7 Tips for Interacting with People to Create Better Portraits

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Sassy kid

Interaction is the basis of a portrait session, in every single way. In the most obvious ways, for example, you must interact with the client to set up the session, during the session, and when the images are done.

The portrait session is also an interaction with self, both for you the photographer and for your subject. You the photographer, who is creating with integrity, must meet with yourself inside to bring about bold creativity. The subject, likewise, is faced with many insecurities that they may have very little experience with in their day to day lives. They are in a vulnerable position. The portrait session brings about all kinds of internal interactions.

The photos themselves are a form of interaction with the future. The way a portrait portrays someone goes a long way to communicating who they are – or, at least, who they’d like to be seen as, which is important in its own right.

It’s for this reason that developing habits for skillful human interactions is so important. They make everyone more comfortable, but, more so, it means capturing images of someone who is comfortable at the moment the image was taken.

The way someone responds to you is the way they will look in their images. The difference may be imperceptible to a stranger, or when simply viewed at a glance; but a strained smile, or nervous eyebrow might be clear as day to the people who care about them. You as a photographer are not a plumber who can still fix the pipes, even if your subject is having a bad time. Among the most important tools you have is the one that elicits an honest and flattering response from the subject:

The way you interact with people is key

Casual kids

Everyone is a Little Kid

If you who wish to bring about a truth and transparency in your subjects, you can take a clue from the rules of photographing little kids; don’t slow the child down for your shot – you keep up with the kid!

Your goal is to keep your subject engaged and having a good time during their session, so what is true of working with children is also true for adults. It’s important to move at their pace. Adults get bored when you move too slowly and then you have pictures of bored adults trying really hard not to look bored. When you’re moving too fast, adults get anxious. They start having trouble understanding and interpreting your instructions. Then, you have photos of anxious adults trying really hard not to look anxious.

Getting a sense of your subject’s natural pace is all about how you interact with them. You can’t simply bark orders at your subject. You can’t withdraw into a technical and creative cocoon, sticking your lens out just far enough to take their picture. You have to actually engage with them personally. Allow time in between arrangements and locations to chat. Be open with your subject; make yourself vulnerable to them. Remember, that is the challenging posture a portrait session puts the subject in: vulnerability.

Pay attention to the things your client is saying, and the jokes they are making. If they say something like “I’m sorry, I must be terrible to work with” pay attention! They are blaming themselves, but it is likely because you are moving too fast and failing to communicate. The client is likely to blame themselves since they have seen all of your amazing photos and assume that all those people must have been able to keep up. Take this as a personal critique to communicate more openly and slow down.

Unexpected circumstances

Learn to Speak in Positive Terms and Say Positive Things

As you are open and communicating with your subject, remain positive as much as possible. When you have to be honest about something challenging or difficult, do so in positive terms. This takes practice, but it’s beneficial to your own well being as well.

I’m not advocating lies, or even twisting the truth. I’m talking about finding a legitimate perspective in whatever you’re saying, so that some form of positivity is also in view.

For example, say you’re shooting in a local park and the shot you’re working on just isn’t working the way you want. When you know the shot that you wanted is dead, there’s no reason to keep wasting time; you should just move on. If you say “Ugh, this spot just isn’t working out, let’s look somewhere else”, you would be telling the truth, but in a negative way, with the focus on what isn’t working right. That’s not the important part. Instead, if you say “Hmm, this spot isn’t turning out how I’d hoped, I think there might be something even better over in that direction” it sounds more hopeful, positive, and encouraging.

Both of those statements are essentially the same. But in the first, the emphasis is on a problem right then and there. In the second statement the problem is acknowledged, but the emphasis is on something positive “over in that direction”.

Keeping an attitude like this helps your subject remain optimistic about the result, which is important. As your subject’s optimism goes down, they will have to work harder to appear comfortable and relaxed. So even if you’re struggling in the beginning, and your subject might have objectively good reason to become more pessimistic, if you allow that to happen, you’ll be damaging your chances of recovering later.

Stay positive!

Naval Academy Runners Romance

Use Humor as a Diffuser

The situation your subject is stepping into is a vulnerable one. It’s your job to scrutinize how they look in order to present them in their most flattering light. Most of us feel uncomfortable being under the microscope like, especially concerning the way we look. People don’t like their looks being judged poorly and they spend a great deal of time, energy and money to avoid it. In fact, hiring you might itself, be a part of that desire.

