How do YOU get Portrait Subjects to Relax?

How do YOU get Portrait Subjects to Relax?

Image by Priscilla Lumbreras Fernández

This is a question I’m often asked and its one that there are many answers to – so I thought it might be a fun discussion question for the wider dPS community.

When photographing people – how do you get them to relax and be at ease in front of the camera?

Some people are naturals as portrait subjects but many people ‘freeze’ – particularly when sitting for a photographer that they don’t know – so what techniques do you use to help them to loosen up?

I’d love to hear your answers on this in comments below but here are a few answers from those on our Facebook page who I asked this to last week:

“Smiling always helps, be in a good mood yourself even if you don’t feel like it. Your mood will often set theirs.” – Alisa Lillico

“To get an honest smile, I put myself out there, make dumb jokes, make fun of myself and find what made them break “self consciousness” for a real laugh, then riff on that. I ask a challenging question for a serious or unconventional portrait. The ability to make a connection across cultural and language barriers, across age and income differences, across all the walls that enclose and define us is the most important talent a photographer can bring to the moment.” – Stacy Ericson

“Music.. I ask them to bring a favorite CD… or sometimes, i’ll put on an old stand-up comedy CD… or have a comedy DVD playing on the TV behind me. Natural smiles are the Best!” – Scott Garland

“I usually talk the whole way through the session, asking them questions about them, also I do the poses I am asking them to do so they see that I would do it to, then I explain to them why (ie. this will make you look even skinnier, more curvy, draw attention to your eyes, etc.), then I go back to talking about whatever we were before the posing like it’s no big deal and take the photo.” – Arpil Roberson Huggler

“I usually do a meet up with them. That way they can meet me and my team on a comfortable atmosphere. Hang out, chit-chat and get to know each other. Then on the day of the shoot we have some things to talk about!” – Jay Rodriguez

OK – now it’s over to you – how do you help a portrait subject relax?

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Darren Rowse is the editor and founder of Digital Photography School and SnapnDeals. He lives in Melbourne Australia and is also the editor of the ProBlogger Blog Tips. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter at @digitalPS or on Google+.

Some Older Comments

  • Angela Jones June 10, 2011 05:35 am

    I do my best to get my subjects laughing, once they are laughing they become more affable to being in front of the lens. I tell them funny stories about my life or work I've done (I never give names). Once they realize I'm just as human as they are, they tend to relax.

  • Paul June 3, 2011 09:54 pm

    I carry a mini football rattle and crank it up when working with children or group shots. Helps break the ice

  • Cdokuchie June 3, 2011 07:05 am

    I just took some prenatal portraits of a good friend. This is a women who runs and hides when she sees a camera, but she really wanted to have some keepsakes of her only pregnancy. So I brought my three year son with me and we went and played. We laughed and joked with my son and her dog and the portraits turned out great! She didn't even notice I had my camera out.

  • Dan Brown June 3, 2011 01:53 am

    This is what I basically do. When with the sitter so I can to know him or her before I shoot. I always leave the lens cap on so they will say something, this will break the tension. The sitter will make a comment about this. ZTell jokes or have music. Show them some of the photos and make a remark that they are doing greart.

  • iurasog June 2, 2011 01:28 am

    Talk and joke will do the thing. Communication is the key as in every aspect when working with people...
    That's how i do it ....

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer May 31, 2011 02:07 pm

    I get my portrait subjects to relax by promoting my portrait packages as specializing in candid style. Then I usually just have my portrait subjects to do what they do. For example this guitarist I photographed at sunset time on a local beach:

    He, himself, wanted the photographs to be just of him playing with no posing or anything like that. It turned out to be one of my best ever photo shoots.

  • wayne May 31, 2011 10:20 am

    I always make them feel safe no matter what type of shoot. I explain the rules for me and other people working for me in front of the models. Then I just let them pose anyway they want and before we know it they are receiving instructions from me as well as making suggestions for me. I once had this model show up in a cute little summer dress I was thinking oh o she is going to be a stiff model but after while she turned out to be the best of the 4 models I was using that day. All because she felt safe and was part of the process and not just a object for photograph. Treat them like you would want to be. Just like everyday!

