How to Make Your Portrait Subjects 100% Comfortable with You

Today’s letter is all about how to work with a portrait subject.

Hey Mike,

Do you have any advice for making non-models comfortable in front of the camera? I always have trouble getting people to relax.

Hi Kevin,

Thank you for the question.

Let’s start from a nervous subject’s point of view.

What could they be afraid of ahead of a shoot? I’d guess it’s things like this:

  1. I’m going to look bad in the photos
  2. The photographer won’t know what he’s doing
  3. The photo shoot will be miserable

I address these fears with my “P.E.D.S.” model.

P.E.D.S stands for:

  1. Prepare
  2. Entertain
  3. Direct
  4. Show

Let’s go through each step:

1. Prepare

On just about every shoot, your subject’s going to ask “what should I do?”

If you say something like “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” you’ve outed yourself as unprepared and incompetent.

I know this from experience. On my first portrait shoot, I took 566 pictures and got zero keepers. I’d like to think that’s some kind of record, because I should have gotten at least one good photo by accident.

Why? Because I was obviously unprepared, and my subject had zero confidence in me.

Your answer should be something like this:

“First we’ll do a tight headshot up against this wall, and then I’m going to sit you in this chair for a full-length shot. After that, we’ll do a wardrobe change and move on to another setup… ”

You’re proving that you’re prepared.

So go into every shoot with a game plan. You don’t need to follow it to the letter, but have some specific ideas in mind so you can get your subject on board.

That sets people at ease, which is step 1 in a successful shoot.

Step 2 is to…

2. Entertain!

When it comes to loosening people up, one big belly laugh is more powerful than ten shots of vodka.

So you must entertain.

I’ll give you two tricks for making people laugh without being funny yourself.

The first is a Jedi Mind Trick I call the “Imaginary Friend” technique.

With this trick, you literally outsource laughter creation to someone who’s not even with you.

Here’s how I used it on a shoot earlier this year.

This is Dolores at 12:23 p.m.:

A minute later, we had this conversation:

Mike: “Think about the funniest person you know. Can you see them in your mind?”

Dolores: “Yep.”

Mike: “Now imagine you’re not allowed to laugh because we have to take a very serious picture. And that person is standing behind me right now trying to make you laugh.

Result at 12:25 p.m:

Nothing makes people laugh more than not being allowed to laugh.

And Dolores was giggling uncontrollably within 2 minutes after we got started, setting the stage for a fun day.

Ideally, your subject will laugh so hard that they’ll say “I’m sorry, I just can’t stop laughing.”

The second trick is the “Ric Flair” technique.

Why is it called the “Ric Flair?”

Well, it’s pretty hard to make me laugh. But fire up a Ric Flair clip and I’ll laugh so hard that tears will run down my face.

So ask your subject what they find funny.

Then go to YouTube and put it on.

Problem solved.

3. Direct

Once in a while, you’ll find a subject that was born to perform in front of the camera. They look great no matter what they do, and you just have to stay out of the way. Banni was one such subject:

These people are rare. Most folks — including professional models — require direction.

Don’t take it from me. Let supermodel Linda Evangelista explain why she loves working with legendary fashion photographer Steven Meisel:

“With Steven you don’t feel alone when you are on set. So many photographers can be insecure, they don’t know what they want and you don’t know if you are pleasing them. It’s not like that with Steven. He is confident and makes you feel safe. The atmosphere on set is light. If he says what you are doing is good, then it is because he has the most impeccable taste and judgment, like when he makes a call on color, lighting, or placement.”

In the simplest of terms, she trusts him.

Your first step in building trust is being prepared.

But once you get going, direction is where you prove you really know your stuff. In your subject’s eyes, you are the expert. So act like it and give regular communication.

Direction lets your subject know he’s in good hands, and that you’re sweating the details to make the pictures their best.

It can be as simple as things like “move your head just a little to the left” and “put your hand on your back hip.”

And explain in nontechnical terms why you are directing them a certain way, especially if it’s not the most comfortable position.

You could say “I need you to bring your chin up just a little more so the light hits your eyes the right way.”

And be positive, especially when the pictures suck. If a shoot’s not going well, you can turn it around by tricking your subject into thinking it’s going well.

I’ve found that the better someone feels, the better they tend to look.

So make people feel good, even if you have to tell a little white lie.

And when you get that first killer shot of the session, you better….

4. Show!

Showing is more 100 times more effective than telling.

You can give compliments all day long. But visual proof is everything.

Pull up a picture and say “look at how the light is wrapping around your face” or “I love this little smirk you have.”

Most people have no idea how good they can look. It’s your job to show them.


Editor’s Note: This is an exclusively syndicated blog post from OnPortraits. Get the Free eBook ’37 Weird Tips for Better Portrait Photography’ from