How to Bond with Strangers and Make them Relax Around a Photographer

As any photographer will know, getting a person to relax enough around you to get a few decent shots of them is no easy task. It seems like no matter how laid back someone is, the minute they see a camera they snap into posing mode – making it difficult to get a photograph that tells a story and brings out someone’s true nature and natural features.

Untitled by David Urbanke, on Flickr

Getting people to relax around you also has a second benefit: people who are relaxed are more willing to take irrational risks. This is why we do things with our friends (like making a funny face) that we don’t do with strangers and that moment of irrationality can make some of our most memorable captures.

This is why, to me, the difference between a good photographer and a great one is their ability to interact with and relate to people on a human level, without passing judgment or causing awkwardness.

But here’s the problem: Humans are strange creatures and no two subjects are ever exactly alike. Putting people at ease in your presence involves more than just memorizing a few basic steps and following them.

Having said that, know that all is not lost if you’re not the most social of all people. Because there are a few things you can do that will increase your perceived friendliness – even to strangers – in a couple of minutes flat. It’s only a matter of understanding a bit of how the mind works.

Understanding The Power of Questions

It’s easy to get flustered or nervous during a photo shoot with a stranger but the pros know that you should never let your insecurities get the better of you. If you are stressed or uptight, your subject will feed off that energy.

It’s a phenomenon called “mirroring” and it’s an involuntary response that all humans are subject to. We mirror due to a part of our brain called “mirror neurons” – and these neurons are activated simply because of our observation.

Mirror neurons are also why you should never try to be someone you are not. You may have perhaps seen other photographers using a humorous approach with their models; cracking jokes or laughing about mishaps – if you aren’t naturally funny or spontaneous, it can take years to master the art of natural humour.

lazy sunday by David Urbanke, on Flickr

A (much) faster route is to simply be a good listener and encourage your subjects to talk about themselves – and trust me when I say that everyone loves talking about themselves.

Now I know being a “good listener” is a bit of a cliché and most people simply stop there with their advice.

Going a level Deeper

Being a good listener is NOT about your listening skills. It’s about making the other party feel understood. Read that again.

To create that “long lost friend you never knew” effect, always remember the 3 basic questions: the what, why and how – and relate each of those questions to whatever the previous reply was. So for example, if the other party said she has 3 children, you can ask about how it feels to raise 3 children. If she said it’s always hectic yet surprisingly fulfilling, ask her what she means.

Don’t even talk about yourself unless prompted. If you’re prompted, give your subject a short, succinct answer and direct conversation back to them.

Now some of you are thinking what a creep you’d be if you were to do that. That’s where this second advice comes in: display interest triggers.

There are certain things people do that signals how they feels. If your spouse yawns when you talk, you know they’re not interested. If your friend shakes her leg when talking to you, you know she’d rather be somewhere else.

“Interest triggers” are things you can do that signals you’re interested. These include:

  1. Lean slightly forward if you’re sitting on a table.
  2. Say things like, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” Or “What made you say that?” or “No way! Are you serious?”
  3. Maintain eye contact – and if you’re thinking, don’t look down because that signals guilt or boredom. Look to the side instead.
  4. And before you reply to any questions, always pause for a second to show that you’ve thought about what he/she just said.

And once the conversation has gone on for about 10 minutes, tell your subject you’re sorry for taking up so much time and allow him/her to go back to do whatever he/she was doing. Before letting him/her go, however, slip in “do you mind if I take a few photographs of you?”

That’s it.

Naturally, if you are working with someone who would rather not share personal details or talk very much at all then you should be willing to accept that. And that’s where the next part comes in.

How to Set the mood

The environment we are in has a strange grip on how we feel. We all intuitively know this yet few of us ever manipulate our environment to change how we feel. Certain places make us nervous, while others make us feel right at home.

What environment you’d set depends on the type of portrait you are trying to create. Are you working towards a bubbly and happy portrait that exemplifies your subject’s outgoing nature or are you hoping to capture a model’s more serious side? There is no one right answer – and that’s the beauty of it. It’s your art. Create it.

