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

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.

  • Michael Owens

    Another good article.

    Everyone says babies and animals are the worst to shoot, but moody teenagers are just as much a nightmare for some! Not for you of course… 😉

    Thanks for the tips!

  • Thanks, Michael! And you’re welcome. 🙂

  • bob

    Good tips and you have very nice images…that’s not always the case but you do.

  • Thank you, bob!

  • Rashelle Richardson

    Mindy, great article. When my daughter got married last month, I ended up doing the engagement and bridal shots due to limited time and distance issues. Reminded me how much I miss photography so I joined this site a few weeks ago. Was excited when I stumbled across your first article and now this one too. So great to hear your thoughts – your articles are as wonderful as your photographs & your violin playing too! You are a very talented women. P.S. Loved, loved, loved the shot of Toni and Celesta at the wedding.

  • Thank you so much, Rashelle!! I’m so glad you joined this site… so many great articles over here!

  • Abigail

    Love your photos!!

  • Thank you, Abigail!

  • I had a similar situation. The senior was a bit timid but wanted something to reflect her mammaw in her senior session. We did just that by including some of the grave marker in her session.
    I was a bit hesitant, but was very pleased with the result. It was definitely an emotional time for viewing the images of the client and her family. They were thrilled.

  • I’m so glad that you could capture a photo with so much meaning for the client… that’s what this photography thing is all about. 🙂

  • Jamal Charkieh Photography

    Wonderful Article! while reading it, it makes you imagine the situation and live it. Great Job!!

  • azxure

    I just had this article sent my way – my 14 year old turns his back as soon as he sees a camera (although he recently has decided he likes to be behind it as well!) I have hundreds of photos from the last few years of the back of his head, or blurry profile shots from his whipping around quickly, or photos of his hand reaching up to cover my lens. I even had some from odd angles where I’ve held the camera at my side and pointed and prayed for something to come out that was in focus. Any suggestions on teens like that?

  • dfpa

    Boys that age are the most challenging. I used to do youth sports photography. Some 13-15 boys you could cajole into modest cooperation but others no amount of joking around or pleading would work. You reach a point where you give up, but when it’s your own kid that you want to preserve memories it’s a different story. Shoot as many stealth photos as possible. Use a small point & shoot and/or a cell phone camera that are less conspicuous. It does get better as they age, but I realize you want memories of the here and now. By the way, rewards can work. I’m sure there’s something he’s going to want your cooperation on, so perhaps there’s a quid pro quo to be found in there somewhere.

  • Great suggestions from dfpa! I agree that rewards can be helpful.

    Also, if he likes to be behind the camera, that’s great! You could use that to encourage cooperation out of him. Maybe you could interest him in using your time together to teach him skills with the camera. See if he will let you take a photo of him, and then discuss what worked, and what didn’t work with the photo. Using him as a model for his “learning” may benefit both of you! You could talk about what camera settings are best for each situation, and take photos of each other.

    Another idea is to make sure you don’t request photos too often. When it’s your own kids, they can tire of a camera in their face all the time pretty quickly, and their automatic reaction will always be to turn away and cover the lens. Maybe if you talk to him, and say, I will quit trying to “catch” you with my camera all the time, if you’ll just give me 5 minutes every month or so to take a couple of good photos of you. If he knows that it’s not going to be a constant thing, he may cooperate for that 5 minutes. If you promise that, stick to it! Don’t beg for just 5 more minutes, or try to take stealthy photos all the time.

    Good luck! I have a 16 year old son, and a 13 year old son, so I hear you loud and clear! 🙂

  • Thank you so much for your kind words!

  • robertdumonphotography

    Many of the teens I photograph are self-conscious over their appearance due to acne or other skin blemishes. Clearly this is a sensitive issue to approach, but I try to say something to help diminish their concern over this, like, “One of the things I always do in processing is smooth out the skin for my models, just like magazine photographers do as well, because teens all have certain skin issues and these are temporary. No need to preserve them in a photograph you’re going to have for years, so I’ll take care of that for you,” Or something like that. Sometimes I take high resolution “full length” shots of teens and then crop for a portraits afterward rather than zooming in on faces during the shoot. That seems to help them relax a little over the skin issues thing. Just be aware that this is an issue with most teens and you’ll need to figure out some way to deal with it.

  • Great suggestions for teens that are self-conscious about their skin! Thank you!

