with Courtney Slazinik
10 Tips to Capturing True Character

10 tips to capturing true character

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.

  • February 2, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    Wow this was a great read!! and beautiful photos to accompany the post. Will definitley refer back to his post before shoots! Thank you!

  • February 2, 2012 at 9:08 AM

    These are really great tips!

  • Brandi
    February 2, 2012 at 10:04 AM

    Great post! I love candid style photos :)

  • February 2, 2012 at 10:55 AM

    What a great post! You have some beautiful shots to illustrate your tips– thank you!

  • February 2, 2012 at 10:56 AM

    Awesome post and photos Jen! Great ideas :)

  • Jen
    February 2, 2012 at 12:22 PM

    Jen – Great tips! I read quite a few articles about how to capture natural photos and you’ve listed quite a few that I either have not thought of or have not read. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Kira
    February 2, 2012 at 1:21 PM

    I love the colors in your photographs, they are vibrant! Thanks for all tips. I love the idea of capturing the subjects personality, but a lot of the time get “cheese” smiles or “do you really have the camera out again” expressions. I’ll try your suggestions!

    • Jen Bacher-Contributor
      February 3, 2012 at 9:59 AM

      Thank you! Ya, I tell my kids/clients to interact the way they normally do and sometimes tell them to pretend I’m not even there! It can be tricky though, especially with my own kids who are tired of their crazy obsessed photographer mom! Just keep that camera ready at all times so you can sneak in those real moments!

  • Tiffany
    February 2, 2012 at 1:24 PM

    Jen, you are amazing! Now the world can see why we love you so much… can’t wait to do another shoot with you :)

    • Jen Bacher-Contributor
      February 3, 2012 at 10:03 AM

      Thanks Tiff. It helps to have beautiful people to photograph. I could take pics of your cute girls all day!

  • February 2, 2012 at 1:46 PM

    I really loved the ideas… I will keep in mind for my next photo shoot!

  • February 2, 2012 at 2:40 PM

    Wonderful tips..thanks for sharing!
    I have to admit…the group of two shots with the couple and the bike…I loved the “sequence” of her telling a secret and then the stare…THEN i see the baby in the basket! LOVE the setting with that family photo…Awesome!

    • Jen Bacher-Contributor
      February 3, 2012 at 10:09 AM

      Thank you! The baby in the basket was very tricky. The basket was on the verge of falling off, which is why the dad is holding on to it! We had to do that shot quickly. Thank goodness the baby was a sleepy newborn. Thanks for your kind thoughts…

      • February 3, 2012 at 8:42 PM

        I was wondering how you did that one :O) It is so darling!!

  • February 2, 2012 at 7:58 PM

    Some great tips here, new idea to try.

  • February 2, 2012 at 10:21 PM

    great tips!! thanks for sharing

  • February 3, 2012 at 6:26 AM

    WOW.. those are some of the best candids photo’s of children I’ve ever seen.
    Jennie. x

  • February 3, 2012 at 4:19 PM

    Hi there Jen – just wondering what zoom lens you use, or suggest, for portraits? I’ve been in the market for one since i upgraded my DSLR but im unsure what i should get! Any help would be appreciated! Thank you xx

    • Jen Bacher-Contributor
      February 5, 2012 at 12:13 PM

      Roslyn, I just replied to your question, but for some reason it didn’t attach to your comment. So go back and look in the comments and you will see my reply to your question! I left my computer for awhile as I was typing my response and I think too much time passed for it to go to the right place?

  • February 4, 2012 at 12:38 PM

    Jen, this is an awesome post! Loved reading through it all and hearing your tips. I have the worst time with my daughter and photos, she yells no and runs in the other direction. Ha! I’ve learned to be in the shadows when it comes to her now and I love the candid shots so much better. I’m excited to read more from you this year! :)

  • Jen Bacher-Contributor
    February 5, 2012 at 12:09 PM

    I use the Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L zoom lens for portraits. If you are looking to spend less, the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 is more affordable and quite comparable. I used the Tamron lens for a couple of years before I upgraded to the 24-70 and was very pleased with it. The Canon 24-105mm f/4L is also a good portrait lens and general every day lens. The only drawback is that it is f/4 rather than f/2.8, which comes in handy in low light and indoors. For more on zoom lenses, check out a post I just did on my Formspring site…

    • Roslyn Logue
      February 6, 2012 at 9:38 AM

      Thanks so much for this! Yes i’ve been dreaming of the 24-70mm 2.8 but i think the Tamron 28-75mm 2.8 will be the best i can do atm – being a SAHM with a 2.5 year old and another bub on the way means money is tight! I definitley want the f/2.8 rather than the f/4 so ill just have to start saving! Thanks again :)

  • Laura
    February 6, 2012 at 12:58 PM

    WOW…these are great tips! The pictures you paired with them help illustrate your points perfectly. I pinned this and will be referring to it for quite some time to come. Thanks for being so specific and practical about how you use these ideas in your everyday shooting. I appreciate it :)

  • Amy
    April 13, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    Hi Jennifer!

