Get Silly for Serious Lifestyle Images

Get Silly for Serious Lifestyle Images

DSC_0098If you’re interested in diving into the world of lifestyle and portrait photography, or a veteran stuck in a rut of bland photos, and want to bring out some great emotions from your subjects – it’s time to get silly for serious images.

Chances are, unless you’re a natural born comedian or were from a large family where you had to ensure your meals by gaining mom and dad’s attention with witticisms and one-liners about Uncle Larry’s funny smells; you might not know how to go about making someone laugh on the spot. But it doesn’t have to be as hard as performing a stand-up act at the Gotham Comedy Club. In fact, you’ll probably end up joining in on the laughter too. (I will guiltily admit I’ve probably missed a great photo or two from laughing along hysterically with my subjects).

Here are a few techniques that have helped me light up the laughter.

Set the scene – then change it


I start almost all of my lifestyle photo shoots out by asking my subject(s) to think about something fun or funny that happened during the week.

I don’t ask them to share it, because maybe it’s not something they want to, but if it helps put them in a light mood or a secret smile on their face I know we’re off to a great start.

Then I tell them to think about a funny word like “purple,” “gorillas” or “potato head.” In all honesty, none of them are that funny, but they’re the exact opposite of what the person or people you’re photographing expect.

Sometimes that odd pairing catches them off guard and produces a bit of laughter. If it’s working, keep adding to it and get inventive.

Make fun of yourself

A little good-natured self-humiliation usually catches everyone’s funny bones. We all love to hear someone go after themselves a bit. This can be especially effective for kids. If you’re setting up a photo and find the kids to be unresponsive, turn, take a good whiff of yourself and loudly exclaim, “Whew WHO stinks in here?!”


Are you a terrible dancer? Break out those awesomely awkward moves you’ve been saving up since Hammer Time. Take yourself lightly, laugh at yourself and your subjects might just start laughing along with you. If you can set your subject at ease and show them that you’re just a regular person like they are, they’ll have an easier time relating with you and opening up for those dazzling smiles.

Don’t be afraid to use props

Props are a classic way to get a good laugh. I’ve had some pretty good success on model photo shoots when I’ve brought along a pair of Mickey Mouse ears. Why? Because in an industry that takes itself very seriously, when you can be refreshingly light it’s a great change of pace. Finding a funny prop or two can be a cheap and effective way to bring out some laughs.

Once you have it, don’t let it go

I once had a session with an aspiring model that I just could not crack a good smile out of. I could tell he was trying, but it just wasn’t genuine. That’s when I made the joking off-hand remark, “Why so serious, it’s not like your mom’s in the hospital.” For whatever reason, the mention of “mom” caused a tiny spark of laughter. Once I recognized that, I grabbed onto that spark and kept fanning it to a flame. I’m pretty sure I must have said “mom” about eight or nine times in a row right after, and sure enough he cracked right up.

Once that barrier was broken all I had to do was say that one word and it would produce some hysterical laughs. I even started pairing it with other words; at that point it didn’t matter. It’s all about breaking down that barrier and keeping it open once you do.

Remember every now and then that you’re going to have a person that is just not going to open up for you no matter what you do. Don’t let it discourage you. Keep trying and use it as fuel for the next time. Start acting a bit silly and you’ll start getting some seriously good lifestyle images.

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Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

Some Older Comments

  • Jim March 13, 2012 03:21 am

    what I like to do is casually pull out a novelty scottish hat (cap?) with red hair attached to it and just put it on, they would look at me funny for awhile but a smile or laugh is sure to follow...

  • Kartik December 22, 2011 04:39 am

    Wonderful article, one of the most interesting things I've read recently. I remember trying this a couple of times on my subjects but yes, its definitely worth it to try this on many more occasions.

    Here's what I shot during Halloween. All I said was "You scared me here"...and got my shot:

  • Lorene Lavora December 22, 2011 02:22 am

    I have to shoot a lot of group shots for work and one of my favorite quips to get people to loosen up is "This is looking like a police lineup!" Works every time!

  • Kenneth Hoffman March 18, 2011 02:17 am

    All your tips are well taken. Portrait subjects, like all people, have to get past that point in their mind that they look good to the world before they can feel comfortable and be themselves. To this end i concentrate on telling them how great they look and how the colors they chose are complimentary. Then by conversation I try to discover what they are really interested in and let them expound a little on their interests. Teens like to see their peers in trouble for great expressions. Young children like to see me in trouble so get your finger stuck or drop something on your toe and they will forget where they are. I have many more tricks on my web site.

  • Abdulwahab Alhajji December 25, 2009 01:10 am

    beautiful advice and photos , thanks a lot =)

  • Megan DiPiero December 24, 2009 11:18 am

    When I'm shooting couples I like to say very dramatically: "Now look at each other with eyes of love." Either they do and I get a great picture, or they don't and burst out laughing while I snap great pictures. Win-win line that works every time.