  • Amber Richards

    Great suggestions! Thanks for sharing! I can’t wait to try these out! 🙂

  • I had a very reluctant female subject a few years ago, and I was very good friends with her family. She is a shy girl, but very sensitive. I just told her to start throwing her hair around, and release her inner model, she smiled and twirled around and from their on it was a great shoot…

  • Simon

    Great article!
    I have often wondered the best way to photograph shy teens. I guess your tips can relate to people of any age really.
    Thanks for the tips.
    Simon

  • Jojo

    Great article! Here’s my first teen shot….

  • Jojo

    Hopefully this will post the photo this time?

  • What a fun shot! You can feel their enthusiasm. 🙂

  • Thanks, Simon!

  • Sounds like a fun shoot! I’m glad you could bring out her inner model. 🙂

  • You’re welcome!

  • This is my niece, she hates to have her picture taken, she does not feel that she is as pretty as the other girls in her school. Here are a couple of shots that I got of her this summer, trying to decide which one to send, or if I should send in for her year book photo. Would like some input.

  • She’s a beautiful girl! I hope she can see that. 🙂

  • Kim Martinez Sanders

    I am taking a portrait class at our community college right now. Here are some of my 15 year old son that took this past week in the studio. I was happy he let me “practice” taking studio portraits 🙂 (for a couple of years, he loved wearing fedoras. Although he hasn’t been wearing them lately, he doesn’t mind me taking pictures of him in one 🙂 )

  • Kim Martinez Sanders

    I am taking a portrait taking class at our local community college. This week my 15 year old son let me practice shooting him 🙂

  • What a handsome guy! Love the fedora. 🙂

  • Kim Martinez Sanders

    Thank you, I was happy he was in a good mood 🙂 Having his 20 year old sister there to help him relax was a good thing 🙂

  • Good moods and good sisters help a lot! 🙂

  • KittyGuru

    My son is full of energy, and just like other teenagers doesnt like his photo taken, so I have tried to capture him when he is not looking, or unsuspecting photos. Mostly Im forced to bin them, but on occasion I have kept a couple that really reflect his character, somewhat shy yet still very playful

  • KittyGuru

    My son is full of energy, and just like other teenagers doesnt like his photo taken, so I have tried to capture him when he is not looking, or unsuspecting photos. Mostly Im forced to bin them, but on occasion I have kept a couple that really reflect his character, somewhat shy yet still very playful

  • Great captures! You can really see his personality shining through. 🙂

  • Hi Robert – I would agree you need to calm their concerns and fears they will look bad (in their mind). I’m not sure shooting full length and then cropping to a head shot is the best idea though, you will lose a lot of resolution that way and make it harder to retouch and look natural. Using a longer lens will put you further back from them and “out of their face” so they won’t even know you’re doing a head shot. I had horrible acne from about 17-23 so I know how that feels.

  • Saurabh Jain

    another teen photographed 🙂 snj9999

  • Gorgeous!

  • Mel

    I decided to do my daughter’s sr photos. I’ve got a lot to learn about shadows & light, but in working w/her (she hates getting a pic taken), it had helped me be more comfortable w/those i don’t know well.

  • Mel

    One of her photos…

  • What a great subject to practice with!

  • Saurabh Jain

    thanks @melinda

  • Saurabh Jain

    thanks @melinda

  • M

    As a teen can I just say that using words like totally will get you weird looks and a closed off teenager

  • Oh, so sorry. I’ll totes remember that. 😉

  • Marjorie

    Thank you for writing this follow up. I just saw this post today (how did I miss it?)and remember leaving a comment on the original piece re busy little ones and your comment about doing another piece on teenagers. One other thing I have found useful is setting up a diy photo booth for my teens and their friends to use. Hand them the remote and leave them alone. As the grateful mother of three teenagers, I plan to copy and print this article for my permanent photography file, and I am going to share this will my photo groups as well. Merci mille fois!
    I have attached a picture I took of one of my daughters. I wanted to take a whimsical picture of her up on our brick mailbox, but I much preferred this candid I took when she wasn’t looking at the camera.

  • Gorgeous candid photo, Marjorie! Thanks for the sweet words!

  • Jacqui Antoine

    My shy teen…have to wait for her to forget im There with my camera@

  • Oh my goodness, she’s gorgeous! Wonderful capture. 🙂

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