Tips for Boosting Your Confidence Doing People Photography

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We all know most people aren’t comfortable being photographed. What’s less well documented is many photographers actually feel nervous about photographing people.

It’s understandable when you think about it. Since we know that the people we’re photographing don’t want to be photographed, we feel we’re invading their space. We also feel just as ‘on show’ as the subject.

Feelings follow actionsWe have to perform, be charming, build rapport, make people smile, effortlessly change the settings on our camera and ultimately show them how great they look in the photo. It’s a lot of pressure!

But hey, there’s never going to be a big sympathy movement for photographers, so we have to overcome our confidence demons on our own. I know how you feel. I used to quiver with fear when photographing people, too. Over the years I’ve picked up many helpful tricks and now I can actually enjoy the spotlight and hectic pressures of a large wedding. Here are a few for you:

Tips for boosting your confidence doing people photography

Plan the photo before you speak to them

Plan the photo Plan the photo3

Once someone has agreed to be photographed you don’t want to be standing there flapping about wondering what you’re going to do with them. Have a clear image in your head that’s based on the available light, backgrounds, and the message you want to convey through the environment and their pose.

Think about why you wanted to photograph them in the first place and then use your composition, posing and photographic skills to tell the story. The better prepared you are the more confident you’ll feel. You’ll be able to give your subject instructions and explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.

For example, you could say “Your hair looks fantastic and if we take the photo over here then the sun will create a beautiful halo as it shines through it.” The model will feel great, you’ll feel in control and you’ll really sound like you know what you’re doing.

Help your model feel confident

Help model feel confident 2 Help model feel confident

The more relaxed your model is, the easier the process will feel for you too. Stay positive. Even if you can see you’ve screwed up a photo just keep sounding positive. Tell them how well they’re doing and never let silence descend. As soon as you stop talking, your model will instantly tense up. Imagine someone staring at you without talking and you’ll know how the model feels.

Often when we’ve just gotten started I’ll say, “Right, I’m just going to take a couple of practice photos to make sure I’ve got the exposure perfect, so you can pull funny faces at me if you like.”. Whether they pull a face or not they’ll often be more relaxed or even smiling naturally at this point. Because of this, some of the best images in a session can be your first.

How to keep the conversation going

Keep conversation going

We’ve already established that silence is kryptonite for a photography session, but what do you say to help take the model’s mind off the photography? As a portrait and wedding photographer I prepare what I’m going to say during the session almost as much as I plan the photos.

Here is a selection of the techniques I use in different circumstances:

  • When photographing a group I might ask everyone to look at the person with the smelliest feet, or who spends the most time in the shower, etc.
  • I ask them to keep their eyes open for as long as possible. You start with a glazed expression but as their eyes begin to dry out they start to smile and then laugh. I turn it into a competition if there are several people.
  • Do you have any nicknames for each other?
  • For group photos I have a method for avoiding people blinking. I ask everyone to shut their eyes and then open them on the count of three. Just after I say ‘three’ I tell them to remember where I’m standing!
  • I ask them to guess the two people I get told I look like (it’s the comedian Harry Hill and the TV chef Heston Blumenthal, by the way)

Keep conversation going2

For travel portraits some of the above ideas might work, but you can also just ask simple questions like:

  • What do you love most about this place?
  • Is there anywhere you recommend I go?
  • Where’s the best place to eat?
  • Do you have any hobbies?
  • Don’t forget to tell them how beautiful their country and food is!

To help make the conversation even more natural I sometimes use a tripod and remote shutter button once I have the photo composed. This means I can maintain eye contact and build rapport more effectively. It helps the model feel like they’re in a proper conversation rather than staring at a piece of machinery.

Talk with them first

For a posed photo you should speak with the model first, whether you’re photographing a stranger or an old friend. Tell them why you want to take their photograph (I love your hair, you look cool, etc.) so the model isn’t left wondering.

When I’m on holiday I like to chat with the locals before I ask for the photo. Maybe I’ll buy something from their shop or pretend I need directions to get the conversation going. Once you start chatting and build rapport it feels much easier and more natural to ask for the photo.

*Note: for more read:  Practical Tips To Build Your Street Photography Confidence  for Tips for Photography People when Travelling

Talk with model first Talk with model first3

Camera tricks for the super-nervous

If you’re really too shy to speak with people, or want a reportage style – then the obvious solution is to use a long lens. However, it can feel a bit creepy doing this and it’s even more embarrassing when you get caught!

An alternative is to put your camera on a tripod and use a remote shutter. This way people don’t realize you’re taking a photo at that exact moment because you’re not looking through the viewfinder. You then wait for people to walk into your composition and fire the shutter at the right moment. You’ll have to pre-focus the camera and use a deep depth of field to increase your chances of a sharp image.

Another method is to use a wide angle lens and place the person you want to photograph at the edge of the photo. The camera won’t be pointing at them so your motive is less obvious.

Camera tricks for the nervous

Feelings follow actions

When talking about building confidence most people talk about ‘positive thinking’. Psychological tests have shown that in reality feelings follow actions. What this means is that if you act like you feel confident then you’ll actually become confident.

