What the People in Your Portraits Are DYING to Tell You

The background story

A few days ago, I got a very kind email from a woman who shared an experience with me of hiring a portrait photographer and being disappointed with the photos she got from the shoot.  Her letter is applicable to you as a photographer no matter whether you shoot for clients, or whether you just shoot your family and friends.  The email was heartbreaking to read, so I want to share a short portion of the email with all of you so you can prevent this terrible mistake that thousands of beginning portrait photographers make every single day.

Here’s the email, but make sure to have tissues on hand before you read it.  I changed it slightly for anonymity purposes.  :

Lifestyle photography

When this mother hired a photographer to take pictures of her with her daughter, THIS is what she wanted–a portrait that shows the love she has for her daughter

“A few years ago, my husband and I were struggling financially.  I was dying to have professional pictures of my little baby taken, but I wasn’t sure how I could possibly afford it.  I saved up some money, a LOT of money, so that one of the nearby, ‘Mom gone photographers,’ could capture the precious images of my 2 week old baby girl, ‘just like the ones in the magazines.’

Her website had beautiful photos on it, and she was recommended by a neighbor…so I paid the $150 sitting fee, and reluctantly agreed to the $300 minimum purchase.

Sadly…. when the proofs were uploaded….I cried. They were nothing like I had imagined they would be, and none of the poses or shots that I had told her I wanted to capture, were there.”

Heartbreaking, isn’t it?  Any photographer who has any pride in their work should be riveted to this article so they can avoid making a client go through this.

What are your clients DYING to tell you?

Your photography clients are dying to tell you that they want portraits that communicate.  They want lifestyle portraits.  If all they wanted was a portrait of their kid sitting on a black stool in front of a grey tie-dyed background, they would have gone to Walmart.  When clients go to a professional photographer, they want to receive a portrait that exemplifies what they love about the person you photographed.

The mother who takes her son to a photographer for senior portraits wants the photographer to take a picture–one instant in time–that shows who their son is.  The family that hires a photographer to take pictures of their family wants the photographer to capture an image–an instant in time–that shows the love that the family members have for each other.  Your neighbor who wants you to take pictures of their baby wants you to capture an image–an instant in time–that shows the tiny cute little baby in such a way that it makes anyone love the baby like the parents do.

Your clients are DYING to tell you that they want portraits that communicate.  They don’t have the words to explain this, so they tell you they want a “unique portrait” or “something different” or they say they want a “really cute picture of their baby”, but what they really mean is that they want a photo that reflects how they feel about the subject, or themselves.

Portrait of a girl with a snowboard

Wouldn’t a family cherish a photo like this far more than if the photographer just stuck this teenage girl in a dress and made her pose in front of some random flower bush?  This portrait COMMUNICATES volumes about the girl, and that is what the client wants the photographer to do.

Three keys to shooting communicative portraits

In general terms, the type of photography I am advocating in this article is a lifestyle portrait or any other photo that communicates something about the person.  I do not pretend that more formal portraits have no place in photography, but I would say that most clients I have worked with want something more.

Key #1: Know your subject.  Not surprisingly, the key to taking portraits that communicate is to get to know your subject before the shoot.  I usually see beginning professional photographers skip this step.  They book a shoot and then show up to take the person’s picture.  Most experienced professionals go one step further.  One crucial step that sets their work apart from the amateurs–the client meeting.  Either face to face or over the phone, the photographer discusses the shoot with the client for 20 minutes before the day of the shoot.  This time is critical because it allows the photographer to assess what type of portrait the client will like, what their personality is, and what the photos will be used for.

Skip the client meeting at your peril.  It takes more of your time, but I guarantee it will dramatically improve your shoots.  If you are pressed for time (who isn’t?) you can develop your own system to get the information you need about a client without spending the time to meet.  A simple online survey could be enough to help.

By the end of a client meeting, you should know (1) what the client loves, (2) the client’s personality, (3) how the pictures will be used, (4) and what type of portrait the client appreciates.

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Kids portrait photography

As a parent, I would be SO much happier getting a portrait like this from the photographer than a dull photo of my kid sitting on a bar stool nearly in tears from being forced to endure a portrait photo shoot.

Key #2: Shoot in a setting conducive to the client’s tastes.  Most photographers have a bad habit of repeatedly shooting in the same locations.  They simply find a nice park or garden and then shoot every client there until they think of a new spot.  But what if your senior portrait client LOVES karate?  Since we are no longer going to stick her in a dress and force her to pose in front of a rose bush, you will need to find a location that matches the shot.