So part of your job is to diffuse that feeling. You need to keep your subject comfortable, which typically means obscuring the overt need to scrutinize them and the way they look. An excellent method for this, without having to resort to being deceitful, is to place yourself under their microscope.

If you make a mistake, be open about it and laugh it off. By presenting your own momentary shortcomings, you make yourself vulnerable, and by contrast make them feel less vulnerable. You’re not lying, or manipulating them. You’re just levelling the playing field.

Likewise, if your subject has said or done something embarrassing, you can use humor to turn the embarrassment on yourself. For example, if my subject accidentally steps in a puddle of water and seems embarrassed, I might use the opportunity to tell them about the time I fell in the water during a portrait session. It’s humanizing.

By positively applying humor to your own shortcomings, you’re able to change the tone of the session from one where the subject feels that they must perform for you, into one where they must engage with you.

Engaged couple two tones

Speak in Terms Relative to Your Subject

In many cases, unless your subject has been trained as a model, they’re going to spend a fair amount of their mental energy trying to interpret what you’re telling them to do.

If you say, “tilt your head”, that means a lot more to your subject than that specific thing you want them to do, so for them, it has almost no meaning at all. Instead, you could say “tilt your forehead toward your toes”, or “bring your left ear closer to your left shoulder”. The same goes for the direction they’re facing and movements you need them to make. If you tell them to “step forward” they will often move in whichever direction their feet are facing, or they’ll feel confused about what you want them to do, and shuffle around awkwardly. Instead, you could say, “take a step toward me”.

These are specific instructions which are relative to your subject, rather than your vision. Giving subject-relative instructions also sounds a bit funny to many people at first so it acts as an excellent ice breaker too.

If you master no other subject-relative language, master your subject’s left and right. Instead of saying “step to the left”, say “step to your left”. By giving your subject terms that they do not have to interpret, they can devote more mental energy to the intangible elements of the shoot – like having a good time, or interacting with you.

Engaged couple in a tree

Demonstrate Posing

This is an extension of speaking in subject-relative language, except it takes it one step further. Taking a moment to demonstrate how you’d like your client to pose can have multiple benefits.

First, demonstrating a pose can often act as an icebreaker, since the motions you will ask your subjects to carry out sometimes feel a little silly, even though they look great in a photo! When you demonstrate the pose, the subject has a chance to see you feeling a little silly, or not feeling silly and also not minding.

Second, as with speaking in terms relative to them, demonstrating a pose helps remove a big chunk of the subject’s need to interpret what you want them to do. They can more easily just go for it and try, rather than timidly wondering if they’re “doing it right”.

Relaxed romance

When I demonstrate a pose for a subject, I tell them what I’d like them to do, as I do it.

So, I may sit down in the spot I’d like my client in and say, “Okay, I’d like you to sit right about here”. Then I’ll sit down and say, “You can cross your legs like this, or something like this, if it feels more natural for you” as I demonstrate a couple of different acceptable positions for their legs. Then I might point over to where I’m planning on shooting from and say “I will be shooting from right over there, so you’ll want to look in that direction”.

By the time the client sits down, they have a kind of template for what to do and can act more confidently in giving it a try. This also has the added benefit of allowing you to help your subject find their way into a pose that is more natural for them, rather than putting them in a position you’d never see them use in real life.

For more on posing check out this dPS eBook – Portraits: Striking the Pose

Be a Constant Stream of Affirmation for Your Subject

Hide and seek

I’ll say it again; remember what a vulnerable situation your subject is in when they’re in front of your camera. One of the simplest ways to offset that feeling for your subject is to be a constant stream of affirmation.

  • Thank you!
  • You’re doing a great job
  • Yes! That’s perfect, hold onto that!
  • You’re looking great!

Of course, you’re walking a line here, because what if your client isn’t doing a “great job” and they are in fact making your job a lot more challenging. Well, get over it. It’s your job as a photographer to work with who your customer is; some people are easier going with pictures, others need more attention, but the images will be yours and so the responsibility is too.

Friendly family

I wouldn’t advise lying if you’re struggling to get something you like while working with your subject. But affirmation is still important. Perhaps even more so. The thing about affirmation in this context is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be affirming anything the subject themselves is doing. Of course, that certainly works best to mitigate the feelings of a subject who is insecure about their appearance, or feels bad at photos. But simply affirming that the shoot is going well and you are excited is often enough to let the subject relax. Keep them coming – seriously, about every 15-20 seconds while you’re behind the camera.