  • Cheryl Gaskin May 31, 2011 07:42 am

    Women especially older ones tend to be really selfconscious and always tell themselves that they take a terrrible photo. Now I show them a before and after shot. But the after shot is one where i have put a loved one into the frame (so they think) but dont include them in the final shot. Works every time.. Even tried it with my own mother.. And got something I will cherish forever!

  • Rich Copley May 31, 2011 07:01 am

    This is one of the things that truly separates good from great portrait photographers, and it is the No. 1 thing I know I need to work on. A few things I have either witnessed or practiced that have seemed to work:
    ~ When the subject arrives, get right to work as soon as they are ready. If they are nervous, any downtime they spend waiting for you will just build the tension.
    ~ Make it a collaboration. Talk to them about their ideas, what they want to do and try. The more they are involved in creating the shots, the more invested they will be in them (and the less they will think about being nervous).
    ~ Assure them that you all are there to make good, hopefully great pictures. Everyone remembers the dreaded yearbook shoots where the photographer snapped two or three pictures and they had to live with the least-bad one the rest of their lives. Assure them this is not like that, and we're going to work together to get something they will like and treasure.

  • Niki Jones May 31, 2011 04:40 am

    A model friend of mine once told me 'always carry a hip flask'. Apparently it not only helps with the nerves but also helps when you're on Hampstead Heath in mid-winter -

    I'm not sure that's an approach you should take with too many people though.

  • Mike May 31, 2011 01:08 am

    I always ask what the client need from me and what they want their photos to look like. Based on what they want, i ask them to imagine a scenario for them to follow. Often, I would do the poses myself to show them how it is done and to make them feel at ease. It also helps to have a sincere smile and a happy disposition. It also helps to crack a few jokes or talk to the clients. Most importantly, have fun. If the clients see that the photographer is having fun, they would most likely ease up themselves.

  • CharlieJ May 30, 2011 10:56 pm

    Generally, I talk to my models... and take a few test shots while asking them questions or telling them about something not related to their shoot. I also show them a few images on the LCD of the camera, so they know what I am doing. Most importantly, I use their name. People like to hear their name being spoken out loud. It makes them feel important... and when you add making the model feel secure by showing them some of their images, they will relax more quickly.
    One other thing, at some point during the shoot, I try to get a funny, awkward or purposeful "outtake". I show that to them, we both laugh and carry on... it ALWAYS help both of us to remind ourselves we are human and need to have some fun.

  • THE aSTIG @ May 30, 2011 08:28 pm

    I rarely do portrait photography as my site is focused really on car photography. But on the occassions when I do portrait photography such as for car show models, my experience is you really have to talk to your subject and establish rapport. Oh and yes as the commenter before me says, humor is always the key!

  • KateD May 30, 2011 06:32 pm

    If its an adult, I offer a glass of wine/champagne/beer. Works as a charm ;)

  • sigfried baterina May 30, 2011 10:59 am

    as i've said on facebook, humor is always the key...serious=boring.

  • Jim May 30, 2011 06:36 am

    I always try to chat with models/subjects before the shoot and discuss exactly what THEY want to get out of the session and let them know what I'm trying to achieve. I list 4-5 different shots.

    Of course, you're always telling them 'Great!' or 'This is working!" but there are times when I'll tell them to take a deep breath and 'Give me some attitude!" There are times when it is best to show them the LCD screen or computer (if you're tethered) and ask them 'Don't you think you look SO much better smiling?'

    I think it's essential to ensure they know it's a project -- and all of us are needed to make it work.