There are 5 factors of the environment that you can manipulate. I will include a basic guide for each and I will assume you want to make your subjects relax:

  1. Visual – This is a strange one: plants. That’s right. Plants have been shown to make people relax, which is why a walk by the park is such a great stress-buster.
  2. Sound – The sound of subtle running water or rain has been shown to relax – probably why they are often present in meditation CDs.
  3. Temperature (feel) – Your muscles only relax when you’re warm so keep your environment warm. Note: don’t confuse “cool” with warm.
  4. Smell – Aromatherapies work great in this instance. I won’t even pretend to be an expert on this because I get someone else to do it. Note: The smell of aromatherapy will disappear after a while but that doesn’t mean the effect is gone.
  5. Taste – The effect of taste on relaxation is small, in my experience. So I’ll suggest an alternative: a glass of wine.

Give clear and useful directions

Not knowing what is expected of them can make people insecure and unsure of themselves, so take some time to discuss what you would both like to get out of the shoot and exactly what will happen next.

White whispers by s-a-m, on Flickr

And even when that’s done, don’t get stuck behind your camera for the rest of the shoot. It’s impersonal and prevents you from connecting with the person you are photographing. Instead, take time to give feedback about different poses or comment on how you think the shoot is going. Repeat this with me, “This is going to be awesome.” – that phrase works wonders in raising subject confidence.

Next, give clear instructions that they can follow, like “tilt your head a bit to the left,” or “lift your chin up just a bit.” If someone isn’t getting it, you can go ahead and show them what you mean. People like to be told what to do when they are in a new situation, so don’t worry about coming across as a control freak. They’d rather follow than risk embarrassment.

It is also important to tell your subject when they are doing something right because that will boost their confidence. Don’t mutter things like “Oh no,” or “Oops,” while you are working, because while you may just be commenting on the way you tilted your camera, your subject may worry that they have done something wrong.

And there’s one key point here: avoid “frustration trigger” like rolling your eyes, sucking in a deep breath, losing temper – even if it has nothing to do with the subject. Remember: mirror neurons.

You can also show your subject a few of the first photos before you wrap things up so they can see what it looks like and ask for changes if there is something they don’t like or aren’t sure about. Remember that it’s not about you. They are only worries about their personal insecurities, that is all.

Give your subject something to hold

This is a big one.

If you notice your subjects fidgeting, give them something to play around with during the photo shoot. This is because the two things that we just don’t what to do with when we are nervous are our hands. Should we cross them, put them in the pockets, on our hips or stand like soldier?

When someone is able to hold something it helps them to feel less awkward – and therefore more relaxed. If you’re just doing head shots it won’t matter what they are holding, it could be anything from a stress ball to a cup of tea.

If their hands are visible on the photo, however, incorporate the object into your shoot – it can help enhance the story you want to tell. It could be something that suits their personality or profession, like a stack of books for a student or a bat for a baseball player.

Don’t Forget to Respect boundaries

While you do want to be easy going and provide your subjects with a relaxed and comfortable environment, you don’t want to appear as a chum who assumes too much. We all have an invisible boundary reserved for different people.

Your spouse, for example can go 1cm off your face and you could remain relaxed. Your colleagues, however, need to stay at least 30cm away before you begin frowning.

How that invisible boundary is determined is an interesting subject that I won’t bore you with, but here’s the bottom line: you need to know exactly where it is. You don’t want to go too near and be a creep, but you also don’t want to be too far and make them feel like they can bite. Finding that subtle balance, however, is easier said than done.

If you’re photographing someone in their natural setting (like a dock worker), observe before you approach. If you’re dealing with models in your studio, experiment. Start just a tad close and move slightly away if he/she appears uncomfortable (usually by subtly stepping back). Don’t go from standing an arm away to right in front of him/her because that can be mistaken as inappropriate.

And lastly, boundaries also apply to seemingly “innocent” behaviours. For example, some people are uncomfortable with any physical contact, so don’t adjust a person’s hair or pose unless you have their permission to do so. It doesn’t have to be weird; just say, “Do you mind if I flick your hair out of your eye?” This is especially true if your subjects are not professional models. Most people probably won’t mind, but some will. Remember that the general rule is not to touch.

So there you go: be interested, set the mood, take charge, use props and respect boundaries – all of them can be done in less than 10 minutes.

Andrianes Pinantoan is a staff member of Open Colleges, an Australian distance education provider with a range of photography courses. When not working, he can be found reading a book or photographing random objects. He also finds it weird to write in third-person.

23 thoughts on “How to Bond with Strangers and Make them Relax Around a Photographer

  1. Andreas Sebastian

    thanks for the lesson. This is the science which I can apply, because I was a newby as a photographer.

