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Capturing Real Moments and Connecting with Your Subjects

When I watched Darren’s video the other day on the difference between great photographers and good ones, it really got me thinking. It’s very rare that you actually see a post anywhere online that teaches about capturing powerful moments or emotions in photography and really connecting with your subjects. Most posts are about technique, camera settings, and this sort of thing. There is nothing wrong with technical articles, I find them extremely helpful and most of the time that is what I write about, but I figured in light of Darren’s video I would try and give some insight into how I try and capture moments in my images that convey emotion and tell stories.

I think the main reason we write technical articles is because everything technical is black and white. Here’s how it goes: I know how to do something that others may not be aware of, so I write an article telling how to do it with concrete steps of how to achieve that specific technique. Pretty easy, yes?

Writing an article about creating a telling image or connecting with your subject is a completely different story. It’s difficult to put into words what all goes through a photographers head when a moment happens. I think Darren nailed it when he said that a great photographer is someone that has a natural ability to see moments and compositions, but also has the necessary skill set to execute the moment in whatever way he/she sees fit.

If you have a great eye for photography, but still shoot in automatic, your creative vision is being choked out because you have no say (except for composition) on how that image will turn out. On the flip side, if you are an incredibly technical photographer, but have no eye for it or you are awkward with people, you will have technically perfect images with absolutely no feeling or emotion to them. I’ve seen this all too often with portraiture. I see these photographers with elaborate studio sets with lighting and backdrops and soft boxes and beauty dishes and snoots and grids and you name it. They can describe in detail how they lit the scene and why they placed each light in each position. They can shape light as they see fit and are experts at exposure and white balance, but the end result is a dreadfully boring portrait that looks like something out of a high school yearbook. When you only have one half of the equation, you will be lacking as a photographer. It’s only when you develop both that you can become great. Some photographers are naturals at this, and can achieve greatness very soon in their careers. Others may spend decades pursuing it, and some their entire life.

Capturing Real Moments

So, how do you write an article on something as abstract as capturing a moment in a real and powerful way? Well, I don’t completely know how to answer that, but I will do my best here and hope you will let me know if it helped out.

1.) Let your clients have some creative freedom – For my portrait work, I always try and include a proper mix of candid moments and a bit of posing. I don’t spend much time posing really. I’ll have the person(s) I’m shooting stand/sit/lay down at a certain spot. I’ll tell them roughly what I’m looking for and let them fill in the blanks on their own. I may even significantly pose them, but then take pictures as the pose degrades into a more natural look.

2.) Don’t be afraid of making a fool out of yourself – Posing isn’t bad if it’s done right, and there’s nothing I hate more than an over posed portrait. At some point you have to release control and start working on making your subject comfortable enough to be themselves. This can be done by telling lame jokes, making a fool of yourself (I’m a natural at this), or just by having a good time with your subjects. The less ‘professional’ you make your shoot, the more natural of a mood you will get from your clients.

3.) Invest actual time into getting to know your client – I do everything I can to get actual face time in with any client before I get behind a camera. If it’s a wedding, I insist on meeting the bride and groom in person before the wedding. This can be done via an engagement session, coffee, or even skype. In fact, any client that I book I do my best to set up some time (even 5 minutes) before the shoot to get to know the person(s) I’m photographing.

If you are great with people, then photograph people. If you are not a people person (and there’s nothing wrong with that), then find something else to photograph!

I think the best thing to do here is to just throw up some examples of shots that I consider successful, and I’ll do my best to convey what went in to getting the shot.

Capturing Real Moments and Connecting with Your Subjects

Say hello to my nephew Caleb! I grabbed this shot of him last Easter over at my sister’s house. Like any toddler, he is a very messy eater, and these Easter cookies were calling his name. I spent a few minutes beforehand playing with him and getting him into a good mood. I tickled him, made silly faces, and when the time was right – gave him a cookie. I set him up on this swing and had his mom stand over my left shoulder and make some more silly faces at him. It took a few attempts to get a good shot, but eventually I came up with this one. I shot it with my 5D MkII and a 50mm 1.4 wide open, natural light.

Capturing Real Moments and Connecting with Your Subjects

This image is from a lifestyle shoot I did for Mike and Beth. Both of them are really great people, so I just had to wait for the right moments during the session. I had Mike place his arm on the brick wall and told him to try and make her laugh. Just before this shot, he tickled her side with his left hand and she batted it away out of the frame. This was shot with a 1Ds Mk III, also with a 50mm lens at f/4.

Capturing Real Moments and Connecting with Your Subjects

Here’s a great example of getting to a session and meeting all of your subjects for the first time. Teenagers can be difficult to shoot sometimes, but it’s all about getting them to act naturally as they would any other day, or getting them to do exciting things that they normally wouldn’t. For starters, I convinced the entire family to jump a fence onto private property to go shoot by a pond that was about 25 yards from the fence line (please no comments about how I shouldn’t have jumped the fence, it was harmless and we knew who the owners were). The brother was the oldest, so I had him get behind his two sisters and put his arms around them. I then told him to go ahead and choke them and get it over with. That made everyone laugh and the youngest sister grabbed his arm right away and looked away. I loved this shot as soon as I saw it, and was excited to show it to the client.

Capturing Real Moments and Connecting with Your Subjects

Now this was a fun wedding! Daniel and Lauren got married last summer in Cancun, Mexico and it was an absolute blast. Getting your subjects comfortable around you isn’t always something you do in an instant. Sometimes, it’s a process, and once your subjects know they can be themselves around you, great shots are going to present themselves. Daniel and Lauren were so excited to get married, I simply told them to show me how excited they were, and this is what happend.


I hope these images and commentaries have given you some good ideas to go out and try in your own work. If you want to know a secret, I’m not the most social person out there. When I’m shooting a wedding or meeting clients for the first time to do a session, I’m constantly forcing myself out of my comfort zone to get good shots and connect with my clients. It’s not something that comes natural to me, I’ve had to constantly work on it and hone my techniques through trial and error.

If you have tips to share that have worked for you, please share them below, we want to hear from you!

Follow me on Twitter if you don’t already (@jamesdbrandon), I’m always looking for other photogs to connect with!

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James Brandon
James Brandon

is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code “DPS25” for an exclusive discount!

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