by asking them a string of elaborate and foolish questions that slowly become more and more ridiculous and revealing. Eventually, this tactic will get you the same response as physically encroaching on your subject by bringing them to laughter, again allowing you to capture the moment.
Be Ready When the Real Smile Happens
This is the last tip, but it is by far the most important. No matter how amazing the smiles and laughs you elicit from your subjects, it won’t matter one bit unless you are prepared and ready to capture the moment. This, of course, means having your equipment prepared and ready to go at all times, as well as doing your best to test lighting settings and framing before your subject even arrives.
It would behoove you to be ready from the very moment your subject walks on set to the very second they walk off. Many times shots that are taken very early or very late in the session can be some of the best. A subject that is only partially prepared can turn into a mesmerizing moment that has a great behind the scenes feel to it. Similarly, a photo where the subject is tousled and windblown from shooting in the park at the end of a session can have a lovely feel to them. Plus, at the end of a photo session subjects are often quite tired, and no longer have the energy to hold their guard up. You’ve also spent some time with them, so it’s likely that you have developed a better rapport with them at this point.
For more on getting people to smile, check out this article.