  2. Avatar of thepaparazzothepaparazzo

    Wow, what a great article! I think this area of photography is my single greatest obstacle for getting serious. I absorb tech info like a sponge, but struggle with reading people.
    Thanks for all the info!

    1. Andrianes

      You and me both Mike. I an an introvert so this doesn’t come easy for me – which is why I do research extroverts don’t need to.

      Lol.

  3. Ingrid Abraham

    I remember my first photoshoot – you could cut the air with a knife! The awkwardness and tension showed in the pictures too.

    Now that I am engaging with clients, people who are nervous about having their pictures taken don’t have to think about the process any more and the resulting images are very natural and flattering.

    Great tips – thank you!

  4. Celso Bressan

    Very good explanation and tips. I have already gone through situations like the ones you described but I didn’t do very well in bonding enough to get good pictures.

    Two comments on the issue though:

    . the “wine” approach is not always appropriate because, bottom line, they are strangers. How come a stranger (you, photographer) is offering me wine?

    . the pictures used to illustrate this article don’t seem exactly to be strangers or even passers by, specially the young lady in bed.

    Thanks.

    Bressan

    1. Andrianes Pinantoan

      Thanks for your feedback Bressan. Bonding is not easy, but as an introvert, I can tell you that the more you do it, the easier it gets.

      As for your questions,

      1. The wine approach isn’t always appropriate – you’re right. This applies only if a customer drops by your studio, for example.

      Ask them if they’d like a glass of wine to loosen up.

      2. Perhaps I should have been clearer in the post. Strangers here include people you don’t know, not necessarily passers by.

      So models you work for the first time with, or first time customers would count.

      Cheers,
      Andrianes

  5. Diane Hamm

    Can you give some advice on how to work with people that close their eyes when they smile or laugh? I’ve had so many beautiful shots ruined because one of the group had their eyes closed!

    1. Andrianes Pinantoan

      Hey Diane, I’m not sure what you’re referring to unless I see an image.

      From what you’re describing, I say a simple corrective instruction is perfect (subjects love to be told what to do when photographed).

      But having said that, if they close their eyes when they genuinely are smiling or laughing, I say leave it.

      For example, I had a friend who asked his kids to close their mouths when smiling because they had a few missing teeth.

      I thought that’s part of what made them who they are.

  6. Dave Perris

    Good article , thank you.

    I was a little bit sceptical about ‘mirror neurons’ and had to look them up in Wikipedia, which tells me they are a well researched phenomenon, so I take all my scepticism back!

    Even without mirror neurons I think we know as human beings that we can pass on our anxieties, so it’s important to be as relaxed as possible with our subjects. Not always easy, especially when the pressure is on, but it gets easier with practice.

    I also thought you must be very good at dealing with strangers when I saw the shot of the young woman on the bed, but you’ve explained that bit in a previous comment.

    I like the tip about getting models to hold something even if it’s out of shot. I’ll try that one.

  7. Sergio Garcia

    Wow, I love these tips.

    The only one I’m having a hard issue with is showing the clients (mainly actors) their head shots while shooting.

    I feel as if they were to say they did not like them, that it is something with my photography.

    When in reality it could be the lighter angle I’m shooting at and easily fixable to please then make them happy.

    I will def work in this on up coming assignments.

    Thanks!

  8. amy

    This sounds to good to be true..
    There have been several times when whoever is taking photos should of taken the photo (i was relaxed). Instead..i always without fail look im going to be shot

  9. myfi

    i had a lot of problems with school photos worried about school for 3 months then colapsd on photoday
    i was then sent down to the photo studio of the school photographers

    instead of forcing me though a photo shoot i could mot have coped with wilf the photographer
    he asked me what caused me to colapsd on photoday

    witch was being constantly being chased by press photographers when i was in hospital suffering from cancer and had no hair and
    often after pain full procedures
    i was trying to get away one time when i fell over the iv cord and the neadle came out verry painfull
    and the press photographer went and told the nurse i pulled it out

    the night mares flash backs kept coming back it became a mental barrier

    after i told the school photographer wilf it i never hapened again

    wilf was verry understanding and helped me get over the problem ended up working with wilf for 15 years thre was a trust beteen us so he got the photos just how i wanted them and perfect every time

    so if you get on well with people they will come back if they like your photos communication is important
    because what yo see in a photo i a reaction to who is taking the photo

    if you cant get on with your photographer you wont get good photos

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