When I first got started in photography I thought I had things all figured out regarding cameras, lenses, exposure, and even some post-processing. However, the first time I greeted a client on location for an actual photo shoot, I realized just how clueless and ill-prepared I really was, and found myself nervous to the point of almost being nonfunctional. I was so uptight and anxious about the whole photo session, that I’m still not sure how I managed to get any good pictures, but thankfully things have gotten much better in the subsequent years.
Even though I have greatly expanded my knowledge and experience, I still get a little nervous when meeting with clients. I have found several tips that work well to calm the butterflies in my stomach and help make for much more enjoyable and productive portrait sessions, both for me and my clients. I’m going to share them with you.
The Three Phases of Portrait Anxiety
While this triad of temporal distinctions is entirely nonscientific in nature, I have found that my stress and anxiety regarding a given portrait session generally can be divided into three discrete phases:
- Phase 1 – The days or weeks leading up to a photo session. This lasts the longest, but thankfully doesn’t require impromptu decisions and instead gives you time to be thoughtful, analytical, and reflective. The downside is it lasts the longest! This unfortunately means you have way too much time to over-think and over-analyze everything.
- Phase 2 – The short time before you start the session. This is usually five or ten minutes, interacting with the client at the session but before you start taking pictures. This period is brief but critical, as it can set the tone for the entire photo session and if you’re not properly relaxed things can go downhill quickly.
- Phase 3 – The photo photo session itself, which usually lasts about an hour, unless you are doing a wedding or other type of protracted engagement. Things can get very tricky here, but if you have taken the time to properly relax during Phases 1 and 2 you will probably find Phase 3 to be smooth sailing.
Here are my tips for helping yourself relax, take things easy, and get mentally prepared for the photo session. While not all of these may apply to you, I do hope they are general enough to be useful to you in similar situations.
Phase 1: Preparing for the Session
Adele, one of the most popular singers in the world, recently told Rolling Stone that she gets stage fright. “I’m scared of audiences,” she said. “I don’t like touring. I have anxiety attacks a lot.” As a photographer this gives me some degree of comfort knowing that my nervousness leading up to a photo session is not all that different than world-famous singers and actor,s who perform in front of thousands of people every day. Even though I have done many portrait sessions, I still get nervous beforehand, but have found a few tips and tricks to help calm myself down and relax in order to clear my head and do the best job I can.
Talk to someone supportive
Whether it’s a friend, a coworker, a family member, or even a former client, spending time talking about the upcoming session is one of the best ways to clear my head and get some reassurance. For me it’s my wife, who is a solid rock and a constant reminder that I can do the job. She and I discuss my goals for the session, look at examples from other photographers, and talk about what has worked and not worked in past sessions. These conversations always help me calm down, while also giving me a big boost of confidence that goes a long way towards a successful photo session.
Look at your own successful images
Look at your own past images as a reminder that you are fully capable of doing the job. Sometimes in the days leading up to a photo session I start to wonder if I really have what it takes to get the shots I want, but looking through my own portfolio always offers enough reassurance to bring me out of that funk and back to reality. Yes, each session has its own unique challenges, but reminding myself of what I have done before, is a great way to relax and prepare for what is about to come.
Have a plan
Have a plan for the session and make a list of poses and shots you want to get. It can be a mental list, but a physical list will help you be sure to get everything you want, and will allow your clients see that you are prepared if you cross items off it during the shoot. One of the last things you want is to get back to your computer and realize you forgot to get a shot of grandma holding her new grandbaby, the happy couple underneath their special tree, or little Timmy in his special new cowboy boots that his mother emailed you about the day before. Making a list will help you avoid this scenario while also helping you to de-stress before the session.
Scout the location ahead of time
Visit the location to make sure you know what it’s like, and how you can use it to frame your shots. Ideally this would be at the same time of day as your photo session, so you can make sure you know what the lighting will look like on the day of the shoot. This will help you see all sorts of things you might miss if you just show up the day of the session, and it will make you look like a confident professional as you direct your clients.
Know your gear
Know your gear inside and out. It sounds silly but you don’t want to freeze up in the middle of a session because you can’t find the menu that lets you change white balance, or you forgot which dial changes the shutter speed. If you find that you need a quick refresher re-read the manual, watch online tutorials, or just spend 15 minutes poring through the menus and buttons. When it comes time to do the photo session, you can rest assured that these planning efforts will have been put to good use.
Practice with test subjects
If you’re going to do a newborn session, practice with stuffed animals. If you’re on location, get a friend or family member to go out with you a week beforehand and do some test shots, so there are as few surprises as possible when you go out there with the client.
Make a gear packing list
Make a list of all the gear you need and check it off one-by-one as you pack up for the session. You don’t want to get to the location and realize you forgot something at home, or left a battery on the charger. I once did an outdoor shoot and realized all too late that I forgot my lens hoods, and almost immediately started hyperventilating into my camera bag when the clients asked for some shots with the sun behind them, just out of the frame. Things ended up working out, but a simple list would have prevented a great deal of stress during the shoot.
Phase 2: On your mark, get set…
One of the weirdest parts about a portrait session can be the few minutes when you are visiting with the client before you start actually taking pictures. What do you do? What do you talk about? How do you strike a balance between friendly and professional? It’s enough to send even the most seasoned photographer’s blood pressure to the top of the charts, and messing up this brief pre-session period can send the rest of the gig into a tail spin.
In my experience one of the best ways to help you and the client relax is to go on the offence instead of playing defence. Don’t stand around waiting for people to talk to you, as they are probably feeling just as awkward, and are likely waiting for you, the person in charge, to take the lead. Even if smalltalk is not your forté, you need to be willing to strike up a conversation and have a few things ready to talk about as you are getting set up. In a nutshell, make this time all about the client, and helping them feel comfortable.
As you are getting ready to start taking pictures talk to your clients about their life outside of the photo session, and find out what hobbies they have, what they like doing in their spare time, or even what they are doing over the coming weekend. Ask questions to show you are interested, and use this time to also run some ideas past the client in terms of what you will be doing. This helps build a sense of rapport and respect, and can go a long way towards putting everyone at ease. Your clients might be just as nervous as you, but getting the chance to get to know each other will help put everyone at ease and also help them feel comfortable if you have lots of lighting, lenses, or other gear. If there are kids involved, bring some toys or snacks (nothing crumbly as it will get on their clothes) to win them over. At my most recent family session I gave the two-year-old a fake toy camera and asked if he could help me get some photos. This not only won him over but his parents too, and a week later, before they had even seen their photos, they were telling some friends about how much they enjoyed the picture session.
Phase 3: Here we go!
Even though you have done everything in your power to chill out, relax, and put your mind at ease leading up to the photo session, things can still be a little nerve-wracking as you go about the process of actually taking pictures. At any moment there are a thousand decisions to be made, and trying to balance everything can be enough to make your palms sweat. My favorite trick for relaxing during a photo session is to simply make things fun. Don’t bark out orders, but instead have your clients do silly things like make faces or try just-for-fun poses. This will help you loosen up, and also give you a chance to build on the rapport you have already established at the beginning. Clients can tell if their photographer is wound up tight and needs to chill out, and if you make things more fun and lighthearted as opposed to all business, you will find yourself loosening up, relaxing, and getting much better results.
These are just a few of my favorite tips and tricks to help me calm my nerves before and during a photo session, but what about you? How do you approach your portrait sessions and what do you do to help yourself relax? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
People photography week
This week on dPS we’re featuring articles all about different kinds of people photography including portrait, event and travel photography. See all the previous ones below, and watch for more people photography articles over the next few days.
- How to Take Low Key Head-shots
- How to Do a One Light Portrait Setup and Use it as Your Back-up Plan
- Travel People Photography – Tips and Pitfalls
- 8 Tips for Photographing Men
- 24 Diverse Images That Showcase People Photography
- Weekly Photography Challenge – People Photography
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- Tips for Getting Yourself to Relax as a Photographer and Have More Successful Portrait Sessions
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES