5 Tips for Interacting With Subjects During Portrait Sessions

Technical knowledge of photography is exceedingly important, but for the studio portrait photographer, nothing beats excellent interpersonal skills. Effectively communicating with your subjects sets them at ease, which automatically boosts the quality of your photographs.

In the following video, photographer Daniel Norton discusses the five methods he uses to put subjects at ease during portrait sessions:

While every professional portrait photographer has their own preferred methodology for interacting with clients, Norton finds that the following practices fit into his workflow perfectly:

1. Shoot with an 85mm portrait lens

While a long telephoto lens might seem like the most flattering lens choice for shooting portraits—because of the generally low distortion levels—Norton explains that an 85mm lens, like the Nikon 85mm f/1.4G or the Canon 85mm f/1.2L II USM, provides great length and makes it easy for you to effectively communicate with your subject.

“I like something that’s long enough to flatter the subject… but not so long that I have to shout at them,” said Norton.

2. Utilize a tripod

Norton almost always uses tripods in his studio portrait shoots because he appreciates the convenience of being able to pre-focus, as well as the freedom a tripod gives him to move around and interact more with his subjects.

3. Keep your subject informed

When you tweak lighting, fix flyaway hairs on your subject, or adjust your camera settings, explain why you’re making those adjustments so that your subject doesn’t think they’re doing something wrong. It’s also a good practice to ask for permission before touching your subject!

“If you’re fiddling with your lights and you’re fiddling with your camera, they might think it’s their fault, especially if they’re not an experienced model,” said Norton. “Let your subject know what you’re doing.”

Norton also recommends telling subjects where the light looks best on their faces so that you can issue the simple direction, “Look toward your light,” throughout the shoot.

4. Play music in the background

During each session, play simple, appealing music in the background. This will help to put your subjects at ease and set the tone of the photo shoot. However, for Norton, there’s a catch—he never allows subjects to bring music because their music can be distracting.

5. Encourage nervous subjects to embody a character

Allowing non-professional subjects to loosely embody a character archetype will coax their true personalities out into the open. For example, if your subject’s jacket makes them look like a rock star, inform them and start the session by photographing them as if they actually were.

“Give [them] a story,” said Norton. “They can try to take on a personality and let them feel like they can play with it and not be so uncomfortable having to be ‘themselves.'”

daniel norton interacting with models subjects

Good interaction with your subject will result in natural, flattering photographs.

In most cases, your subjects will quickly relax and start having fun. When that happens, you can shift gears to photographing the essence of who they really are.

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