Capturing Unenthusiastic Teens: Forget the Perfect Pose and Get Photos You Truly Love

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I wrote an article recently sharing some tips for Capturing Busy Little Ones, and had a request for a similar article for photographing teens. Since I love photographing teens (who doesn’t??), I’m thrilled to share some tips. These aren’t tips for photographing the aspiring model teens. Those teens are usually pretty easy to photograph, they will pose for you until the cows come home, and love every minute of it. No, I’m going to let you in on some ideas for photographing those teens that aren’t so enthusiastic about being there.

Sometimes they’re super shy, and they just feel uncomfortable with the attention on them. Sometimes they are self-conscious, and think that they aren’t photogenic, so they feel awkward. Sometimes mom made them get pictures taken, and they’d rather be shoveling manure than sitting there with you and a camera. Whatever their hang-up is, these tips will help you capture them in the truest way possible, and get through it with your sanity intact. You might even get through it with a new teenage friend!

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Get to Know Them

Here’s a newsflash: teenagers are people too. They have real feelings and ideas, and sometimes very strong opinions about what they like, and what they don’t like (if you have a teenager of your own, you didn’t need me to tell you that). Spend some time feeling them out, and finding what makes them tick. Watch for cues to let you know what they are going to be down with, and what they might roll their eyes at.

For example, you might notice that they avoid eye contact, and act very uncomfortable when you talk to them a lot. In that case, you may want to do more photos where they are looking at something in their hands, or looking away from you, and ask for eye contact only briefly. Maybe you might notice that the photo shoot was all mom’s idea, and the teen is not at all happy about it. You could diffuse the situation by addressing it directly. “Hey, it’s a bummer to get pictures taken, huh? Moms are so annoying sometimes.”  Ask them questions about their life. Pay attention to more than just the words they say; their body language will give you cues about their personality too.

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Don’t Force a Smile

Some kids just don’t like to smile, or they might be angry that they are getting their picture taken in the first place. Repeated requests to “smile” will only make things worse, and at best, get you a fake cheesy smile. Your goal during your session with an unenthusiastic teen, is to gain their trust. Let them know that you are on the same team, and that you aren’t there to torture them. Assure them, through your actions, that you aren’t going to try to make them into something they’re not. The easiest way to do this, if you haven’t picked up on enough cues, is just to ask them.

I might say, “Sometimes people really love jumping pictures. Is that something you would do, or is totally not your style?” They’ll usually let you know exactly how they feel about it, in words or expression, and you can quickly move on if it’s not their thing. Sometimes those that resist the smile the most may actually give you a real, genuine, smile towards the end of the session when you’re best buddies, and they trust you.

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Photograph Their Passion

Before your session together, encourage your teen subjects to bring things that are important to them. It’s fun for both of you to capture those “action” shots of things that they truly love to do. This also gives you opportunity to give them genuine praise, and puts them at ease. Help them think outside the box. If they are a writer, maybe they’d want to bring a few favorite journals to “write” in, as you photograph them. If they love to run, capture some action running shots, and then a few with them holding their track shoes, or a race medal.

Giving them something to do really helps the shy ones. If they play a musical instrument, you could take some photos of them holding it, but don’t forget those action shots too. Ask them to play something for you, or show you some tricks on their skateboard. If they’re hesitant to actually perform, remind them that the camera won’t capture mistakes, and you’re an expert at making people look really good. That might be enough to loosen them up, and let their passion show.

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Do the Unexpected

Most teens will expect you to ask them to smile and look at the camera. They’ll expect you to ask them to “sit there”, “stand here”, “look at me”. Sometimes just shaking things up a little will help them loosen up. You could ask them to lie down in the grass, or climb on a big rock. Maybe a silly expression, or twirling in a field, will shake it up a bit. DO be careful that you watch for cues from your subject before you ask them to do crazy things. Remember to ask them first, like I mentioned before. Some teens will do whatever you tell them to, but they will become increasingly uncomfortable if they aren’t feeling like themselves. Also, sometimes it helps to explain to them WHY you are asking them to do an unexpected thing. You could say, “The sky does amazing things with your beautiful blue eyes when you look up into it. Would you be okay lying down in the grass so we could give that photo a try?”

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Capture Something Different

Teens like to be unique. They like to have photos that their peers think are “cool”. You might be tempted to just snap the basic head shots when you have a teenager that isn’t super easy to photograph, just to get it over with. Instead of going into safe mode, use this opportunity to capture something unique. There are lots of details that you can capture without them needing to look at you and smile. Eyelashes sweeping the cheek, hands clasped at the knees while sitting down, profile looking at a distance, details of a guitar with their face blurred in the distance, a close-up of their favorite quote in a book as they read it; those details can tell more of the story of who they are, and sometimes give them a moment to relax. If I’m not taking a photo with their face in it, I’ll tell them that they don’t even have to worry about their expression right then, because it won’t be in the picture. Sometimes they breathe a visible sigh of relief when I tell them that.

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Be Yourself

Teens know when you’re being fake. Don’t change your personality to try to be more like them, or to attempt to be “cool”. They’ll trust you more if your compliments are genuine. Look at them when you compliment them, don’t give a routine “you look great” while fiddling with your camera. If you’re a jokester, throw those zingers out. If you are quiet and thoughtful, let that thoughtfulness shine through. You won’t connect with every single person, but you will show your reluctant teen that you are sincere, and that means a lot to them.  Don’t treat them like little kids. They need to know that you recognize them as the almost-adults that they are. If you show them respect, they will usually show you respect right back.

Whether you are photographing a teen who loves to pose and smile, or a teen who is less than enthusiastic about the whole thing, you are lucky. What a privilege to photograph a person at a time of experiencing such beauty, daily transformation, and figuring out the world! Now, go have some fun with your camera and a great teenager. I’d love to see your teen photos in the comments if you’d like to share!

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Melinda Smith was born to be a teacher. She teaches violin lessons and fitness classes, as well as photography classes and mentoring. She lives on a mini farm in Eastern Utah with her camera, husband, kids, chickens, horses, bunnies, dogs, and cats. Visit her at Melinda Smith Photography.

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