  • Bill Kauffman December 24, 2009 11:02 am

    I photograph a lot of men, and you want to talk about uneasy subjects, wow, this is the challenge of my life. In the studio, I pull out a pink Boa, the first reaction is "what, with big eyes", then the laughter starts, and usually last for a while, I even take a few shots with the Boa drapped around the shoulder, after that every thing is great fun, including a few snickers now and then,

  • Don Ebberts December 24, 2009 06:11 am

    My wife was having trouble getting my kids to smile for a photo. They were about 10 & 12 at the time. She tried getting them to say "Cheese" and all kinds of other things and it just didn't work. Finally she was so exasperated she told them to say "Shit!". They cracked up and gave her some great smiles. Obviously, we have to be careful who we do that around but they are 29 & 27 now and we still us that little trick in our family to get good smiles.

  • Luis Alvarez December 21, 2009 07:18 pm

    Good post, this is a big topic. I would like to add two things which work well for me. Usually, when starting the photosession, I always start with the pictures where the model is holding something in his/her hands. That really makes start up easy and gives content for conversation or jokes.
    My second trick is music. I always ask the model about their favorite music. That really helps put the right vibe and make it easier to speak calmly, make jokes and dance around a little.


  • irene jones December 19, 2009 03:28 am

    I agree with previous comments, getting emotion is about your rapport with the subject. I shoot a lot of weddings, high school seniors, and families. Each is a little different. For wedding parties I've found that if I give them a chance to be silly also they loosen up and I get better smiles from the whole group. On top of being a comedians you need to be a physiologist too, since having the ability to read people quickly is essential. Not everyone has the same sense of humor, you have to be able to make a connection quickly and build from there. Like any good comedian, you need to know your audience.

    Here's some of my wedding portraits. I think there is a good amount of real emotion, or at least that's what my customers tell me!

  • Matt December 19, 2009 02:57 am

    Super article! I just recently found myself in an uncomfortable spot while out shooting my very first set of engagement photos. The groom to be lost his smile not even halfway through and my already fragile confidence just shattered. I was able to regroup a bit but these tips would have been awesome to have top of mind.

  • first home buyers savings account December 18, 2009 05:56 pm

    What a life style they have....Also I am agree with MeiTeng, that Lifestyle photographs is our regular activity, it is mirror of work dairy. Thanks,

  • Matthew Dutile December 18, 2009 05:11 pm

    Hi MeiTeng. Lifestyle photography is photos of people in everyday, fun situations. Generally they involve groups, but can also be singles. Like; four friends playing at the beach, a camping trip, etc. You find them every day in ads from clothing companies like GAP to stores like Wal-Mart.

  • MeiTeng December 18, 2009 04:28 pm

    What is lifestyle photography? Can anyone share on this?

  • Jason Collin Photography December 18, 2009 03:54 pm

    I like to do one or two silly shots per portrait session myself. Below is one sample during a senior portrait, one of the first silly shots I ever made, and now I use it as my base for silly shots: just ask the person to cross their eyes!

    [eimg url='' title='silly-portrait-pose.jpg']

  • Ryan December 18, 2009 12:37 pm
    this is a good lens

  • Doug Pruden December 18, 2009 12:17 pm

    When my kids were small and having a pouty mood, we used to stare at them and warn them, "don't you DARE smile". We would then exaggeratedly pretend to catch them starting to smile (they weren't yet) and make a big fuss re-warning them, just elevating the ridiculous situation in an over the top manner with each warning until eventually, they broke into laughter, despite themselves.

  • Trude December 18, 2009 10:51 am

    My tactic recently (since I've been shooting a lot of people in the under-30 crowd) is to quote silly lines from America's Next Top Model. Gets them laughing every time, whether they watch the show or not. :)

  • stephen December 18, 2009 10:29 am

    I use Canon (50D) what would be a very good lens for portrait?

    Thank you?

  • Ron Gibson December 18, 2009 08:36 am

    This post does work if you want to make your model laugh, but the idea behind the post is more important. How to get an emotion out of your model?

    A photographer needs to create a rapport with their subject. Try to spark emotions that will add to the subject matter of your images. Tell them to think of sad stories, dying, happy children playing, or about the last sexual encounter they had. Try to mix it up (within reason), and get that shot.

    Saying that, it's best to try to stay focused and cut down on your waiting periods. When something comical does happen, which happens every shoot, and you are trying to avoid those emotions- it's best to just have a good laugh. Then tell everyone to take a deep breath and shake it off. I actually tell my subject to have a good full body shake- and we get right back to it.

    Happy shooting!

  • Jack Fussell December 18, 2009 07:44 am

    Good the first image. I need to learn how to do this...I can get so serious on shoots...trying to make sure all goes well...I need to let up and laugh myself.

  • Rahul Pathak December 18, 2009 06:48 am

    Great post and advice. I think if you can generate and capture genuine emotion, that is fantastic.