Dealing with an Uncooperative Subject


There’s an old saying about never working with children or animals. Photographers though could probably expand that to include people in general. Although most photographic subjects are nice and friendly and helpful, it’s inevitable in a long career that you’ll come across a few people who want their pictures taken exactly the way they want and at exactly the time they want — and neither of them will be the way or the time that you want.monkey1.jpg

Children are probably the toughest of subjects. Ask them to pose and you might manage to get them to swap a grumpy face for a cheesy smile but that’s not likely to do when their parents are paying for what they hope will be a natural-looking portrait of their little angel.

One solution is to forget about the client and think about the subject.

With kids I try to literally get down to their level and get them to play make-believe or dress-up. They usually like that and will be a bit more cooperative, especially if they think you are shooting them as they like.

says Laura Burlton, a photographer with about seven years’ experience. It’s an approach that requires a lot of confidence. You have to trust that the child will deliver a look that they and their parent will like simply through play, and you have to trust in your abilities to capture that moment when it happens.

That takes some skill. Bribing them with lollipops would probably be easier but it’s unlikely to deliver such impressive results.

Children though are small beer in comparison to the touchiest of photographic subjects: a bride on her wedding day. Bakari Chavanu, who set up his photography business just a year ago, points out that while the bride is the center of the day, she’s often a nervous wreck — which really isn’t a good look for the wedding album. He says:

This is where people skills are a must. You have to work on helping the bride relax and show her beautiful smile and personality. Though you want to capture her in special candid moments, you often have to set up shots and encourage her to just enjoy the moment and not worry how things are going outside her room. Constantly let her know how beautiful she is and how special this day is for her. There isn’t a bride I have met yet that didn’t have a beautiful personality, and I want to do all I can to capture that in her.

Sometimes though, that sort of relaxation-through-flattery just doesn’t do the job. Laura Burlton described being a second shooter at a wedding recently in which the bride didn’t want any pictures taken of her getting ready. That removed about half of Laura’s job. She chose to grab a few detail shots, then left the bride to it. “It’s all about what the customer wants and how we as photographers can accommodate that,” she said.

And ultimately, that sounds like the right approach. Some subjects will always be more cooperative and more photogenic than others. Although your goal as a photographer will always be to get the best picture possible, if the biggest obstacle is the subject, he or she can only have themselves to blame when the bill arrives for an image they don’t love.

Photo by .m for matthijs


4 comments for this post.

  1. Tim Solley Said:

    I photograph kids, and they can be a real chore. I have the most success just being a kid too, playing with them and gaining their trust. I find it's often worth 15 minutes of playing around without shooting to establish rapport with the child before I even break out the camera. Time well spent.

  2. digi dude Said:

    For me the only possible way to take a good photo of a kid is not to ask him to pose, but shoot him when he is busy doing something. I didn't photograph children for money, but those good children photos i have are all candid.

  3. Shannon Said:

    I have found that one of the best ways to photograph people for portraits is to use a tripod and a cable release, and simply set up to shoot them, and then stand off to the side with the cable release in hand and chat with them. Light direction, while chatting, distracting them from the camera, really... and you can usually get several pictures without them even knowing, unless you use flash. I did an on location portrait shoot like that once where I was all done, and they never knew I'd taken the first shot! But they loved the results so much that I got quite a bit of word-of-mouth advertising.

  4. Dan Said:

    Good article, as a portrait photographer, having to deal with kids in a studio/family environment that only allows 20mins per session. I don't have the gift of spending 15min just talking nor getting down on the childs level, but what I have found in posing the child is just be yourself, nonthreating and patince with your directions and commands in what you want, does it capture all the nature juice of the child, not always but you will get a good family portrait

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