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9 Tips that Make Couples Happy During a Portrait Session

Whenever a camera appears, you can bet your caboose that there are emotions swirling for 99% of the human population. From fear and disdain, to reverting to the classic Chandler Bing smile, people tend to exaggerate or warp their behaviour in front of the camera in endlessly inventive ways. But unless you’re going for a Sears portrait look, your job as a photographer is to not only deliver an end-product that thrills your clients, it’s to make the shoot an awesome experience as well.

Here are nine of my favorite, tried-and-true strategies for helping clients forget about the camera, and have a good old time on their shoot.


1 – Model the behaviour you want

A shoot can be fraught with stress, so for the love of Annie Leibowitz, don’t add to it. When people arrive at a shoot, they are almost invariably nervous, and will be looking to you for all their cues. Take the lead in creating the atmosphere you’re hoping for, and your clients will follow suit almost subconsciously. You have a huge opportunity to model the relaxed, joyful, behaviour you want to capture, simply by setting the tone and mood of the shoot from the get-go!

This is so simple, but laugh. Crack jokes, if that’s your thing. Show them you’re willing to get weird, and it’ll liberate them to fall into a relaxed zone that brings out great images. It’s not about putting on a performance, but about being so yourself and comfortable in your own skin, that your clients can’t help but do the same.


2 – Learn to read people

On that note, hone in your ability to read your clients so they really feel seen as individuals, and not two-dimensional subjects, and adapt to their specific personality. In many ways you have to be a chameleon, ready to provide to whatever the client might need from you to make them comfortable. We usually talk a lot throughout our shoots, and have found that most people react well to constant positive feedback, but not everyone wants a running commentary. There’s a fun balancing act to figure out what your client will respond to, and this is a good life skill as well.


3 – Find an in

Whether it’s talking baseball, vintage cars, or Japanese flower arranging, finding some common ground can put even the stiffest of the stiff more at ease. They’ll loosen up, see you as a teammate, and get more invested in following whatever direction you have for them. We’ve established trust with clients by talking with them about everything from beers in Thailand, to Tom Brady’s throwing motion. Chat it out, listen for non-sequiturs and when you find an in, go for it.

4 – Treat your camera like a commonplace object

By treating your camera like it ain’t no thang, with no more emotion connected to it than a chair or a mailbox, you can help couples forget that it’s there (well, almost). When starting a shoot, spend as much time as possible chatting, and relaxing with the couple before you ever lift the camera. Hold it in your hand as if it’s no more consequential than a cup of coffee. This action may seem subtle, but your clients are looking to you for their behavioural cues, and treating the camera like something to not think twice about, will allow them to consider it equally as casually.


5 – Have the subject help you design the shoot

Giving your clients plenty of say in the terms of how the shoot goes, is a huge key to making them relaxed. Doing extra legwork ahead of time, like guiding them with their outfits and locations, allows them to show up already feeling invested and in control over much of their experience. The old relationship advice that “communication is key” could not be more apt. Spending time before the shoot helping people feel like their voice is being heard, is central to great images.


6 – Tell a better story

We’ve all been that novice photographer who, in a desperate attempt to capture a mirthful photo of unrehearsed laughter, says something panicked like “okay, now make each other laugh”. That’s not funny, y’all! You gotta be more creative than that. If you’re photographing a couple, ask one of them to tell the other about their most embarrassing childhood moment, using only interpretive dance. Tell them to reenact their first meeting, using emotive eye contact, instead of words. Get detailed and ridiculous in these requests, because then you’ll be able to fully leap into #7.


7 – Shoot between the lines

You likely won’t keep the image of the poor guy interpretive dancing, but you’ll probably keep the one of the couple cracking up together in between moves. Here’s the real secret to natural looking photos – the in-between photos ARE the photos. The unposed, unrehearsed, laughing at fart jokes, or because your photographer told you they were “just going to test the light” but really you’re capturing them enjoying life together. Those are the images that end up being keepers. Keep that camera at the ready and shoot between the lines to get the good stuff.


8 – Keep those hands moving

Every once in a while, we’ll leave the open-ended coaching behind and give a people a very specific pose to try. And no matter what the pose is, no matter how natural it felt when they first tried it, it’s going to get clunky-looking if you make them hold it for long enough. There are a few reasons why someone might need to keep a general pose for a bit — if you’re grabbing different angles, shooting with unique lenses, etc. — but our big piece of advice for them is to always keep their hands moving. With the free-reign to move their hands in whatever way feels natural to them, they’ll avoid the stiff prom-pose look, while still keeping the general idea of the pose you gave them. It sounds silly, but this one seriously works.

9 – Get your own photo taken – often

If you are amongst the hordes of photographers and humans who hate having their own photo taken, this piece of advice goes double for you. You MUST MUST MUST put yourself in your clients’ shoes! Be uncomfortable! Learn what strange tics you have. Know how to comfortably have your photo taken, so you know firsthand how to coach your clients. Standing in their shoes is our number one piece of advice, because as you teach yourself to be in photos comfortably, it’ll become ever-easier to coach your clients to do the same. Get thee in front of a lens. You’ll be a better photographer for it.

So while you may not be able to alleviate someone’s multiple decade love/hate relationship with having their photo taken, focusing on making each client’s shoot experience stellar is the first step on the road to the beautiful, natural, photos you and your client are aiming for. Because if you aren’t having fun, why bother?

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Tim Sullivan
Tim Sullivan

spends most of his summers in the Pacific Northwest. He shoots with his wife, Laura Huysman, and their company Lightworks360 Photography. Together, they shutterbug around the globe and run retreats for creatives in the most beautiful places they find. Keep up with their travels at lightworks360.com, on Instagram, or on Facebook.

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