  • Wow, this shot is coming out even better than I expected!
  • I love this background!
  • You and I are like a dream team!
  • The textures in this foreground are so interesting and juxtapose just right with your dress!

Easing a subject’s sense of vulnerability by making positive exclamations about the shoot makes sense logically too. By helping the subject to realize that they are only a part of what you’re paying attention to will relieve the pressure, and let them relax.

Dog kisses

Don’t Laugh at Anything that Shows up on the Viewfinder

Here’s what I want to leave you with. This advice, I believe, carries with it the heart of everything I’ve said here.

Never laugh at something that shows up on your camera’s screen.

I’m sure you can understand why – your subject’s vulnerability, of course. How might they interpret your laughter? It’s possible that you’ve cultivated an atmosphere of humor. Maybe you have consistently made yourself the butt of many jokes, and your subject might have joined in the fun and so maybe at this point it’s okay to laugh a little, as long as you’re laughing together. But let’s be honest, the average subject is pretty insecure. They’ll probably think you’re laughing at them and they’ll clam up.

But all of that is quite obvious. People don’t like to be laughed at. That’s not what is so important about this though. It’s not that you’re laughing, it’s not even why you’re laughing. It’s why your subject thinks you’re laughing. Truth is not important, your subject is going to respond to what they think, regardless of whether that is true or not.

It’s not that laughing is a problem. It’s that the subject thinks you’re laughing at them in some way. And it’s not just about laughing.

Let’s say you’re having some annoying problem with your camera for some reason. As you’re trying to work it out, you become visibly frustrated. Your subject probably doesn’t know what camera problems look like and their sense of vulnerability is causing them to take on a lot of blame. It’s not that you’re frustrated, it’s that you’re subject thinks you’re frustrated because of them.

Subjects place themselves in a position of vulnerability with photographers to a degree few other professions have access. Doctors and lawyers are a good example example. Doctors need access to the skin and the stuff underneath. Patients have to reveal their bodies to doctors – a vulnerable feeling indeed. Defence lawyers need access to the minute and truthful details of a defendant’s life. You as a photographer need access to their spirit – people must be who they really are with you.

You must take great care not to trample the spirit of your subjects. You must do mental, emotional, and creative gymnastics to avoid crushing the delicate structure of trust and assured respect. That allows their spirit to be reveal itself in honest smiles, cracked jokes, and a temperament of self-confidence standing in front of the camera.

Without your subject’s spirit, there is little reason for the photo.

Do you have any other tips for working with people and taking better portraits? Please share them and any stories you have in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

William Petruzzo

is a professional wedding, portrait and commercial photographer in the Washington DC area. He is the owner of Petruzzo Photography, and one of its primary photographers. He is also the cofounder of ChirpWed, a wedding organization that trains, equips and supports talented photographers to successfully photograph weddings. He also shares his experiences in creativity on his personal blog.

  • Great tips. I’ll have to start using these myself.

    One of the challenges I’ve had is when photographing children and the parents get overly involved in helping me but are anything but helpful. In that case, it’s not the subject that’s difficult. 🙂

    One thing though.

    “Likewise, if your subject has said or done something embarrassing, you can use humor to turn the embarrassment on yourself.”

    If my subject uses a racial slur or tells a racist joke during the shoot, personally, I’d get another client.

  • Mark

    Great set of tips. My “bed side manner” is something I need to work on. Tending toward introversion this is especially important for me. Your comments about being affirmative while photo’ing hits home for me, to often I am silent while shooting. Thaks for the tips.

  • Michael Owens

    Fantastic article, with some breathtakingly good examples!
    Bookmarked! 🙂

  • William Petruzzo

    Why thank you! 🙂

  • William Petruzzo

    That’s for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed it. If you tend to be introverted, I’m sure this is some tough advice. My suggestion is that you try making your photographic decisions out loud. Just as a kind of priming exercise. Literally say “Okay, I’m getting my settings where I want them. Okay, the shutter speed is too slow, that’s good, got that fixed. Great, I like this scene, but those limbs above the subject are pretty distracting. Okay, I’ll try and move a few feet this way and see how it looks…”

    For someone who is introverted, I think the important thing is just to develop comfort speaking while behind the camera. All things aside, your subject will feel more comfortable hearing you speak than in the uncomfortable silence between camera clicks. Self-narration is a good place to start in figuring out how to keep the chatter up. Before long, you might find that you can more easily filter out the stuff that is irrelevant to your subject.

