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I'm doing a personal project taking portraits of friends, family and acquaintance. Most of them are not used to having their portrait taken and I don't intend to portray them as models either. I show them other portraits in the series beforehand so that they know what I want. I'm looking for nicely lit portraits without excessive makeup, just like they look in everyday life, but as flattering as I possibly can.

The problem is that almost everyone get very nervous days before and when they finally stand in front of the camera they've overdone their makeup, put too much thought into what they're wearing and they even look scared in the photos. When they've seen the first few shots they usually relax a lot, but they're still overdressed or have used too much makeup. Right now I often have to take their portrait a second time when they're confident I won't let them down and present them in an unflattering way if I want the natural look I'm looking for.

How should I approach taking planned portraits of people and make them feel comfortable and not feel the need to overprepare?

  • I realise that this question is a bit subjective, but I think it fits the constructive subjective category that are allowed here. – Hugo Mar 6 '15 at 7:24
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  • @mattdm That question is helpful, but my question has more to do with how to make people less stressed out prior to to the session so that they don't overprepare and not so much about the posing itself. – Hugo Mar 6 '15 at 10:22
  • @Hugo I'm a portrait photographer and rarely get cases where people have gone too overboard so I'm not sure what you're doing differently. If it's a personal project, why would they be so concerned anyway? If you want them to look as they do everyday, then you should possibly just ask them to not prepare at all. – connersz Mar 6 '15 at 11:10
  • @connersz For some people it works to tell them not to prepare at all. Others just gets very self aware in a bad way. I guess it's different when you're working as a portrait photographer and the client has come to you as opposed to when the photographer is asking for them to be photographed. When I'm photographing someone who've requested my help it usually turns out quite smoothly. – Hugo Mar 6 '15 at 11:20
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Your question has two aspects, how to prevent people from over-preparing for the shoot, and how to get them to relax during the shoot, so I will address each individually.

Preparation: From what you've said, it sounds like your subjects may be feeling a bit pressured into getting the perfect shot. This will cause them to do what makes them feel the most "perfect". As you've noticed, often times this means applying copious amounts of makeup, putting too much time and effort into their outfits, and then they can become concerned about whether or not they went overboard with preparing just to end up looking nervous.

The tricky part is that people can prepare differently for the same situation. Sometimes you may have to say slightly different things to different people, based on their personality. In general, I would suggest you don't overhype the shoot. If you show them pictures of models being casual, they'll likely feel like they need to appear like "models" and not appear "casual". Either show them some of the pictures of "normal" people being casual, or don't show them any pictures.

Relaxing: I've been on a shoot where our subjects were an engaged couple, one of whom was very nervous and had a very tough time relaxing and giving a natural smile. The only way we could get him to relax was to talk with them and start asking questions like, "tell us a funny story about your fiance", "how did you guys meet?", or "what did you think of the football game last night" (he was really into sports). This got them talking about things they were comfortable with, which lead them to relax their postures and give natural smiles.

Again, it goes back to having to say/do slightly different things with different people. Talk with each person about things specific to them, their likes or passions. Tell them to ignore the camera and just look at you. Possibly have a remote where you can be making eye contact with them while taking pictures with the camera on a tripod. Tell a joke... get them to laugh. That makes almost everyone relax.

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Could you abandon the plan and just follow them around for a while, photographing them at home, and while they're driving or on public transport, at the pub/office/theatre, and so on, firing shots every time you like the scene and the lighting?

Doing this I found three groups of people: those who hate the camera and scowl at it, those who love the camera and pull daft faces, and those who are naturally good at pulling a model pose instantly. In all three cases I find that my favourite photos are the ones where the subject is so used to the presence of the camera and so used to your lifting it to your eye that they forgot to react to it at all. Depending on the person this can take hours or days, but sometimes you get lucky if they're distracted by other tasks.

