8 Ways to Make Photography Subjects Feel Comfortable

photographer tips model
Tips for working with a model

A few weeks ago, I took pictures of my wife during her 5k race.  As she ran toward the finish line, I was set up with my 70-200mm f/2.8 lens and empty memory cards.  I caught 3 or 4 frames in a burst and then, my shot was ruined.

What ruined my shot?  My wife spotted me while running toward the finish line.  Naturally, she waived to the camera and smiled.  Ugh!  The photos looked too plastic and unnatural with her looking at the camera and smiling.    The candids of her pushing to the finish line were much more compelling and told more of a story.

On that topic, I thought it would be helpful to all of you if I wrote 10 ways to keep your subjects at ease when shooting portraits.  This will make your photos more natural looking.

Tips for Keeping Models at Ease #1:  Relax yourself. I learned this while working as a telemarketer in college.  I couldn't sell worth beans because I was trying so hard to sell.  People could tell that I was nervous and up-tight.  No one bought from me in two weeks of work.  Then, my boss told me to relax.  I went back to the phones and tried to be confident and calm as possible.  That same day, I became the number one selling rep in the office, and I continued as such for quite a long time.  The same thing applies to photography.  Just have confidence when speaking with models and they will feel more relaxed and comfortable.

Tips for Keeping Photography Subjects at Ease #2:  Take a tip from public speakers. If you've ever taken a public speaking course, you've learned not to say words such as, “Uh”, “umm”, “like”, etc).  Photographers also have words that we should avoid.  When a photographer looks at the LCD and is disappointed with the results, they often say things like, “woops”, or “uh oh”, or “that doesn't look good”, etc.  How do these little habits affect models?  Badly.  It makes them feel uncomfortable and it makes them think that the shoot is not going well.  Would you want a reviewer to say things like that when looking over your portfolio?

Tips for Working with a Model #3:  Don't leave the model clueless. It's convenient for photographers when a model is experienced enough to pose herself, but it's tough for models to read the photographer's mind.  If you haven't spent the time to learn posing, get started.  By directing your model to general poses and then giving them the freedom to vary the pose, you'll help the model to feel comfortable.

Tips for Making Models Feel Comfortable #4:  Be yourself. I have read SOO many articles on other photography sites where photographers recommend different “one liners” for photographers to use in order to get the model to smile.  That might be okay if you naturally have a corny sense of humor, but for most people it could do more harm than good.  I have personally hired a photographer who used all kinds of little lines to get my family to smile.  By the end of the shoot, I was convinced that he was the most annoying man on earth.  Did that make me want to hire him again?  Just be yourself.

Tips for Making Models Feel Comfortable #5:  Give HELPFUL posing directions. Portrait photography is not a game of Twister, so quit directing your model like it is.  “Turn your head an inch to the right, now bend your right knee, now put your left hand on the knee and make a fist”…. ugh!  When I work with models, I either tell them simple poses and allow them to naturally vary the pose, or I show them a picture of another model in the pose on my smartphone (posing apps!) and have the model mirror the pose.  Much simpler and more natural.

Tips for Making Models Feel Comfortable #6:  Show the subject some of the photos. If I am shooting a client instead of a model, I sometimes ask the client if they want me to photograph them in a different way.  This is a good opportunity to find out little things that the client doesn't like about their looks.  I often get clients who ask me to photograph the other side of their face, they take their hair down, or make other changes.  RARELY do they actually want me to change anything about the photos, but it's a good way for me to know how to avoid the things they are self-conscious about.

How to Make a Model Feel Comfortable #7:  No touching. Touching can make some people feel very uncomfortable.  If I need to flick some hair out of the model's face or lay out the train of a wedding dress, I ask first.  “Do you mind if I…”  Some people might not care, but it's a big deal to some people who have a “bubble.”

How to Make a Model Feel Comfortable #8:  Be ready for the shoot. Nothing will kill the model's confidence in you more than showing up late, not having the gear set up, etc.  Be ready and you'll look like a pro.

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18 thoughts on “8 Ways to Make Photography Subjects Feel Comfortable”

  1. Portraiture is so much about making your client feel at ease to capture that natural smile or engaged look. I think you’ve captured all the salient points precisely!
    Great tips, thanks!

  2. I’ve given uo on the no touch rule.. it’s jsut quicker to guide them into positon… fine line between that and manhandling though…

  3. Really good article Jim. It’s amazing how the obvious isn’t always so obvious to so many. These little gems of advice and reminders help out togs of all levels.

  4. You mention posing apps in tip #5. What apps do you use? I’ve been looking and haven’t found one that looks good. Thanks!

    1. I’m on Android. All of the apps are simply named, “Family Poses” “Couples Poses” “Baby Poses” etc. They aren’t incredible, but it certainly makes posing subjects a lot simpler.

  5. I probably should have specified that I have an iPhone. oops… Thanks for the suggestions I’ll see if the exist on the app store.

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  10. Thanks for sharing your information, experience and art with all of us, Jim! The point about asking permission before touching a subject is an important one. I always, always ask if I can slightly move a lock of hair, the veil, etc. before doing so…and I certainly check in with the parent’s before touching their child’s clothing, drooping barrette, etc. I certainly wouldn’t want someone simply coming up to my person and adjusting something. And, it is actually unlawful to do so in some states (for photographers!) Everyone wants to look their best and appreciates the attention given to small details but it is just out of simple respect that we ask before entering ‘their bubble’. Happy Shooting!

  11. Great tips here. The key point is to have your subject totally at ease with you. That’s why I always recommended speding time talking to the client and getting to know them days prior to the shoot if possible. On the day of the shoot try to spend some time socializing, they are walking in nervous and as a photographer we must alleviate that stress. I sometimes do some Improv excersises prior to the shoot. Silly Improv games can be a great ice breaker and remove shyness.

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