A Portrait Photographer’s Guide To Coaching Clients

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Profile photo of Tiffany Mueller
Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. She has been published in multiple publications including magazines, art journals, and various photography books. She blogs at Life Is Unabridged.

Some people are born with the ability to be completely relaxed and act naturally during a portrait session. Unfortunately, those types are few and far between. The reality is most people need a little instruction and confidence building before they warm up to the idea of being in front of a camera.

Being a portrait photographer, it’s up to you to make your subject comfortable and to do that you’re going to have do some coaching. As popular headshot artist, Peter Hurley, likes to put it, you’re “90% therapist and 10% photographer.” Sound kind of intimidating? There’s no need to worry, here are a few simple tips you can use to help build a working rapport with even the most rigid subjects.

  • Set Aside The Camera - Before the shoot starts take a few moments to chat with your client. Make small talk and ask questions about their hobbies. Taking the time to get to know who you are photographing will give you a sense of who they are and give them a chance to establish a friendly connection with you.
  • Let’s Be Clear – Don’t expect your subject to pose in the most flattering way and, most importantly, don’t be afraid to give them instruction. Unless you’re working with a professional, your client probably doesn’t have their portrait taken very often which usually means they don’t really know how to pose. To avoid sounding bossy, use a tone of voice that implies a suggestion or a tip; most people will happily comply.
Adi by oveth, on Flickr

Pro Tip: Unless you want the whole face aimed straight at the camera, avoid saying “Look at the camera.” Instead try saying, “Look at the camera with just your eyes,” if all you are looking for is a glance. The idea is to be as specific as you possibly can!

  • Ego Booster - Confidence always looks good in a photograph. Help build up your timid client’s ego by praising them and giving plenty of good feedback. You can use gender specific terms such as handsome and pretty or keep it generic with phrases like ‘looking good’ or ‘that’s perfect.’ Speak in an upbeat tone so your client knows you mean it!
  • Laughter Is The Best Medicine - Now is the perfect chance to use all those cheesy jokes you’ve been reading on the internet. Okay, some of the jokes you’ve been reading on the internet. Keep it professional, you guys. Since you spent a few minutes before the shoot getting to know your client, you can use your best judgement to pick the perfect quip to bring a smile to your their face.
  • The Art Of Distraction - If your client is having a hard time loosening up, distract them with things to do. This is especially useful when photographing children. Give them a prop to play with, have them jump in the air, make funny faces, the possibilities are really only limited to the space you are working in, so get creative.
  • Who’s Right? – Unless you are photographing someone’s back, their left and right will be different from yours. That’s why in theater we often hear the terms stage left or stage right. By adding the term ‘your’, you are eliminating the guesswork of your clients; remember, we’re trying to make this as easy as possible for them. Some portrait photographers go as far as eliminating left and right from their vocabulary altogether and instead use “this way” or “that way” along with a simple hand gesture.

Pro Tip: When using your hand to make a gesture, always have the back of your hand facing your client. Putting you palm to someone’s face can appear rude.

In a nutshell, if you are having a good time and enjoying yourself, chances are your clients will too. People are great at picking up on and feeding off the notion that you are doing what you love to do. Use that to your advantage. Have fun. Be outgoing. Your subject’s will magically start to mirror those qualities.

Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. She has been published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as photography books. Tiffany is fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can keep up with Tiffany via Twitter, Google+, or, on her personal blog, Life Is Unabridged.

4 thoughts on “A Portrait Photographer’s Guide To Coaching Clients

  1. crust

    its a major problem trying to make your subjects laugh.that’s why soo many photographers tend to work with just the serious expressions of their subjects.

  2. John

    Basic advice I’ve read lots of other places. Tiffanie – why didn’t you use your own photos? Takes away from your expertise to only use other photographer’s work.

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