4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

0Comments

Sooner or later, almost everyone has to sit alone in front of a camera for a grad portrait or professional headshot. It is almost always an uncomfortable experience for portrait clients. But it’s easy to forget this as photographers.

When I great people for their portraits they often confess things like, “I’m terrible with photos,” “I feel sick,” or “I hate my face.”

Perhaps because I’m so empathetic, I’ve developed a knack for making the most nervous and hopeless people shockingly excited about their photos.

In this article, I’ll show you how I do it so that you can make even your most uncomfortable portrait clients happy with their experience.

Black and white head shots - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

I am personally drawn to black and white portraits.

1. Simple Light Setup

Since everyday life already throws you a heavy load of distractions and difficulties, I always encourage photographers to keep their projects as simple (but meaningful) as possible.

No matter how you choose to light your portrait subject, I recommend you do it as simply as possible. The point is to put all your focus on the person you’re photographing, not on equipment.

I either use natural light (a window and a reflector), or a one light setup inspired by Zack Arias.

Window Light

The benefit to natural light is that there are no flashes of light or large umbrellas to make the person feel as though they are at a high-pressure professional photo session. Your subject’s imagination is filled with the photo shoots they’ve seen on TV and you should relieve that pressure for them.

Natural light studio setup - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

This is my natural light setup.

Window light portrait - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

This is a portrait taken with that window light studio setup.

Using natural light and a silent shutter with a mirrorless camera allows the photography part to be as invisible as possible.

One Speedlight

My one light setup includes a speedlight with a 60-inch umbrella and a reflector.

One Light Setup - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

This is my one light setup. It’s one speedlight with a 60-inch umbrella.

One light portrait - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

This photo was taken with that one light setup.

Once set up, you should forget about your gear (the window, speedlight, and the camera) and focus 100% on your subject.

2. How to Focus

This isn’t about your camera, but focusing on your subject in order to make the best portraits possible.

If you are at all self-conscious as a photographer, it is absolutely critical that you do not focus on yourself.

Perhaps you’re nervous because of a lack of confidence, or because you’re worried they’ll hate their photos. Forget all that and just focus on your subject.

Small talk

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” — Edward Steichen

Female head shot - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

You can use small talk to distract the subject from their own nervousness and self-consciousness in front of the camera. Talk about their business, their kids, or the last trip they went on. Anything that will distract them from being camera shy.

Warm up

Feel free to warm up with some “test shots,” even if you don’t really need them. Have your subject sit in front of the camera for a few shots where you’re doing nothing but “testing the light.”

Direct them a little bit, but nothing too serious. I sometimes transition into the real photos by saying something funny like, “Okay the light is perfect, now let me see a cheesy smile.” It can often lead to some laughter and the first candid photo.

Female headshot, laughing - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

Candid portraits are the most joyful part of a portrait session for me. You don’t have to be a comedian to make people laugh. Just connect over something in your life and laughter will eventually flow.

Male headshot with suit. 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

I’ll often try to match the expression with the clothes my subject is wearing. I think a softer expression is more suitable for formal wear. But I’ll try everything at the moment and decide what looks best later.

Candid portraits

“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” — Robert Frank

Yes, even a professional headshot session should include some informal candid photos. Candids are real, and even if you’re after a posed photo, candids are the path to discovering who they are when their guard is down.

Female headshot laughing - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

When people can laugh together there begins to be a comfortable connection.

Female headshot - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

We often laugh because of the tension created by a joke. But even real-life discomfort or tension can lead to the eventual release through laughter.

3. Finding Soul

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” — Yousuf Karsh

I don’t care whether I’m photographing real estate agents, future lawyers, high school grads, or “mompreneurs.” I treat everybody like an executive, valedictorian, or royalty during their portrait session.

We’re all much deeper than our occupation, even though it may be a deep expression of who we are. Fill your sessions with lightheartedness and true human connection. When you look through your photos later, you should be able to see the moment that your subject finally became relaxed.

Once relaxed, you’ll find the “real” person that was trapped below the surface of fake smiles and self-consciousness.

It may take you 10 minutes or more to get there, but it is the point in the session that you can move through your creative vision with your subject. You can show them how to squinch (Peter Hurley’s famous technique with the eyes), strike more advanced poses, or move in for close-ups.

Female headshot - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

Once I know I have made the portrait that the subject needs, I move on and try other things. I love this very soft expression and the way that her hair creates a frame around her. This won’t likely appear on her business card, but I think it’s a wonderful portrait.

4. Completely Candid

“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” — Paul Caponigro

Being inspired by photojournalism and the idea of capturing truly raw, candid, spontaneous photos, I decided to try a portrait session with no posing. All there would be was conversation and pictures.

Here are some of the results, which I love.

Close up female headshot - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

This photo is all about the eyes, and whatever is going through her mind makes me want to laugh!

Female soft light headshot - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

A completely candid photo portrait session means taking a lot of photos. Some of them looked posed, but it was a matter of quickly noticing something that looked right and capturing it before the moment passed.

Window light headshot - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

I used a window as a natural light source. There were moments of silence during our conversation when she just looked out the window. Those were wonderful chances.

Portrait of a mother and her son - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

Leave room for surprises in your portrait sessions. You may find yourself thinking, “Did this client dare to bring their kids to a portrait session?” True, they’ll tear your studio to pieces and distract her from her professional portrait session. But along with a little chaos comes life and surprisingly human moments. In the middle of it all, her son came up to be nursed. Maybe this is what Robert Frank meant about the “humanity of the moment.”

Mother hugging son portrait - 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

The portrait session was supposed to have been for her. But who she is on her own isn’t who she is completely. We’re all much deeper than ourselves and are who we are partly because of the people around us.

Portrait of a mom nursing her baby. 4 Tips for Helping People Feel Comfortable During Their Portrait Session

Perhaps you know your subject has reached their maximum level of comfort when they can nurse their baby even while the camera is still clicking. I’m thrilled to photograph people one on one and make portraits that they’ll use as authors or business people. But I’m even more thrilled when those portraits become intensely human moments.

 Get Comfy

The next time you greet a nervous portrait client, remember that the experience has been hyped up in their mind. Distract them from their discomfort with small talk, warm them up with “no pressure” test photos, and make laughter a part of your session.

Include the candid photos when you deliver their photos. Even if they don’t use them for business purposes, they may be the photos they (and you) love most.

I’d love to hear what else you do to help people get comfortable in front of your camera. Let me know in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

  • Matt E

    Do you care to share the product code for that back drop? I’ve been looking for one and that looks perfect. I can’t tell if it’s black or charcoal gray, or dark blue. Thank you!

  • Mat

    Hi Matt,
    It’s seamless backdrop paper made by Savage. I believe it is “thunder grey.”
    I love is as a backdrop for portraits. Even when a person requests a white background I always do some portraits on this one too. Of course, they end up loving the portraits on the dark background most 🙂
    This is a link to where I purchased it in Canada.
    https://www.henrys.com/12392-SAVAGE-107-X-36FT-THUNDER-CHARCOAL-GREY.aspx

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!


DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Email:
 
 
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed