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Tips to Help You Prepare for a Successful Portrait Session

One of my favorite types of photo shoots is families with kids. It’s fun to spend an hour talking and laughing with people while taking photos. I enjoy being a small part of creating images that will preserve their precious memories for the rest of their lives. But these types of sessions don’t always work out as you might like, and even when you think you have all your ducks in a row something might pop up at the last minute that sends everything into a tail spin. Fortunately, with a bit of planning and preparation you can put a few things in place that will help your portrait sessions be freeing, fulfilling, and fun for everyone involved.

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Set Expectations

Whether you are taking photos of friends, family, clients, or even your own kids, one of the most important things you can do is make sure you are going to deliver what they want. Your subjects will have their own preconceived notions of what types of pictures they are looking for, and they might not always be the same as what you have in mind. If you can make sure everyone is on the same page before you even take out your camera, the entire process from posing, to shooting, to editing, will be much, much smoother.

Whether you know your subjects or not, it’s important to make sure they are familiar with, and approve of, your own picture style and portrait process. Showing your subjects some of your existing work is a good way to give them an idea of your style and help them see if you would be a good fit. This can be as simple as sending them some sample photos by email, directing them to an online portfolio, or sitting down and having a conversation about the type of photo shoot they are wanting.

Every photographer has a unique approach to his or her craft, and interacts with people in their own way. Do you take classic headshot portraits or do you like to experiment with various poses? Do you let subjects, especially kids, run around and play or do you like to control every element of the photo shoot? Do you shoot outdoors, in a studio, or a mix of both? Will they be able to share the photos online with a watermark, or do you require them to order physical prints? This might seem a bit too nitty-gritty, but dealing with these issues up front will save you a lot of hassle and headaches down the line.

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Not all photographers have their own website, but if you do you can include information such as the types of sessions you normally do, how much you charge, where you are willing to travel, etc. This information is good to know, but it often takes a little more to see if you are really the right person for your subjects. Think of the last time you went to a restaurant: did you just order right from the menu, or did you ask your waiter some questions about the food before deciding what you want? To address this, it’s good to have some sort of dialog with your subjects before you take a single photo. You can encourage people to contact you via email or a form on your website, send you a text or tweet, or post questions on a public Facebook page. It might seem like a lot of work to go through all this, but the more you work to set proper expectations for your subjects, the smoother the entire process will go.

One of the best ways to safeguard yourself against liability in case your subjects are unhappy, is to use a contract. This is especially important if you plan on charging money, and critical if you are doing something big like a wedding or bar mitzvah. If people are paying big bucks for your services, it’s essential that everyone is on the same page upfront. Without a formal contract wherein all parties involved agree on the services to be provided, things can devolve into he-said-she-said after your clients get the photos. Don’t think of this as a punitive measure, though – approach the contract as an opportunity for both you and your clients to help safeguard against miscommunication and make sure what you are going to provide aligns with what they want.

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Scout the Location

If you shoot indoors, this step is obviously not all that important. But if you plan on taking pictures outdoors it is critical that you know the area first. Just because you drove past a nice park or a friend told you about a rustic barn, doesn’t mean these places will be good locations for photo shoots. Go to the locations in person, get out of your vehicle, and walk around to see what things are like. If at all possible, do this at the same time of day you plan on taking pictures to make sure the light is similar, and ask yourself questions such as:

  • Where is the light coming from?
  • What features of the location are shaded?
  • What background elements can I use in the shots?
  • What existing features (fence, wall, bench, pond, tree, staircase, etc.) can I use for posing my subjects?
  • Are there lots of people around, and if so, what angle can I shoot from to avoid them in the background?
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Normally this spot is full of people, but we picked a time to do the shoot when it was relatively quiet.

Even if you have already been to a location such as a field, beach, or alley, it’s still a good idea to check it out before your photo session if you have never used it specifically for taking pictures. If you approach the location with a critical photographer’s eye you will notice many things that have probably escaped your gaze previously, but could severely impact the photo session if not taken into account. It’s also a good idea to have a backup location in mind in case of bad weather, but make sure your clients are well aware of this and are able to meet you there if you do have to change plans.

Bring Blankets (and more)

This last tip might sound trite, but it has saved me on many occasions. And every time I forgot to bring blankets, I wished I had. Since I do most of my photo sessions outdoors there are many things simply out of my control. Some of these can be mitigated, like using reflectors or a flash if the light is poor, or having your subjects wear warm clothes if a cold front comes through the night before, but it’s amazing how many times a simple blanket has saved the day when all hope seemed lost.

Blankets can give your subjects something to sit on, wrap themselves up in, or just play with as you are snapping their photos. Blankets can comfort fussy children, diffuse a tense situation, or even (and yes this has happened to me more than once) cover up the mess left behind by a flock of geese the day before. They can also serve the practical function of adding a bit of color to your photos, or complementing the clothes that your subjects are wearing.

There are other items that come in handy as well. Recently I was photographing a couple and their infant son, and though I had already scouted the location at the specific time the shoot was to take place, I did not take into account one critical element: dew on the ground. I wanted to get some shots of their son holding his head up and looking around, but since the grass was all wet it nearly turned our fun photo shoot into a chore for the parents as well as the child. Thankfully I brought an old piece of canvas along, which not only gave the boy a soft dry surface to lay on, but was also big enough to accommodate the whole family on some wider shots.

baby-canvas

The ground was too wet to lay on, so I asked his parents if we could use a simple piece of canvas. They obliged, and the final result turned out quite well.

If you are taking pictures of children, bring some toys that they can play with, or kid’s books for them to read. Better yet, contact their parents beforehand and have them bring their own favorite toys and books from home. I also like to have some sundry joke items like fake teeth or googly eyes to help make kids smile, which tend to work well for teens and adults too. If your subjects are a bit older, they might want to wear a favorite jacket, bring an artifact such as a football or set of golf clubs, or even have their photo taken with a pet. While you might not be able to provide all of these yourself, a little bit of preparation beforehand will give you an idea of what they want and help you go about planning for the shoot so you are not caught off guard.

child-book

This boy’s favorite book not only gave him something to do while taking photos, but it will be a nice reminder when his parents look back on this picture years later.

These tips are things that have worked for me, but are there other tips you have for successful photo shoots? Share your ideas in the comments section below.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.