If the client loves karate, you could take dramatic portraits of the high school senior doing jump kicks at a freeway underpass.  If your client is a mother who wants portraits of her baby, you could set up a warm studio with all the perfect props to bring out the cuteness of the little baby.  If your client is an engaged couple who works 12 hour days in New York City, you might want to have them dress up in business clothes and do more of an urban shot of them walking around the city together.

Your clients are not numbers.  They are people.  They want to be photographed in a setting that is attractive and familiar to them.

Model showing a happy and fun expression

For a client who wants something more traditional, you don’t have to do anything crazy. This simple portrait is traditional, but it still COMMUNICATES volumes about the woman’s warm, easy-going personality.

Key #3: Expression is king.  Sometimes it isn’t the location or the props that communicates–it is the personality.  Suppose a mother comes to you and asks you to take pictures of her daughter.  In the client meeting, you notice that the 9 year old girl is adorably sassy and “grown up.”  You might not have to travel to any creative location to capture this unique aspect of her personality.  You just need to know how to work with her during the shoot to make the personality come out.  For instance, you could ask her if she wants to do some ridiculous, made-up pose.  If the pose is silly and she is a sassy little girl, don’t you think her expression will be perfect when she answers the question?  Be ready to snap the photos FAST!

The more you practice taking portraits, the more you will see that expressions are easy to capture if you are creative in how you approach the situation.

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  1. Bartosz Zych

    I remember I’ve had clients frm a law firm one time. They wanted photo session in studio for their website. And they did not liked the results. Problem was not that i did not follow those steps you mention. Problem was i follewed them, but after shoot they said they wanted to have photos like other firm – only problem, other firm got photo session in their company place.
    What to do with such clients? I asked them what they wanted before shoot, i was doing reserch and all, and they found out what they wanted after they saw my photo…

  2. Mark Eric

    Great article Jim, all 3 points are so important. Lighting can be copied. Poses can be copied. If you really want to create unique work, base your sessions on your clients personalities- then each and every session will be unique.

  3. Frank Chagoya

    Thank you so much for this post! It gives me a new perspective on knowing my client and capturing their personality. I am not usually a people photographer and am pushing myself into the art of doing portraits. I will definitely be using your advice.

  4. Diana McCullough

    I shoot for free. I love taking pictures and creating portraits, I love trying new things and coming up with new poses!! I just LOVE PEOPLE!! I cant stop seeing pictures and cant pass an opportunity to show everyone what I see by capturing it in a photo. I wish I could reach all these people that cant afford to get their precious family photos!!

  5. Lara Redman

    what are some questions that could be asked in a pre-shoot meeting w a client, to find out what they are looking for and to get a feel for their personalities?

  6. Minna

    All right. I loved all of the tips that this article shared, and it was nice to know about all this. But frankly, I thought the author was very rude and downgrading on how it was written. I felt like a two year old with an angry preschool teacher talking down at me for coloring outside of the lines. This article basically told me that every time I have had a client pose in a garden in a pretty dress that meant nothing to them, I was doing it wrong, even when I got fantastic portraits that the senior and their parents adored. Or telling the five year old I was photographing to sit on his kitchen counter while I made him giggle for the portrait. Honestly photos of a karate kid under an overpass? Those are frankly quite old in my book. They look more posed and “unnattural” than a girl sitting next to a “random flower bush” and those kids I sit on a stool next to a gorgeous window with natural light that catches their hair and makes their eyes sparkle are “practically in tears from being forced to endure a portrait shoot.” I know I might be coming off as rude myself but next time word things a little better. The people I feel this article was written for are professionals who already have a steady flow of clients, and who know their way around portraits and their camera and studio, and I feel like this was degrading and down-talking and basically telling me everything I was doing was boring because instead of taking photos of my senior in her cheerleading costume waving around pom poms, I had her dress up nice and have fun with her makeup and hair and have her pose in the park.

  7. Ryan

    Good article. I find the claims of it coming across as rude and “downgrading” to be over the top. Could Jim see your comment as rude for saying the karate idea is “frankly quite old?” Who is the one talking down now? Good grief.

    If your clients are happy with your work, then good for you. Keep up the good work.

    Some of us who are just getting started (and maybe those who have been doing it a while too), will take the warning and try to avoid the mistake of not giving attention to the clients needs.I have personally, been on the client side when the photographer was more interested in their ideas of what looked good than what we wanted from the shoot. It was a trying experience.

    Thanks for the article Jim. I found it to be very helpful.

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