    I love your portraits! What actions do you use? I love the ones used on the two little blone girls from the compliments tip! Is there a website you purchased them from or did you create your own? If you bought them, would you be willing to share the link? Or if you made them, do you have a tutorial on your website? Please e-mail me! Thanks!

    • April 20, 2012 at 9:44 PM

      I think I used the Florabella Luxe II set of actions on the little girls photo. If I use actions I always tweek them a bit using layer masks. Only buy actions that allow you to turn off the layers you don’t want or allow you to customize them to your taste. Here’s the link: http://www.florabellacollection.com/florabella-luxe-ii-photoshop-actions.html

      • Amy
        May 3, 2012 at 3:11 AM

        Fantastic! Thanks so much for the advice. These look great!

  • May 26, 2012 at 12:31 PM

    Love these tips and the Do’s and Dont’s! You’re very talented! Getting ready to do my first shoot come Sunday with a woman and her horses. Then in two weeks I am shooting two families at once! =P SO nervous!

    • May 28, 2012 at 11:48 AM

      Thank you! Hope your shoot went well today!

  • June 24, 2012 at 12:32 PM

    What awesome photos and practical advice! Encouraging because I do some of these things already and am looking forward to the next shoot so that I can use the rest of them. Thanks so much!

  • Shaista
    July 5, 2012 at 9:28 PM

    Great post Jen!
    It was a great read and learnt alot from it!
    Your work is amazing!
    Thank you!
    Shaista x

    • July 6, 2012 at 2:15 AM

      Thanks for taking the time to compliment. Means alot!

  • August 1, 2012 at 8:45 PM

    Awesome tips. Thanks for sharing.

  • Wendy
    August 30, 2012 at 9:32 AM

    I love what you shared. Lots of great ideas to keep their mind of of being in front of the camera. My favorite images are the ones that are not posed. Those are the ones that melt your heart.

  • September 21, 2012 at 10:06 PM

    Loved this! Thanks so much for these wonderful tips! I will definitely take these ideas into consideration.

  • Lauren
    October 26, 2012 at 4:50 PM

    I was wondering what zoom lens you used for tip number 8. Great post!

  • February 1, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    Fabulous information! Thank you thank you thank you!

  • June 10, 2013 at 1:16 PM

    I’m pinning this article! Great suggestions.

  • Lesa
    January 7, 2014 at 10:01 PM

    This was a really great post! Thanks for all the helpful tips with realistic examples! Beautiful!

  • Martha pimentel
    January 7, 2014 at 11:19 PM

    Perfect! These are amazing tips. Thank you!!!!! Do you mind If I ask what you shoot with and and edit with? Im a huge fan of your work. Just starting my photography journey and Im in that “I need to learn everything” mode.

  • Jill R
    January 14, 2014 at 4:33 PM

    Fantastic tips! Thank you!
    I have a random lens question for you…
    I use a Nikon D3100. I have a kit lens and also a 50mm that gives me BEAUTIFUL bokeh! I was just wondering what zoom type lens you might recommend to give me that crisp clear photo with the bokeh…but allows me to stand further away and zoom in to get it…etc?

  • Chrisi R.
    January 31, 2014 at 4:19 PM

    Thanks for the tips Jen! =) Love looking at your work.

  • April Marlow
    October 6, 2014 at 12:05 AM

    I ask kids “what’s in my camera? Is ____ (insert favorite cartoon character) in my camera?! It gets kids to look in the lense!

  • Chris
    October 30, 2016 at 10:09 AM

    Great tips, thank you so much for posting this. I am definitely going to try to incorporate some of these into my family portrait session that I have this evening. I think that clicking the shutter just before or slightly after the subject is ready is a great technique that can be used to catch your subject camera unaware. Also asking your subjects questions then clicking the shutter as soon as you see them crack a smile or laugh is another technique that I ofter use to break through the facade that most people put up when they are camera aware and capture “real moments” in my portrait sessions.


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