10 Quick Helpful Tips on How to Communicate With Your Subject

10 Quick Helpful Tips on How to Communicate With Your Subject

Every portrait session with a new subject could bring new challenges. Some people are more comfortable in front of a camera than others, while some just take a little time to open up. I've put together a list of tips that may help you along the way during your portrait sessions.

Before we dive into the list, these are practices that I use for my outdoor portrait sessions. Obviously there are situations where things may change where time may be limited, you may have several subjects to shoot, etc., but this is the general basis I use for a one-on-one portrait session. 

Even though these tips may seem obvious and almost second nature to some of us, I remember starting out and could’ve really used some of these tips.

1.    Build A Rapport

Very simple but surprised to find out some photographers shy away from doing this. For my sessions, if hair and makeup is being done prior to the shoot, I use it as a great opportunity to hang out and build a rapport with your model. Get to know him or her, it is very important to become comfortable with one another.

2.    Wait, Don’t Pick Up The Camera Right Away

After hair and makeup is complete and the model is styled, I usually plan my locations to be a 5-10 minute walk away. I use this opportunity to walk and talk and make it like we’re just hanging out. Because at the end of the day, we are just people, no need to make things awkward. Instead of shooting right away, I try to work my subject backwards into thinking they’re not doing a photo shoot at all. That way they are more comfortable throughout the session.

3.    Warm Up

Always, always, always. During my sessions, I have my models do a quick 5-minute warm up with me.  I usually start off by letting them know this it is just a warm up, just to get comfortable with one another. I let the model freestyle their poses during the warm up. Also I have them do a few walking poses and stationary poses. As time goes on, I start to gradually direct them.

This is a good icebreaker to get the ball rolling and get comfortable with one another. Sometimes we even capture those “homerun” images during the warm up.

4.    Be Confident and Hold A Conversation

Even if you aren’t, fake it. Subjects can smell it right away when you’re unsure of yourself. I remember myself starting out where I just could not overcome the fear of shooting people. By nature being an introverted and shy person, this was a big hurdle. But once I overcame my fear and portrayed confidence is where I really broke through in my photography.

Well after you start shooting, I still make sure I’m holding a conversation with the model. Like I mentioned earlier, I like to make it a ‘hanging out’ vibe opposed to ‘we’re serious here and we need pictures’. Ask them we’re they’re from, what projects their working on; find a commonality. Keeping things natural is important. 

The image above, although most certainly a 'throw away', is a great example of how I create a 'laid back, no pressure' setting for a shoot during my one-on-one sessions. Which can lead to an image like below:

5.    Talk to Them While They’re Posing

While this may seem a little different, it is a very effective technique I’ve done. Tell them a story while your model is posing, talk to them about anything. 

While you’re talking to them, this in a way distracts them from thinking there’s a camera in front of them. They’re mind is busy listening to you and which portrays a more natural, relaxed expression. This is especially effective when a model is apparently uncomfortable with a camera in front of them.

6.    Be Positive, Always 

Always assure your model that they’re doing a great job. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with talented people, so I haven’t really had to be dishonest with them. Make sure that what you say is always positive. Instead of saying, “don’t do this,” say, “I like that, but try this,” or “This may be even better”.

7.    SMILE! CHEESE! – Words to avoid

If you find yourself telling you’re subject to smile, try to rid of that habit. When you tell your subject to smile, the smile usually comes across as not genuine, cheesy, and definitely shows in photos. So how do you get those smiling, happy shots?

Easy, make them laugh. Say something, anything. One trick I learned from Peter Hurley is to tell them, “Don’t look so miserable.” The second they hear that line, the last thing they want to look is miserable so they usually laugh. Once you get your subject to laugh, ask them to hold their smile. That way, you know the smile is genuine and comes across as genuine on your photos. 

In the image shown above, I made my subject, Tori, laugh by being goofy and telling jokes. After the initial laugh, I would ask her to hold the smile. Just in time to capture a perfect frame.

8.    Do Not Touch Your Subject

Respect your model’s personal space. I really hope that I don’t have to mention this, but I have heard some horror stories from others in the past. Even if you have the right intentions, ask before you need to fix a hair in the way or something on their outfit. 

9.    Be Polite

Just like every aspect in life, being polite goes a long way. Remember, if you would like that model to work with you again, be respectful and leave a good impression. Do not make inappropriate comments. Just like Tip #8, this is fairly obvious but deserves to be on the list. 

10.    Most Importantly, Have Fun!

Every photographer has their own method of doing things. While everyone has different techniques and tactics, they may all lead to great results. What do you do during for your portrait sessions to help communicate with your subject? 


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Ben Perrin's picture

Great article Nick. I think you're right, it's hard if the photographer is introverted or shy but you have to project confidence and try to keep building rapport with the subject.

Daniel Rodriguez's picture

Good stuff. I have a bad memory so it's good to remind myself with some of these tips.

Michael Comeau's picture

I've found that laughter is the best way to get things going.

If someone looks really nervous, I say "Okay, I want you to look really serious right now. Whatever you do, don't smile!"

8 times out of 10, they start out trying really hard to look serious and they just end up laughing.

rsallsopp's picture

Great article for the beginning portrait photographer. I've so far only done a couple of shoots with amateurs/first timers, and, being new to this myself, have already encountered communication issues. Confidence is key, but having some tips like these can only help.

I'm sure in time I'll develop a few techniques of my own to help relax the model and hopefully get some splendid images.

Jay Jay's picture

Excellent article and spot on! Watching an early youtube video of Hurley in action with a subject really helped develop my rapport with models. One thing that helps tremendously (especially with first time models) is meeting them for a quick coffee to go over the shoot. It's more for them to meet and get to know you a little bit so that they are comfortable coming into the shoot (as opposed to meeting you the very first time on your shoot).

Going over poses you like and don't like and giving examples or demonstrating them before the shoot helps a ton too, for both parties.

And nobody likes a shoot to be dead quiet. Nobody. I talk a lot and tell stories and interact with the model so that's not an issue, but having a portable battery powered bluetooth speaker and several different playlists on your phone (soft quiet music, heavier music, electronic- basically an hour or 2 worth of different genres are great. I ask my subjects what style they like and chances are i have that music already set up). You'd be surprised how much more relaxed and into the shoot they get when music is playing. It helps A LOT. Even if it's just playing on your phone- anything playing that complements the mood will help relax the model.

Nick Pecori's picture

Thanks Jay. You mentioned a few things I have planned for future articles ;)

Jay Jay's picture

Can't wait to read the next one!

stir photos's picture

Great article, and from an amateur, here are some things that seem to work okay for me...

1. Smile, smile, smile - It sounds simplistic; maybe, but I can literally feel thick vibes reducing after smiling just a few times
2. Sense of humor - I make clever jokes when appropriate and even re-use jokes that seem to go over well (when models actually laugh) with current models and I can re-use them with future models
3. Cute - When appropriate, I work in showing shots of my cute son or my Aunt's cute dog, or telling any funny family anecdotes/stories. I feel it makes me more personable
4. Honesty - I openly admit to my ADD as soon as I feel myself going into that zone, and I express my feelings openly and in a nice way; eg, "I like these 3 shots, but I don't love them" opposed to, "these 3 shots sucked, let's try again"....
5. Music - Already mentioned, but I would only add to ask beforehand what music a model likes, even get some examples if possible. I try not to guess since music is very subjective, even if you have a genre in common. music that sucks isn't much better than music just for the sake of having music or no music at all imho