How To Photograph Shy Adults

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Some people are not as comfortable in front of the camera as others. Perhaps they are shy, or perhaps they believe they have physical “imperfections”, so they aren’t at ease when it comes to having their photo taken. (I put quotes around that term because often these are not imperfections at all, but rather, beautiful parts of their body that they over-think.)

Unless they are a professional model, most people fall into this category to some degree. If they don’t feel comfortable, it will show in the photos. Luckily, there are things you can do that may help.

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Give your subject something to do

Holding a pose will often garner an awkward expression. Thus, photograph them as they move. People are much more comfortable when they are in motion, than when they are still.

They don’t have to do anything overly complicated. The movements can be subtle, like looking up from a head-down position or fixing something, like part of their clothes.

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Do your social psychology homework

Photographing people is part technical and part psychology.

For most people, you cannot start shooting the second your subject arrives and expect them to look natural, so communicate with them before the shoot if they are shy or concerned. Children aren’t the only ones who need time to warm up!

Make sure your subjects know how the shoot will go and what they need to do to prepare for it. If they are concerned about something, address it as quickly as possible. The longer a concern goes unresolved, the more it will grow.

Perhaps they have a scar on their arm they feel self-conscious about. Once you know that, you can address it, like letting them know you will try your best to avoid shooting it. Maybe they aren’t sure what to wear that will flatter their curvy body, so you can give them clothing suggestions or reassure them that you will use certain angles and lighting to accommodate this. Or maybe they are just plain shy, in which case, you want to make sure you talk to them! Let them know a little about you. Talk about common interests.

Making your subjects feel at ease is a very important and integral part of portrait photography.

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Avoid silence

When you have a shy or uncertain subject, being silent for a length of time can be unnerving for them.

Talk to them during the shoot, but be careful not to bark orders at them (ie. “Sit there, look here, put your hand like this, move your body like that!”) because that will achieve the opposite of what you want.

Rather, tell them what they are doing right, so they know to keep doing that, and explain what you are doing before you do it.

The entire shoot doesn’t have to be instructional or too commentated, but a little bit of talking will make your subject feel more confident and “safe”. With these feelings, personalities and natural expressions will surface.

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If you are photographing children, you’ll want to read: How to Photograph Shy Children as well.

Do you have any other tips for working with people? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Annie Tao is a Professional Lifestyle Photographer in the San Francisco Bay Area who is best known for capturing genuine smiles, emotions and stories of her subjects. You can visit Annie Tao Photography for more tips or inspiration. Stay connected with her on her Facebook page

  • Michael Owens

    This is something I always tend to struggle with, making people feel at ease – kids obviously is the worst, but we forget that even as adults, people feel insecure, even the pretty people in our lives!

    So thanks for sharing some details which will make me work easier with people, and I do have to say, the final image you shared as an example, lovely. Fantastic shot!

  • Annie Tao Photography

    You are so very welcome, Michael!

    I agree with what you said. In fact, I wrote the article because I wrote one about children awhile back (How To Photograph Shy Children) and received several responses from readers about wanting a similar article for adults! This is a common obstacle that many photographers face. I’m glad I could give a few tips. 🙂

  • Mark

    Thanks Annie, I have been working on a 100 Strangers Project (https://www.flickr.com/photos/markreierson/sets/72157639916666184/) and I find that I struggle with talking to people during the shooting part of the encounter, not even to at least reassure them that they are going great – your thrid point. I generally find it difficult to talk as I am concentrating on the technical aspects. Though I am keenly aware that my project starts people off in a strange place because I approach them out of the blue. I usually have a chance to talk with them beforehand, like you said above too, it does help. I will make an effort to continue talking with my “strangers”, thanks for the advise.

  • Annie Tao Photography

    That sounds like a big (and FUN) project! Thanks for your comment, Mark. 🙂

  • In addition to this useful article it is good to make yourself approachable and down to earth to your subject:

    With all the great compact digital cameras that everyone seems to have not
    to mention the ever advancing mobile phone cameras that everyone seems to be
    using everywhere at all times it’s apparent to me that people still have a certain
    perception of professional photographers…

    I once turned up for a quick 1 hr shoot for a driving instructor…when I got off my mountain bike and started getting out my camera gear he said ‘ well I was expecting you to turn up in a Mercedes’.

    They also regularly say at weddings ‘well let the professional do it and your
    camera is far better than mine’.

    A large part of the art of photographing people is getting over these and other
    preconceptions as quickly as possible and making them feel totally at ease…which means just demystifying your art and getting them to relax.

    Talk to them in a natural human way and you’ll get better results quickly….it
    usually takes 15 -20 minutes or so for most people to relax and start having
    fun…then you can capture them at their best….

  • Thanks for your article. Now I know that photograhpy (especially portrait) is not about technical, but also need psychological approachment.

  • Michael Owens

    I actually remember the children article very well, took some very good thoughts from that, and it helped me greatly, as will this article.

    The only thing that will help me now, is myself – getting out there and utilising myself better, and gaining that all important confidence, and making my life, and the subjects life much easier!

    Cheers Annie!

  • Paul Lewis Jersey

    This will vary from tog to tog but when I set up a model shoot I always try to meet the model first a few days before to discuss it all and break the ice. Then on the day of the shoot I’ll have 4 or 5 specific ideas for pictures I’m trying to achieve and then just talk the whole way through to keep it relaxed and natural. The net result is that I’ll have lots of throw away shots but I’ll also have very natural looking shots instead of forced and false poses.

  • robertdumonphotography

    Good article, and timeless. I find that if I can figure out something to say to my subjects that will get them to laugh that always helps break the ice and relaxes them a little, e.g., “If you had to choose, which would you prefer… getting your picture taken or a root canal?” I’ll ask the subject if anyone has ever asked them to say cheese, then tell them I think that’s kind of “cheesy,” and that I would prefer them to try something for me. I’ll ask them to intentionally try to “laugh at me with your eyes and don’t worry about your mouth.” Seems to work pretty well a lot of the time…. It’s a challenge, but we need to deal with it for successful results….

  • Mtome

    This is a really good piece of advice! I’ll try it next time, for sure!

  • Higbe33

    I cured my wife of that by taking a shot of her when she didn’t know it. She was impressed at the difference and was much better after that.

  • ?????

    Thank you dear Annie! <3

  • Lilith

    I think children are very easy, it’s the adults I struggle with. Kids won’t look at you frowning if you ask about school or mimic a big smile and say; Woooww..you are already 5 years old?’ You can over-do your emotions a bit with kids and they’ll understand it’s fake/overdone, but meant to be nice and they’ll (usually) accept it and play along or giggle about your silly facial expressions.
    Adults however, usually just frown a bit concerned when you joke around and you can see them thinking; ‘Am I dealing with a lunatic here? Why did she joke around about climbing a tree to get a nice shot? Will she climb a tree next? Was that a joke? Am I supposed to laugh or not?’
    (I’m not a professional photographer bytheway, I am about to do a shoot for a friend, that’s why I googled this.)

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