If you insist on staging portraits then you might find that the people who fall into the first two groups never do look comfortable or natural when you press the shutter. The scowlers can't help but look unhappy and apprehensive, and the zany faces seem to find it difficult not to grin. Better to catch them off guard, if you can.

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My 2 cents.

1) Before the photo.

  • Yes, a good portrait is a special moment, you don't want to make it after a crazy party where some have the eyes red or bags on the eyes.

  • They must look for the clothing he or she really likes, not just the suit that is in the closet since last year. 1 or 2 options. Define the type of portrait. Casual, rustic, elegant, sport.

  • If the photo is in the afternoon, mature woman mainly can put a cotton mask with cold water on her face for some time in the morning, they will know this kind of trick.

  • If people prepare for the photoshoot, they will feel better on it.

2) On the studio, location.

  • Avoid stress situations, "I parked wrong my car," "I forgot my shoes." That doesn't matter anymore.

  • Make a good environment, some music, like the one you can hear in an elevator. If people are young, a more rhythmic one.

  • Offer a glass of water at least.

3) Before the shoot

  • Make them rise the arms, all the way to the ceiling, 2 or 3 times, like they just woke up in a sunny day in a musical movie. Yes. That simple exercise will relax a lot a person.

  • You can take one by one a little apart from the rest and tell them to make some face exercise, a big Aaaaaah, a big Eeeeee, make the cheeks like a jazz trumpet player.

4) During the photo

  • Talk, talk and talk, tell them that they look great. You have to be in a very good mood.

  • Make a "bounce" reaction. For example if I have a group of kids, I tell them to make monster face, I take the picture and then I make them make a Happy face.

  • Don't be scared on "weird" poses if that pose works. But make the posing fun. Imagine the grandma as a cheerleader. Probably she won't jump, but she will laugh about it.

  • I take a lot of pictures before I tell them I'm taking pictures, I just say I'm reading the light, which I'm probably doing, but it doesn't matter.

  • You have to act the poses too. Be fun. People are more confident imitating someone rather than following verbal instructions.

The make up thing...

  • This is another issue where I'm not expert, but you can tell women that put some makeup for a daytime event. It's always better to put some more if the case.

But this depends on the clothing, the hair, age, skin type, etc.

  • You can be very clear. If you have a skin imperfection you want to hide it's better to remove it in Photoshop rather than a big plaster of make up.

  • You can work with some makeup artist or probably ask help with some in the family that has good taste on that issue.

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To make someone comfortable just start talking to them casually without showing them that you are searching for a photograph with a perfect natural pose , as the person sitting in front of you will start getting comfortable you will notify that some how there body will make a triangle shape either with hands,legs ,etc. NOTE: any person sitting or standing in a comfort tends to make a triangle shape with there body which automatically looks harmonious to eyes ,that is where you can ask them to freeze or be stable in that position and then you can click them as you want.

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    Note that the question is not really about how to get them to pose as I want. That is often rather easily solved after I've showed them a couple of good photos I've taken of them. The question is about how to not get them stressed up before the shoot, which makes them overprepare. – Hugo Mar 6 '15 at 9:50
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You don't have to be honest about the process you intend to follow. This is something that is exploited in many psychology experiments. In this case, you could explain to the subjects that to make the perfect pictures of them, you first need pictures that are less than perfect where the clothes they were must be casual clothing they were at home; the makeup should be what they usually wear at home.

Then you tell that after that first shoot comes the real deal where they really need to look picture perfect. Try to get it in their heads that to compile the best pictures you need to do post processing where their casual looks in the first shoot is essential. If they are sceptical, you can always invent a story about needing to extrapolate away imperfections that are present when they are dressed normally and look the way they always do.

You then do the two shoots, the first one gives you your desired picture. Don't cancel the second shoot, that may cause anger as the subjets will have prepared for that. So, do take all these pictures as perfect as you can. Show them all the pictures you took and explain to them why the second set is so bad compared to the first set, and that therefore you decided to use only the pictures from the first set. You can keep it a secret that you deliberately fooled them about the whole procedure.

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