Keeping your subjects interested (and interesting) :: Digital Photo Secrets

Keeping your subjects interested (and interesting)

by David Peterson 2 comments

If you're a parent, you already know the situation I'm about to describe. You probably know it intimately. You're trying to get a photo of your kids in their holiday finery, or maybe you just want a nice group shot of them on the first day of school. Or you just want to get that one best-of-the-best shot that you can send off to your far-away family. So you decide to take your child(ren) outside for a photo shoot, and it all goes downhill from there. Your kids don't want to have their pictures taken. They don't want to smile. They don't want to go stand in that one place and do that one thing.

Take heart, you are not the only person who has ever had this problem. Even photographers who photograph adults have to deal with bored subjects quite regularly, because that's just one of the hazards of taking pictures of human beings. And bored subjects usually (though not always) make for boring photographs. So what's a portrait photographer (or a parent) to do? Let's find out!

[ Top image The Bored model by Flickr user Theory]

Keeping your subjects engaged is probably one of the most challenging aspects of good portrait photography. That's because human beings just don't like to sit still for long periods of time with nothing to do except smile and pose and smile again. It's boring. Your job as a photographer is to make it not boring.

Don't be Boring

OK, this kind of goes without saying. 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. Remember that most people (though not all) 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.

If you're not a chatty person, and you're not a people person, portrait photography might not be right for you. Switch to landscapes or architecture or animals. You absolutely have to be a people person in order to be a portrait photographer, because although creating the image is your first job, being friendly and interesting is your second job. That's because it's important to make your subject feel comfortable, and you can't do that with silence. 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.

    Summer fun by Flickr user freestylegirlzz

    Talk to your subject. Small talk is good. Humor is better. 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.


    Most people in a portrait session expect to be told what to do and where to go, to a certain degree. 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.

    • Nikon D5000
    • 800
    • f/5.6
    • 0.001 sec (1/1000)
    • 55 mm

    the scream. by Flickr user Hammonton Photography

    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 horse-trainer's barn or a painter's studio.

      Me and teddy 1960's 616 by Flickr user Ben Grader

      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.

      • Canon EOS 7D
      • 800
      • f/2.8
      • 0.025 sec (1/40)
      • 21 mm

      6:365 Still a child by Flickr user openuser


      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.

      Laughing Girl With Braces by Flickr user Pink Sherbet Photography

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      1. Wilfred Miles says:

        When photographing people, especially children it is probably a good idea to use continuous shooting so as to increase the chance of getting a really good shot.

      2. Barb Feggestad says:

        Ok, I've been in a spot like that with kids. At Halloween once, my 2-1/2 yr old started throwing a fit, on the floor, so I took a picture of her doing that! I don't usually pull off something like that, but most people take pix of happy go lucky kids, & this not happy child needed one! It turns out, she's 3 now, going on 15 and is moody, mouthy & strong headed! Her poor parents are already pulling their hair out!

        Anyway, I pull out some shiny rattle, necklace or noise maker or anything else that will pretty much shock the young person & say something that doesn't make sense & something like that usually changes their attitude or distracts them from whatever they were upset about! In fact, I pretty much raised my kids on MY Art of Distraction! It usually worked. Bath time - I used a new bracelet to get their attention!

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