    Good luck! 🙂

  • William Petruzzo

    You’ll get more natural photos if you identify parents who want to ‘help’ beforehand. Parents who want to help really might be the only ones who can elicit the reaction from their kids that their hoping to immortalize. When I identify a parent who’s going to want to be very involved, I try to design the session in a way that makes it natural.

    As an example, last year a very enthusiastic mother of three hired us to capture photos of her kids. I could sense that this wasn’t going to be a shoot-while-babysitting kind of situation and that this woman was going to want to be right beside me the whole time. So, we played into this. We created a kind of ‘play school’ with all three kids arranged in such a way that they would look fantastic being photographed. The angle was perfect so that I could capture images of the children while they interacted naturally with their mother. My job actually got really easy.

    In my experience, it’s best not to try and squeeze families into my workflow. Instead, I think it’s better to have a flexible workflow that wraps around the family.

    –And yeah, I think if a client is dropping offensive jokes, it’s probably time to fire that client.

  • Amazing article! I really want to become a portrait photographer, so I’ll make sure to keep those tips in mind since I’m sort of awkward around people for now xD

  • Mark

    Tough advise maybe but whatever it needs to be done to some degree. I managed to complete a 100 Stangers Project so this is doable. But not talking while right behind the camera was something that I became more and more aware of. So these tips are great. Thanks again.

  • Pepe

    Great!

  • MM

    Great article. One question I have that would be great if you get time to answer is this: I recently started doing children’s portraits (starting small and slow!). For my first sessions, the kids were great and most were really excited to have their portraits taken. The problem I had was with some of the parents giving their kids direction or actually critizing their own kids (“don’t squint”, “don’t worry about your crooked teeth”). This interfered with me giving the child direction and trying to overcome the squinty issue, resulting in a lot of pictures with squinty eyes. The child over-smiled a lot, but I could never get him to relax because the mom kept telling him what to do and he listened to her and not me. With the teeth one – she was a cute girl and had nothing to be concerned about – even when I analyzed the pictures later, I couldn’t see any crooked teeth! Anyway, this was outdoors. Should I just tell parents to take a walk or be up front in the ‘preparing for your portrait’ pdf I send ahead of time and tell parents to not give kids direction or to talk to me if they have certain concerns? Sorry so long, but I’m not sure how to handle this one.

  • William Petruzzo

    Okay, I know how frustrating that is. A few thoughts:

    First, ask yourself, are you speaking and interacting with the child when the parents interrupt? Or are the parents filling silence between clicks?

    Second, you’re hired because you know how to take photos of their kids and they don’t. If you believe they are causing the problem, assert your position and ask them to take a hike. Contrary to popular belief, they won’t hate you. They will respect you. And, if you’re right, and you manage to get the kid to respond, they’ll feel you have given them something far beyond the value of the money they paid you. As a professional, being assertive will create a little uncomfortable friction in the moment, but will be much better for you and the client in the long run. Being assertive can and should be done positively as well. For example, you could say “I feel like I’m not really connecting with the child, I’d like to try something different”. They’ll be open to the suggestion to leave without it feeling like you’re barking orders. That been said, a really good professional has a way of never needing to be assertive. Which brings me to…

    Third, the best and most graceful way to handle this is to create expectations before the session. That means, literally, tell the client what to expect. Before they have a chance to cause problems, tell them not to. It’s usually as easy as that. And, if you’re tactful, you can say it without coming across as legalistic. For example, in explaining a few ways to help the shoot run smoothly, you could cast it as a positive saying something like “I’d really like to interact with the child uninterrupted–it’s part of my process”. They’ll probably take that as a cue to stay quiet, or they might ask you if you’d rather they went somewhere else.

    Hope there’s something useful in there! Good luck! 🙂

  • MM

    Great ideas and suggestions! Thank you. I think they were doing it between clicks, but sometimes they would talk over me (because I remember being annoyed at being interrupted!). I’ll need to get more assertive and talkative with the child. I also like the idea of setting expectations ahead of time. Thanks again for taking the time to answer my question!

  • Karen Quist

    Great article. There are some excellent tips here – some that I already do, others I’d not given much thought to.

