Capturing true character and what’s real has always been a top priority of mine when shooting both portraits and candids. However, I’m sure you will agree that it’s easier said than done, especially when you have restless kids and stressed out moms & dads who don’t like getting their pictures taken!
Based on my experiences, I’d like to share 10 tips to help add more feeling to your photos and capture true character. These tips can be applied in a professional setting or if you are a hobbyist.
1. When shooting uncooperative kids, try sending mom away. Often times I have found when moms are present, their kids act up more. I know this to be true with my own kids! They usually behave better for others than they do for me! As soon as mom is out of sight or pre-occupied elsewhere they are more willing to work with you as a photographer. Send mom to the car or tell her to pretend she’s checking on something nearby. Explain to her why and I promise she won’t object, especially if it means getting her kids to cooperate! The magic between photographer and subject begins when they can be alone, as if making a new friend, without the pressure of mom nearby. In these images mom was away and I was playing peek-a-boo with this cute little guy behind a barrel.
2. Compliments make one’s heart happy! Use them often and from the moment you bring out your camera. This helps break the ice, boosts confidence in front of the camera, and helps build a connection between photographer and subject. Compliments help people loosen up and are especially good for self-conscious teens! I had one high school senior who honestly did not know how gorgeous she was. I was in awe at how naturally photogenic she was. The more I pointed this out to her, the more she loosened up and let down her guard. Her session is still one of my favorites to date.
Compliments also work well with kids. Encourage and reward them when they are cooperating. Boost their confidence by commenting on their outfit or how handsome they look and they will usually ham it up for the camera. I made a comment to these adorable sisters about their beautiful sparkly eyes, and how I could tell how much they loved each other. I was able to capture some dramatic looks from them as a result.
3. Ask questions that evoke emotion while you are shooting. When working with kids and moms/dads, ask things like, “What do you love about your mom?” “What does your mommy say to you when she tucks you in bed at night?” Or if shooting a child alone say something silly like, “Would you ever eat a pickle and peanut butter sandwich?” As they answer and giggle, shoot away.
This question/answer technique works well for engagement sessions (or couples in general) and weddings as well. Ask the couple how they met, who kissed whom first, when they knew they wanted to marry each other, etc. There is usually an expression or exchange of looks that occurs during the pauses where the magic happens. Be ready to sneak in that shot at the right moment.
4. Bring props as a distraction for kids or to make the session fun. An antique toy truck to play with, a basket to hold, a vintage bike or suitcase to stand by or hold, a balloon or flower to play with. Look what’s naturally around you. Is there a dandelion to blow, a wild flower to pick, an old tire to sit in? Anything you can find or bring for entertainment value will help kids get their mind off the fact that they are getting their pictures taken. Snap away as they play and explore. And don’t worry about always getting perfect composition or you will miss those candid moments! Do this at home with your kids too. Some of my most treasured photos of my kids are when they were playing with toys or nature. And remember, they don’t need to be looking at the camera!
5. Its OK to “fake” a candid moment. Tell kids what you want them to do to stage the moment. For example, you could ask them to line up some rocks, pick up or smell a flower, peek around a tree at you, show you how they hug their brother or sister, count the apples, do a twirl, show you how big they are, how good they can skip, or have them give you a certain “look”.
For adults and families, tell them to look at another family member and tell you something about them (can be sentimental, funny, quirks about them, etc.) Ask them to put their arms around each other and show you how much they love each other. If possible, envision the shot and feeling you want portrayed before the session/moment so you are prepared to tell your subjects what to do. In this shot I prompted the girls to play with each other while mom and dad watched. I was hoping to capture an emotive family portrait that told a story somehow.
Before every session, whether for clients or with my own kids, I take into account the personalities and relationships of whom I am shooting and plan the mood accordingly. This little cutie is the youngest in her family and I wanted to capture the sweet relationship between her and her daddy. We “faked” these candid moments as well…
6. Click the shutter button before and after your subject is actually ready. This is a trick I like to use in order to capture a more genuine look. Smiles are more relaxed just before and after they are fully extended. Quickly capture one looking off to the side, up at the sky, or interacting with another as they are waiting for your cue. As a child finds interest in an object or person nearby, follow them to capture their natural curiosity. Click away as mother of the bride is fixing her daughter’s veil, as an engaged couple talks to one another, as dad is holding his son’s hand and walking in front of you (then tell them to quickly look back at you for another natural shot), as a husband brushes his wife’s hair away from her face, etc. Seize every natural moment you can. And don’t be afraid to say, “Wait, do that again!” if you witness a tender moment or an expression that strikes you, but didn’t have your camera ready. In this shot, I loved the kiss, but even more, I loved their expressions after the kiss.
7. Choose a unique angle to tell the story. I always ask myself before taking a photo, “How can I go beyond just a snapshot look?” Or, “How can I capture the true feeling that is present?” Sometimes just by changing your position, a photo can take on a whole new look and feel. Get down low at ground level, shoot from above, or pull back a bit to capture the surrounding environment. This next photo is of a maid of honor as she was witnessing her sister’s wedding ceremony. Her tear-stained cheeks and peaceful expression needed to be the highlight in this image. I shot from down low and used the blue sky as the background so there was no distractions. I wanted her tears to be the first thing you see.
Choosing unique angles when shooting kids at play is especially effective. You want the person viewing the image to feel like they were there (or they wanted to be there!). Don’t be afraid to get down to their level to see what they see and feel what they feel. Ask yourself, “What is the most important reason I am taking this photo?” Then focus on that as you are composing your image. Remember to use leading lines or unique perspectives to draw people in. Also keep in mind that you don’t always need to show faces in order to capture emotion!
8. Use a zoom lens. The less footwork you have to do the better so you won’t miss a thing. A zoom lens also allows you to capture the same moment at different depths, which makes for a great collage or storyboard.
9. Get playful! Run or walk with your subjects, tell them to play or wrestle as you snap away using a fast shutter speed. Create movement and get away from the all the posed stuff. It will add variety and emotion to your session. People usually like a little of both the posed and the playful. Don’t be afraid to experiment and have fun.
10. Try various effects in post-processing to give a photo a unique feel. Sometimes changing it to black and white or applying a vintage look gives the same photo a completely different feeling and emotional draw. I liked this one better with an antique look to it rather than in color. I thought the brown tones went well with their cute vintage hats and seemed to give the image a more nostalgic look.
These are things that have worked for me, but I encourage you to discover what works for you as well. In fact, I’d love to hear some of your suggestions! I also want to mention that some of these tips will only be successful if you have made a real connection with your subjects from the get go. One’s true character will reveal itself naturally if you both feel comfortable and at ease.