If you smile, project your voice, dress sharp and stand up tall you’ll actually start to feel more assured.

Do you have any techniques, games or phrases you use when photographing people? Write them in the comments box below – we’d love to hear them. If you really want to step out of your comfort zone try How to Photograph Strangers: the 100 Strangers Project.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Dan Waters runs Get Pro Photo Club, where he shows dedicated students exactly how to become a full time photographer. He also practices what he preaches and is one of the leading wedding photographers in Peterborough and was voted one of the UK's top 10 breakthrough wedding photographers by Hitched and Photo Professional magazine.

  • By far the most important aspect of photography, and one I really need to work on. Thanks for these great tips, I like your ideas for keeping the eyes open.

  • ColininOz

    As long as you have enough megapixels to play with – and most modern DSLRs have tons – and are not looking to produce poster sized prints , you can compose with plenty of spare space and crop down viciously in post. This allows you to avoid pointing that threatening lens straight at a shy subject. As in this one.

  • Michael Owens

    Heston, thank you for the great article, its something I have struggled with before, and still do. It’s all about self-belief, have that confidence in your own ability and just be yourself when approaching people.

    I often worry about strangers in a studio setting, having no experience, how do I interact with people, kids especially, how do I keep people entertained enough to make them relax, and enjoy the session, rather than being there to be ‘papped’, uncomfortbaly.

    (Thanks Dan)

  • Thanks Michael. We spend years learning about photography and then we discover that we have a lot to learn about the business side to get people to hire us. After all that we get a client and then we freeze up because we’re not sure what to say. Over the years I’ve learned lots of tricks to keep the conversation going (check out the section on ‘Keeping the conversation going’ in the article above as it has some ideas. Asking lots of questions is good because it makes people think and they forget you’re photographing them while they’re thinking. I always meet my clients before they’ve hired me so I get to know them a little before I ever shove a camera in their face. Genuine enthusiasm, encouragement and smiling is essential. If you’re not happy and excited then they won’t be either. Ask kids what ideas they have as they spend their lives being told what to do so they’ll love you for asking for their opinion. I also demonstrate certain poses I want them to do which often gets a laugh if it’s a feminine pose! I often do this while getting them to mirror my movement at the same time which is excellent for rapport building and getting a smile. Hope that helps. Dan.

  • My business model for family portraits is to encourage people to invest in wall portraits, so using a longer lens gives me the best of both worlds.

  • Thanks Lauchlan. We only realise how important it is when it’s too late 😉 Of course when paying clients are involved they’ll be far more likely to recommend you if they enjoyed the experience as much as the photos.

  • Michael Owens

    Yes Dan, that’s a great help. Thanks for sharing. Much appreciated!

  • Simon

    Really good tips Michael. I will give these things a try. Thanks for a great post!

  • Sherry

    I photograph children, the hardest part is getting them to have a natural smile. A lot of them will try too hard and it causes issues. When this happens I will ask them to tell me about their favorite cartoon or activity. Their face lights up with excitement and you get a great photo.

  • hard3xkorps@hotmail.com

    Wish I had read this….went to a biker rally and lots of fascinating people and machines….but was too nervous to even shoot the bikes. At the end of the night, just saying ‘nice paint’ got them really talking….but I had lost the light.

    Next time.

  • Dave

    Great tips! I have a family shoot coming up and although I kind of know the parents, I’ll still be working to create the best image I can for them so I’m going to chat with the family before the shoot. I want their ideas to come across in the final image making it more personal to them as well as enjoying the experience. These tips will come in very handy on the day.

  • Absolutely – it’s all in the preparation. I have a family session in an hour and I’m rehearsing what I’m going to talk about, the exact locations we’ll be going to in the wood, how I’m going to get them to smile and how I’m going to pose them. ESP: expressions sell photographs!

  • Good idea. The more you make kids believe they’re managing the session the better. If they feel like they’re constantly told what to do they’ll get bored very quickly.

  • Brucer

    This is great! thank you for sharing your ideas.

  • Michael

    Best place l have ever seen to take photos mountain creek game park Gympie Qld it is amazing

  • Graham Taylor

    I found sometimes if I walked through the session in my head. Poses conversation etc I was more at ease when it came to the day. Also have a few stalk phrases ready. In weddings I always found there was someone that wanted to be the joker. So I would use them as a foil. Never rude but always stretched as far as I could. At the end I always thanked them for helping out.
    For kids the fun part is spending time in the toy shops looking at the latest toys. Watching the old cartoon like Dispicable Me. One thing explain to the adults that you will give the instructions and not them. Be bold with this one. Too many voice createsconfusion for the kid and then you will have lost the session. Also be firm if Granny comes!

  • Appreciate the tips, but as to all people contact professions you must have confidence in yourself to deliver. Once that hurdle is jumped, the rest will fall into place.

  • I don’t believe it, the group photo half way down are my neighbours!

  • Chrisxpro

    Me when photographing children I will first play with dem as well become dair fun master that period. But wen it comes to adult I always u de event of de day or wat is happening that time to bring their attention to make them relax and smile as well.

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