  • Great article – even better writing. Thank you!

  • Don

    I have actually found that if something is funny on the view finder and you do actually shoot it….they would love to look at it and laugh as well by how silly it looks. It also serves as a tool to say “let’s not do that again” and then they and you proceed to correct the next shots.

  • Michelle Doherty

    Best article on DPS ever!!!!!

  • mxjs

    This article just made my day! The clarity and excellence of the writing is on par with the beauty of the photographs. It is easy for me to consider how this advice could be beneficial to my whole approach to life–as well as portraiture.

  • Sarah

    Wow! I love DPS!! Thank you so much!

  • William Petruzzo

    Wow, that is very high praise. Thank you! 🙂

  • Geoff

    Didn’t Martin Parr say that you should ask subjects not to smile in photo’s, William? I suppose that wasn’t portraiture though, but street photography.

  • Scott Finchler

    Great article and so right. The trick is to keep being positive and upbeat even when the subject isn’t reacting. I always say things like, “Oh, do that pose again!” or “Perfect – I can tell you’ve done this before!”. I especially like your comment about keeping up with the subject. You always have to listen and pick up on the cues to know if you’re moving too fast and making them anxious. One last thought to people reading this: practice, practice, practice. Reading posts like this is important, but you have to go out and practice what you read and learn from it.

  • William Petruzzo

    I would agree with that, even in portraiture! I don’t think photographers should ask their subjects to smile, they should make them smile.

  • duong

    this is dope. thanx a lot!

  • Patrick McPheron

    Good tips!

  • Marion Esposito

    Thank you for this great article. I just did an amateur photo shoot for my daughters friend. I did ok but I really struggled with trying to keep conversation, at the same time making sure my settings were correct. Since I am still fairly new, it was a challenge trying to concentrate on two things at the same time. I hope it will come more natural to me over time.

  • Kevin Shoesmith

    Extremely valuable insights, William. You’re a bright and wise person. If you’re interested in people who photograph people, check out a great documentary called “Looking for Light: Jane Bown”. It touches on so many of the things you’ve discussed here. Who’s your favourite portrait photographer?

  • William Petruzzo

    I’m glad you enjoyed the article! That sounds like an interesting documentary. I’ll have to check it out once it hits digital.

    And to answer your question: My favorite portrait photographer is my father. Not for his technical prowess, or distinctive style, but for his deep appreciation and commitment to why we should be taking photographs in the first place. He not only taught me what a good portrait looks like, he also taught me how to consider the real value of a portrait.

  • Vickie

    I just did church directory photos in April for a couple in my church, who I will shoot outdoors tomorrow because they also want photos that are not ‘studio-scripted’. The husband is very confident and comical; the wife is very introverted and defers to the husband as the focus while interacting with other people. I am so tickled that I came across this article today; I feel energized and excited about tomorrow’s shoot! THANK YOU for the time you put into the detail in your article. DVDiva Photography & Memory-Making Media Conversion Services (my albums are on facebook and I consider myself an amateur professional…lol)

  • William Petruzzo

    I am so glad you found the article useful! I hope you absolutely nail your session tomorrow! Good luck! Tweet one of the shots at me when you’re done. I’d love to see what you get!

  • Vickie

    I don’t Tweet…how else could I ‘shoot a photo’ to you? :0)

  • William Petruzzo

    Hmm, guess you’ll have to do it the old fashioned way with email. william at petruzzo dot com. Can’t wait to see what you get!

  • Daniel Timiraos

    Agreed on all points. Being a good portrait photographer requires as much people skills as it does technical prowess as a shooter.

  • Sarah Rodríguez

    I really appreciate the value of this article. When you said: “Without your subject’s spirit, there is little reason for the photo”..wow, this really touched me! Thank you so much for sharing!

  • William Petruzzo

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  • Sandy Lee Fales

    I love this article!! I try to encompass all these things when I shoot. I’m not one for asking a client to turn their bodies too often I move around and talk a lot though. I like the advice about constantly affirming while I’m shooting. That’s great! Check out my work and let me know what you think in regards to getting “real” emotion. Thanks! http://www.wildprairiephotography.zenfolio.com

  • Patrick Cruz

    As a beginner, i find this extremely helpful. thumbs up! :bd

  • Mike

    Not to sound like a broken record, but it sounds like to me that you think it’s OK to tell the model all the things you are doing?

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