  • Heather May 30, 2011 06:04 am

    I normally just take portrait photographs of my friends and family, which is fairly easy because they are not afraid or nervous in front of me, but once I took portrait photos of daughter of my neighbour, for her mom's birthday. Guess what did the trick? Candies, lost and lots of them. And of course talking and smiling all the time.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck May 29, 2011 11:02 pm


    During my first ever portrait/studio shoot, I hid behind the camera and when I was asked, "So how do you want me to pose" I didnt know what to say. Afterall, I was the shooter and the subject was the model, right? They should know what to do! Now I spend much of the time talking, doing some preliminary guidance and some initial shots to get them used to the camera.

    What has been really fun is to bring an HD Monitor in and display the shots as they have been executed. The subjects love this immediate feedback (an I can see what really was shot too) and then really start to get into the fun and loosen up. Showing the small camera LCD got me onto this, but going BIG really was the key. Something to consider! I calibrated the monitor which helped with exposure as well.

    These two guys started off really slow and then...spontaneous fun!

  • lolowah Alsalhi May 29, 2011 10:28 pm

    Take time like for 15 min to know the person who , I'm going to take his/her pic ,, so I can know them , if it's kid play with them do some dump stuff , any thing that kids like

  • Yeelen May 29, 2011 08:11 pm

    I show them some pictures on the camera's LCD screen, telling them they don't "have to look this angry" or something like that. Or, I might just tell them to look as serious as possible (like here: ), which eventually makes them burst out laughing. Oh, the joy of having two friends on a shoot :D

  • Ben May 29, 2011 07:40 pm

    Good eye contact is really important. Too many photographers hide behind the camera, and this thwarts a connection with the subject.

  • sandro May 29, 2011 07:09 pm

    Talk talk talk... silly small-talk takes mind off, and works both for photographer and the model :)

  • Regina Marie May 29, 2011 04:03 pm

    This is something I'm still working on. I'm loving reading what you all do and look forward to hearing more.

  • Tonia Johnston photography May 29, 2011 11:44 am

    I just put t out there. I let them know that it's great if they are nervous because I am too! That usually breaks the ice even if I know them or have already chatted them up. I also let them know that the first 10 pictures or so is just me & my camera getting to know them so they don't have to worry about anything at all. Then I sing, tell them to join in if they know the song. Sometimes I even bust a move.

  • Jesse Kaufman May 29, 2011 11:22 am

    In the last engagement shoot I did, the groom-to-be brought liquor, unbeknownst to me (though, I came to the conclusion that the bride-to-be suggested it lol) ... they were quite pleased w/ their photos and i was actually able to get him to smile for quite a few pictures, for which I credit the liquor lol (that said, I can't advocate it as a good way for everyone haha)

  • Vrinda May 29, 2011 08:29 am

    I think what makes my subjects relax more than anything is the fact that even if I'm nervous (such as at the start of a shoot with someone I don't know so well) I don't let it show, I chat and babble about this and that, I get down on the ground even in rain and mud if it'll make a good shot, and if I do something silly or make a mistake (last time I was on a shoot I nearly knocked myself out with my flash) I'm the first to laugh at it. My lack of visible self-consciousness seems to lighten the mood a lot, and they know I'm not asking them to do anything I wouldn't do myself.

    I also talk a lot to my subjects, chattering about the light, our surroundings (I do mostly location shoots), and letting them know when I get shots I really like. I tend to have conversations and snap away all the while, I love the relaxed and open expressions I can capture this way.

    And finally, I firmly believe in everyone having their own photogenicity, and I think that comes across in how I deal with my subjects. I believe it, so they begin to relax and believe it as well.

  • Amandalynn May 29, 2011 08:16 am

    I get to know them. If they're adults we talk a lot through email prior to the session and then we continue that conversation during the shoot. If they're kids I add an extra half hour into the beginning of the session where we just hang out and I don't even take my camera out of the bag. When people get to know you they get to trust you and can let some of their nervousness subside.

    Another trick is to take some photos and say "Oh, these are just testing the light, don't worry, I'll delete them" and then we keep chatting. Often those are the keepers.

  • Tiffany May 29, 2011 07:26 am

    When I'm taking a group picture, especially with children, I usually shoot off a few frames, then go for the "silly face portrait." It helps break the "smile tension." Then we go back to the serious stuff.