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. Melanie

    Great post! And so true. The mom from my last shoot loves to scrap book and wanted lots and lots of candids for her sons’ albums. Knowing this completely shifted my approach to the shoot and the kinds of pictures I primarily went after – more candids and less posed since they weren’t looking for “the one” for grandma’s Christmas gift.
    I have a question: I am a family portrait photographer using in Nikon D90. I have a 50mm 1.8 that I used for the majority of my shoots and a 18-105mm zoom lens that I use for nature or when I’m walking around. I’m wondering if you have any recommendations for my next purchase? Since I make my $$ in portraiture, logically I should invest in that side and am thinking of a 85mm prime lens or a flash. However, I know a 70-200mm lens would serve me well when shooting a family with a child that wants nothing to do with me :) (as recently happened) AND let me get some nice bird shots while out on hikes. Any thoughts or advice would be appreciated.

  2. Charles Stafford

    Great article. Knowing the back story helps immensely in photographing people. I have done shoots before without getting the story and there was no chemistry. Getting the client to talk is critical.

    Keep up the great articles.

  3. Ben @ EnglishPhotographer.com

    That photographer should certainly have refunded the money or reshot them until the client was happy.

    Maybe as photographers we feel a burning desire to express a personal vision – and this is certainly what leads to art – but if we’re paid to do a job, this desire has to be tempered against delivering what the client wants.

    @Ashley – the best route to better photography is to study as much great visual art, paintings and photography, as you can. Then practice and try and recreate it. When the results aren’t looking like you want, then look up specific techniques and understanding in books and blogs. By experimenting with other’s styles, you’ll soon find your own; and this is what will set you apart.

    Ben @ EnglishPhotographer.com

  4. Brianna

    I found this article to be a wonderful read. It solidifies some of the principles that I believe to be true, and it make me really think about trying new techniques. Knowing the client is so very important. The best reward for me, as a photographer, is the response from a client when they truely love their pictures.

    I hope you keep more articles like these coming! =)

    @Ashley, I’m in the same boat. However, like Jessica said, you have to trust your gut. It sounds like you aren’t in it for the money, you want to produce quality work. I think you’re in a good headspace to do what you love and profit while doing it. =)

    @Emily Southerland, GREAT advice, thank you! I’m looking in to those suggested fourms RIGHT now.

  5. Maria de Suède


    I’m just asking one thing when I take a photo of someone, a portrait, is it a story in this portrait. I’d rather do a photo when they’re doing something…

    But I do more nature photo…

  6. Kim

    One bad portrait sitting is the kick in the rump I needed to learn how to really use my DSLR and manipulate my space to achieve the photos I wanted.

    After we had taken our daughter for her three month photos, looking at the 10 images to choose from… I was disappointed… And vowed to take my own pictures at six months… I’m so glad I did. I’m proud to show off her six month photos and years down the road I can tell her that I took those pictures of her!

  7. Mary

    Excellent points and a good reminder.

    I strive for this type of image every time I’m hired, BUT sometimes it’s also the people involved. Recently I was at a client’s home to photograph a newborn with the mom, dad and 4 year old. OH MY GOSH. Even after taking time bonding with the little girl, she was bouncing around, pouting, insisting on her way and finally tripped and hurt herself enough that the was the end of the session.

  8. ling

    Oooff…well said article…still recuperating or healing from terrible photo shoots of the past that I did…There must be some support group somewhere for that..?? Good gosh…help! Lol

  9. Ivan Terra

    I know this isnt the place, but the first 2 pictures are yours ? If yes, what are the settings ? Why those pictures are so defined, i mean, what they mean is good. But im talking about the quality, it isnt just sharpness, there is a level of quality, of detail. I just dont know how to express what im asking, i think.

    And while the third picture is well defined too, i dont have the same feel of details or quality. The first two, everything is so defined, the colors, the lines. I know that this isnt something you will talk and ill repeat, but i need to know.

    Its because they are smaller than originally they were ? Because i have a feel that most of times, when i find pictures like that, they are at a small resolution, something at 1024 at max.

    Or im just crazy ?

  10. Bailey

    I may be a newer photographer, but this article is so spot on. I keep my prices low to include people that may otherwise never be able to afford professional pictures. I also try, every time, to capture the true nature of people. That is my goal for every photo shoot. Taking a picture that makes someone cry because they love it, because they can feel emotion through it is one of my favorite things in the world. It’s the difference between being someone who takes pictures or being a photographer.

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