Unless you’re a supermodel, there’s something about being subjected to the gaze of another human being that makes many people feel uncomfortable in front of a camera. It’s almost unbearable for some people, and men tend to be worse than women.
As a photographer, it’s in your best interest to help your subject relax, because it will be obvious that they are uncomfortable in the photos - as they will have a tense face and body (even if they are smiling). It’s important to try and address their discomfort during the session, rather than ending up with terrible photos. You can tell someone to stand straight and to flash you a smile, but it takes a certain effort to capture someone opening up and revealing the essence of their personality.
Here are some technical and psychological tips that will help your subject feel comfortable in front of your lens.
1. Make sure your camera settings are perfect
Before everything else, make sure to test out your camera settings and mark the spots where the lighting is good so that when your subject steps into the frame, everything is ready to go. Nothing is more awkward than making someone wait while you fiddle to try the right settings for the photo. It makes people feel like they’re doing something wrong! Try to get the settings as perfect as possible, so you can concentrate on your subject.
2. Develop a relationship
The reason why most people are awkward in front of a camera is because they don’t know you very well (unless they are a friend or family member, but even then some people just don’t ever like having their photo taken). Take some time before the shoot to introduce yourself and explain what you’re going to do. Make them feel at ease by talking about common interests, or play music that they like in the background. Expand this repertoire during the shoot itself. It may be difficult to try to get a good photo while engaging your subject in witty conversation, which is why it is important to fix your camera settings from the get-go. The more relaxed they feel with you, the more relaxed they will feel in front of the camera.
Image by Sam Lee
3. Use props
Props allow people to feel focus on something else besides their own body, which makes them feel less self-conscious. It also adds an interesting visual aspect to your portraits. I’m not talking about oversized sunglasses and masks that you can see in party photo booths, I’m talking about props that are unique to your subjects. The props that you use should be things your subjects actually use in their daily lives. A lot of my portraits are of me holding my smartphone taking a photo of something, because that is the visual that most people have of me. Find a certain indistinguishable object that the subject is known for, and use that in your photos. For kids, it might be a toy; for an adult, it might be a coffee cup, their glasses or even a pet.
Image by Sam Lee
Image by Sam Lee
4. Consult with your subject along the way
Taking portraits is always a collaborative process, and you need to treat it as such. Make it a habit to show your subject the photos you are taking, and be sure to talk about what is working and what isn’t. Ask them if there is anything they want to try, and be open to their ideas. More often than not, they will have certain body issues that they want to hide and you need to do your best to address those issues, even if you think the photos look totally fine. Once you establish the feeling that you’re capturing them in a flattering way, they’ll feel much more comfortable.
5. Teach them the basics
Go through a couple of do’s and don’ts of how they should pose to accentuate their features. This will help your subject feel that they have some control, and it will also help you when you’re giving them directions.
My basics are:
Always pull your chin forward.
Use your arms and legs to create a shape of some kind.
Always give them something to do with their hands.
Don’t feel pressured to look directly at the camera, turn your head in different angles to get a different perspective.