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How to Pose People and Get Great Expressions in Headshot Photos

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This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
How To Get Your Subject To Act Naturally
Making Your Poses Work for You

Knowing how to interact with your clients during a photo shoot may be the most important part of your role as a photographer. 

In this short video tutorial from my course on Headshot Photography, you'll learn some valuable tricks that will make you and your clients more comfortable during your photo shoots. The course is on headshot photography, but many of the tips and tricks are useful for other types of photography too.

People Skills

For many of you, working with people is a naturally skill. For others of you, like myself, the thought of having to talk to a stranger while you take their photo makes your hands get clammy and your heart beat faster.

Establish a Rapport Before Your Bring Out the Camera

In the past, I've photographed a lot of dogs. I currently photograph children pretty often. One of the lessons I learned photographing dogs and kids is not to have the camera out when you start the session. For them, the camera is a big scary machine that intimidates and confuses them. And it sits in front of my face in a way that makes me seem not human. It's very important to spend some time with them without the camera. You want them to see you are a friendly person, and show that you can be trusted to take their picture.

As it turns out, CEOs and actors are not much different than dogs and toddlers. They need the reassurance just as much as anyone that the person behind the camera is a friendly, comfortable person. For this reason, I always greet my clients without a camera in my hand and without a camera anywhere in sight. I greet them with a handshake and I make reassuring eye contact. If it's a past client, I usually greet them with a big hug and remind them of how much fun we had last time. This time is so vital and it really sets the tone for the rest of the shoot.

Stay Positive

Once you start shooting the most important piece of advice I can give you is to learn to be positive, even when it seems like your shoot is falling apart. Negativity can only accomplish two things: One, it can undermine your subject's confidence in you as a photographer, which will show up in your photos. Two, and this is much worse, it will make them feel like they are failing as subjects, and that it's their fault you're not getting good images. Either way, your images will suffer.

Of course, you don't want to lie and just keep taking bad photos, so you will need to be creative and figure out a way to move things in the right direction. For example, if you're just not getting what you want and it's your fault, you may need to say something like this just doesn't look right. And you'd be putting out a negative vibe. On the other hand, you could say something more like let's just move your head over in this direction, and let's see if we can get more light in your eyes. Now that may not work to get your photo just right, but it should get you moving in the right direction. As long as you're moving and kind of keep everything positive, you should get there eventually.

Take the Edge Off and Get Comfortable

Sometimes your subject's expression just doesn't look right, even though your lighting and posing are great. Most of the time this happens at the beginning of a session and it happens because your client is still nervous or maybe a little self-conscious. This is so common in fact that sometimes before we even get started I will say something like "hey just so you know the first couple minutes might feel a little awkward. But don't worry, even professional models need a little time to warm up to the camera." This really takes the pressure off of your subject and it helps them settle into a more comfortable attitude for their session.

Lighten Up

For me, the best tool for interacting with my subjects and to make them feel comfortable is humor. Being photographed is an extremely vulnerable situation for your subject, and it can cause them quite a bit of stress. Almost every successful people photographer that I know either has a very good sense of humor naturally, or they've spent some time developing a schtick that they can turn to when they need to lighten the atmosphere.

If there's any doubt in your mind that humor is important, then listen to this: scientists have shown that laughter physically changes your body. It lowers your blood pressure and your heart rate and it puts you in a more relaxed state. If you don't have a natural ability to be funny and make people laugh, there's nothing to worry about. You can still be helped.

When I first started photographing people, I was usually really nervous and I had a hard time being funny, so what I did was I watched movies and TV comedies that had something to do with photography or modeling. For me, I found some great lines in the movie Zoolander and in the TV show America's Next Top Model. And then, when I needed to get a good laugh out of my subject, I had a little pocket full of things that I could pull out, and interact with them and make jokes, and it worked really well. A sense of humor is definitely something that can be developed, so stick with it and practice because it will definitely pay off in the end. 

Pump Up the Jams

Another scientifically proven way to lower someone's stress levels and to make them more comfortable is to listen to music. Music is an amazing addition to almost any photo session and I use it whenever it makes sense. Typically, I have some soft background music playing when my client arrives and as we're chatting before the shoot begins. Right before we get going, I'll ask them what kind of music they think would help them get into the session more. Sometimes it's just some quiet background music to fill in the awkward silence. Sometimes we end up blasting an 80s party mix. Either way, the results turn out much better than without music.

Steady Affirmation and Feedback

You not only want to talk to your client to get them to change things, you also want to talk to your client when they're doing things right. This will help them know what to do and what not to do.

Affirmation is a huge part of getting the best out of your client. I love to say things like, "that's perfect, that's great, I love that look, keep giving me that," things like that. You want make sure that your client understands when you're happy with what they're doing. This makes them a lot more confident and it also keeps them doing the things that you like them to do.

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Flow and Pace: Keep Movement Easy

The final few pieces of advice that I have for working with headshot clients are less about psychology and more about the practical ways to get your clients to move and to pose the way that you want them to. You can use all of them or none of them, but it is really essential to be able to quickly, and easily communicate with your subjects what you want them to do.

Make Direction Easy

The first is to learn to speak directions from the point of view of your subject. Let's pretend that you are my subject and that I want you to look in a certain direction. From my perspective, I would say that I want you to look to my right, but from your perspective, I'm asking you to look to your left. For me to make things easier for you, I should tell you to "look over here, to the left." It's pretty unnatural to do this, to hold up your right hand and ask someone to look at your left. But it gets easier as you go.

Another way to get just the right position is to tell your client to pretend that they are looking into a mirror, and to match your movements with the movements that you make with your face and body. So I may say something like "I want you to turn your head to the left just a little bit, and bring your head forward just a little bit." I may say "bring your head just up a little bit to make you taller and lean your shoulders back."

This is probably the easiest way to communicate with your subject, but the problem is that it requires you to bring your camera down from your face while you're showing them what to do. Doing so will probably slow down your shoot and you may miss some great expressions while your camera is down.

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Pretend there's an invisible string.

The final way that I give directions is similar to the mirror technique, but instead I use my hand to show them what to do. I tell my clients to pretend that my hand is attached to the front of their face, and that the movements of their head should match my hand. I'll hold the camera up to my face with my right hand and then I'll use my left hand to give direction.

From here, I can have my client move their head this way or that way. I can have them move it up or down or in and out and it gives me some really good looks. And by doing this, I can keep looking through my camera and give direction at the same time. When I'm shooting head shots, this is usually the way I do it because it really helps make sure I'm not missing anything.

Sometimes I'll use a little bit of each of the techniques to get what I want. All of this together should give you a great start as you learn to interact and communicate with your clients.

Watch the Full Course

Working with clients is just one aspect of a successful photo shoot. In the full course, Headshot Photography, you'll learn the other ingredients too, such as how to use both studio and natural light, what equipment you need, and what post-production tools and processes to use.

I'll also talk about how to do different types of headshots, such as corporate, actors, or general headshots. In the next lesson we talk about developing your personal style as a headshot photographer. By the end of the course, you'll be ready to go into business as a headshot photographer.

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