Engaging your Subjects (how to make your subjects look natural) :: Digital Photo Secrets

Engaging your Subjects (how to make your subjects look natural)

by David Peterson 0 comments

There's nothing worse than a posed portrait. Wait, let me rephrase that: there's nothing worse than a portrait that looks like it's been posed.

Posing, of course, is something that we've all been doing pretty much forever. When your mom said those immortal words: "Say cheese!" You know exactly what to do. You froze, you looked at the camera, you flashed a fake smile and you said "Cheese!" And your mom's photo album, as a result, is full of a bunch of images of you in pretty much exactly the same pose, flashing the exact same cheesy smile.

A few of those photos are OK, and I'll be the first to say it. Cheesy, fake smiles do capture an aspect of personality that would otherwise go unrecorded. You know, that "Ugh, Mom, not another photo" aspect of the personality. But you don't want your photo album to be full of nothing but forced poses and fake smiles. And if you're shooting a person or event professionally, it's safe to say that your clients aren't going to appreciate having any photos like that.

So how do you capture portraits that don't look posed? Especially when you're following my advice from Day 3, and you literally are posing your subjects? The answer to that question is actually fairly simple: you engage.

What does that mean?

Engaging your subjects basically means making them forget that you're a photographer. Remember that most people are varying degrees of uncomfortable behind the camera. Being the center of attention can be awkward, and if you feel awkward you usually look awkward, too. So it follows that your subject really should not be too aware of the camera, because that awareness alone is going to make her feel stiff—unless she's one of those rare people who is naturally comfortable in front of the camera. And even then, you don't get to stop engaging her. Your job is to keep her interested, and to make her laugh. Even people who are comfortable in front of the camera don't enjoy spending long periods of time with nothing to do except smile and pose and smile again. It’s boring. You have to make it not boring.

A boring photographer is going to only ever shoot bored subjects. You can’t expect your subjects to be animated and interesting if you’re just standing there behind your camera hitting that shutter button, and maybe barking a few orders. So you've got to be chatty. Better still, you've got to be funny—or at least have the ability to bring out the funny side in your subjects. And it can't be forced or fake, either. If the whole portrait experience is just a festival of awkwardness, your subject is going to start to feel like he’s doing something wrong. He’s going to look to you for guidance, and if you can’t give it to him he’s going to get frustrated, and then you’ll end up with a bunch of pictures of a guy who looks alternately bored and frustrated.

Your goal is to make the shoot fun for everyone. If it’s fun for you, you’ll be more able to make it fun for your subject. If it’s fun for your subject, he’ll give you photos that look fresh, relaxed and truthful. You can’t look stiff and posed if you’re having a good time. It’s just a physical impossibility.


If you're not really an extrovert, you may find all of this a bit daunting. But it's the hard truth that if you're not a people person, you need to become one. If it's obvious to your subjects that you're uncomfortable, your subjects are going to be uncomfortable, too. So smile, because smiles are infectious.

March.11.2011 {Woman} by Flickr user {N}Duran

It helps to know a little bit about your subject before you go to a shoot. If the subject is a friend or a member of your own family, then that's easy. You know that your grandmother likes to paint, and you know that your son likes to play Minecraft. So try to come up with a few questions you can ask about the things that they love to do—ask your grandmother about the painting she's working on, or one she just finished. Ask your son to tell you about his Minecraft world. If you don't know your subject, ask. If you're shooting a portrait of a high school senior, for example, find out from his parents what his interests are. It really helps to have a few "break the ice" questions ready—most of the time, your subject's answers will lead to more questions. Make sure you observe your subject's face during the conversation, and be ready to capture his facial expressions as he talks about subjects he loves. If you ask the right questions, your subject's face will light up and his smile will be genuine.

Remember that it's not just important to ask the right questions, you also need to listen to the answers. If you ask questions while you're distracted with your camera's settings or your tripod, the answers are going to fall upon deaf ears. And don't think your subjects won't notice that you're asking half-hearted questions and not really listening to the answers. No one likes to talk to someone who isn't paying attention, so pay attention. If you listen to the answers you'll get a subject who wants to tell you more, and you'll get better photos.


To a certain degree, most people in a portrait session expect to be told what to do and where to go. So you need to take control, especially in the early stages. But don’t be too controlling and don’t try to micromanage – you’ll only get a lot of stiff-looking, unnatural images that way. Instead accept that there’s going to be a little give and take. You have to let your subject be herself. If you overpose her she’s going to be trying too hard to be who you want her to be, rather than herself.

One great way to engage your subject is to ask if there’s anything they’d particularly like to do for a photo. This works great with kids, who are likely to come up with some pretty wild and goofy ideas. Remember that wild and goofy can make for a fun photo, but more importantly can lead to a subject who is relaxed, engaged and natural looking. That’s your ultimate goal, so don’t reject your subject’s desire to be photographed while buried in a pile of leaves (unless of course you can’t wipe that look of horror off of Mom’s face).

Don’t make it too Grueling

It’s OK to take a break, especially if your subject is starting to become restless. This is particularly true for children, who have notoriously short attention spans. You can use this time to offer your subject a snack or something to drink. Show your subject some of the photos you’ve already taken. Get an idea for the ones they like and the ones they don’t, particularly if you’re being paid for the session (you want a happy customer).

Use Props and Familiar Settings

Sometimes when you surround a person with familiar objects, that can help loosen him up and make for better photos. That can also keep him interested and engaged. Telling a budding 7-year-old artist to draw you a picture is a great way to capture the essence of her personality as well as keep her interested in having her picture taken. That’s why some photographers like to shoot portraits in people’s homes or other familiar settings. A child’s favorite playground can be a great setting for a photo session. So can a craftsman's workshop or a gardener's garden.

Switch to Candids

Now, you won’t always be able to do this. If you’re in a studio setting, it’s going to be difficult to just turn your subject lose and let her do her own thing, because she’s in a very controlled environment and there just isn’t anything candid for her to do. But if you’re in an outdoor setting it’s a very good idea to let an obviously bored subject take the reins. Children, for example, can take a break from sitting in Mom’s lap or standing next to those rose bushes and just go run on the lawn instead. A child at play will give you some great opportunities for candid shots and will give you a final portfolio from your shoot that includes a variety of nice photos instead of just posed portraits.


Look at things this way – we photographers have it easy. Imagine being a painter five centuries ago. Have you ever wondered why the subjects in all those Renaissance portraits look so bored? It’s because they had to sit in the exact same position for days. They were bored. Today we have cameras, so we can click, repose, entertain our subjects and try again – and we’re all finished in an hour or two with more than just one bored looking pose to show for it. Today, there’s no excuse for boring your subject. Just keep talking and the smiles will come naturally.

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