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5 Tips to Help You Take More Natural Looking Portraits

Writing for dPS has afforded me several opportunities, the best one being getting to converse with photographers – hobbyists to professionals and everything in between – from all over the world.


Each time an article I write is published, I get the loveliest emails and comments, and I do my very best to respond to each of them. The question I get most often is one I ask other photographers all the time: How do you make your pictures look like……..that? The question may be worded differently, but ultimately it is the same:

  • How do you get your colors to pop?
  • What lens do you use?
  • How come the people all look so happy/comfortable/natural in your pictures?
  • What’s your editing process?

When we ask another photographer these questions, we are all asking the same thing: How do you make your pictures look like that?

When an image grabs you – makes you take an extra second to look at, to admire it, or to wonder if your own images look that great, (or throws you into a jealous rage over picture envy (please tell me I’m not the only one) – it’s as though the photographer has such a defined style, their entire message comes across in that one photo staring back at you. Since my style is candid portraiture, or lifestyle photography, or whatever the latest buzzword is we are calling it now, my subjects’ expressions and poses are what I typically get asked about most. Or maybe that’s just the only part I can explain very well, as the science and equipment piece of it is just not my cup of tea.


So here are the five things I say and do during a portrait shoot that I feel make the biggest difference in the comfort level of my clients, and ultimately is the reason I occasionally strike gold. It’s these things that are the answer to how I make my pictures look like that.

#1 Explain the process

Before I take a single picture – whether my subjects are nine or 90 years old – I tell them exactly what to expect from the session, and what I expect from them. It nearly always goes like this: “I’m going to take some pictures. I’m going to take some pictures of just the kids, some pictures of just Mom and Dad, and some pictures of everybody. You can smile if you want to smile, but you don’t have to if you don’t want to, and at the end I’m going to give you a little prize.” This short little introduction often immediately puts my clients at ease and I am able to set the tone of the whole shoot based on their response.


If I am photographing kids, I always sit down on the ground so I am closer to their level, but I say this exact thing to children and adults alike. Yes, I carry around lollipops. My gear bag has an entire area just for that, and people I have photographed before know it. A lollipop is a tiny treat and while it’s fun and funny, though not usually a huge motivator for teenagers and certain adults, you’d be surprised how far it gets me. Obviously for most, it’s not the prize itself, but rather that I am acknowledging that this is going to be a bit of work, and it’s going to have an end point. It’s an offering to them, silently asking for them to go all-in for photos and perhaps have a little patience with me.

Also important is that I tell them they don’t have to smile. I don’t want anyone smiling because they think they have to – smiles out of obligation makes for terrible pictures. I want them to smile because we are having so much fun, they do it instinctively.


#2 Strive for interaction and reactions, not poses and smiles

If I have to choose between a picture of every face looking at me, smiling, or one of a family looking and laughing at each other, I will chose the latter every day and twice on Sunday. It is my personal and professional belief that 50 years from now, those images of people being themselves with their loved ones will be much more treasured than portrait studio shots that only show everyone together. I do my best to set-up a moment and let my subjects take it where they want. I can’t declare their reaction to something, so therefore I set the tone for funny or serious, or as I would say to a child: a loud picture or a quiet picture. I see myself as a third wheel on a great date – I’m along for the ride, I just happen to be photographing it.


#3 Shoot everything

I am a massive over-shooter. I carry more memory to a quick portrait shoot than some photographers would pack for a day-long wedding. Changing a card mid-shoot is completely normal for me. This no doubt adds to the backend of my process, as I have so much more to sort through, but this means I can feel confident enough to guarantee my clients a minimum number of images. This also means, I very rarely have a client ask: “Did you get it?”.

I shoot looking through the viewfinder, and not. I line up the shot and then peek my head out so my subjects aren’t just staring at a black box. I make funny faces. I have a fake sneeze that can get even the most serious of baby giggling and that requires several sneezes, shots, and me not having a camera affixed to my face. I shoot an average ratio of one to 30. Meaning for every 30 images I shoot, one of them will get edited and delivered to the clients.

This would be terrible if I shot film. To be honest sometimes it’s a little overwhelming the first time I upload all of the images from a shoot. Often it’s even a lesson in self-loathing, wondering how on earth I will ever get through them, and why do I do this to myself every – single – time. In the end, it always works out. Plus, I always have the images I was hoping I caught.


#4 Be a giant cheerleader during a shoot

I am a giant cheerleader during a shoot, to the point that it’s a bit eye-roll-inducing. If it’s dark and gloomy out, I show-up saying this is what we call perfect, even, light! If it’s bright and sunny, and miserably hot? What a perfect day for photos!

Every single thing my clients do during a photo session is perfect and if it’s not, I tell them I’m going to fix it. I want my clients on the other side of that lens to feel beautiful, and like they are doing a perfect job. Having them feel awkward, or be in poses or positions that feel unflattering, will make for bad pictures. Being told that they are doing a great job and that the pictures are coming out perfectly, gives clients the confidence to be themselves. I’m their friend during a shoot – kids and adults alike. And if I’m not behaving in a way that people would want to hang-out with me when I am not taking photos, why would they want to hang-out with me when I am?


#5 Know you are just a piece of the process

I don’t want to get all cheesy on you or anything, but I don’t feel like any picture I have taken of someone is mine. The photo belongs to the person in it, and whomever they chose to share it with. I don’t do any printing. When someone pays for a photography session with me, they get the high resolution images as jpg files, and a release to print and use them as they would like. I honestly feel like this creates a comfort level that I didn’t see when I used to offer prints only. They know they are going to get the best of what I shoot and they aren’t going to have to pick a favorite for an expensive enlargement. They know there isn’t going to be a hard sale in a few weeks where we look at everything together. I don’t put watermarks on my images ever and I encourage them to share their pictures on social media. In fact, I often share their pictures on social media.


Here’s why: if they didn’t hire me, show-up, look great, have fun, etc., I wouldn’t have the pictures to show in the first place. I’m only a piece of any picture I’ve ever taken. You may argue, what if someone steals your images? To do what? Claim them as their own? I have never run into a situation where that would truly hurt me. If there is a wild rampage of stealing other photographer’s images out there and mine are being stolen, I would honestly be a little flattered. That means they’re good! I’ve already been paid for my work. Though I would never use an image where my client hasn’t signed a release allowing my use, I don’t see how getting my images out there is anything but free advertising. I want my clients to love their photos so much they print them all in large sizes to hang up for their friends to see. I want them to talk about how fun the shoot was, how happy they are to get all of the images, and how they will hire me again and again. Those people know who took the pictures, and that’s all that really matters.

How do you help clients feel comfortable during a photo shoot? Share your comments and suggestions with us below.

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Lynsey Mattingly
Lynsey Mattingly

photographs families, kids, couples, and other groups of people who, for whatever reason, kind of like each other. Her portrait work has been featured in People Magazine, Us Weekly, BBC Magazine, and on national TV including CNN, Oprah, and Ellen, but most importantly, in the personal galleries of clients across the country. Her photography can be viewed at www.lynseymattingly.com or on Facebook.

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