Top Tips For Photographing Camera Shy Subjects

Whether you’re a photographer by trade or you just love doing it as a hobby, there’s bound to come a time when you photograph someone who would rather be anywhere but in front of your lens. A senior with a session purchased by their parents, an award winner who doesn’t want to shoot their official photo, even a friend who needs a professional-looking headshot but feels too shy about it – the list goes on. 

Camera-shy subjects can be hard to work with. If you’re not in control of the session, you can end up with a lot of stiff, awkward, uncomfortable images at the end of it – photos that no one would want to use or keep. But if you know how to work with someone who hates having their photo taken, you could even end up turning it into something they enjoy! Here are the tips you need to make it happen.

Here is what we will cover:

  • Connecting With Your Subject
  • Music and Dance, Laughter and Gossip
  • Giving Praise and Reinforcement
  • Stepping Back and Being Invisible

Connecting With Your Subject

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Photo By | Just by talking, you can connect deeper and put your model at ease

Everyone has different reasons for being camera-shy. Some people don’t like the way they look, while others just don’t know what to do with themselves when the lens is pointed in their direction. For some, it’s first-time nerves, or for others it could be linked to an experience they had in the past where the photos were unflattering.

Find out what is making your subject so uncomfortable and try to put their fears at rest. Let them know that you’ll make sure the pictures are flattering, that you will guide them and tell them what to do, and that the two of you will get through the experience together. If that doesn’t work, you can also take the time to get to know something your subject is interested in. For example, if they work in architecture, you could ask them about your favorite building, or what the process of designing a building is like, or which local buildings they have worked on. Getting them to talk about something they love and are knowledgeable about, and showing an interest in that, can help them to really relax.

Key Lesson:

Talking to your subject can take you a long way. Address the elephant in the room, put their mind at rest, and try talking about something they love so they can control the conversation and lose their nerves in those enjoyable thoughts.

Music and Dance, Laughter and Gossip

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Photo By Diego Rosa | Your model’s dancing might not be THIS graceful, but they will have a big smile on their face!

Standing in a silent studio with only the clicking of the lens and the beeping of lights to accompany you can be so unnerving! We do it all the time, so we tend to forget, but it’s really an awkward environment for first-timers. Solve this by putting on some music – something your subject loves so they can loosen up!

Encourage them to sing along and have a little dance, and make sure the music is upbeat, if possible, to encourage a light mood. Or, if you have a theme for your shoot, you can center the music around that. When shooting the image I used for the cover photo of this article, my model was super nervous. Because we were using a gold theme for makeup, décor, and clothing, I created a quick playlist which only featured songs with the word ‘gold’ in them. As each new song came on, we started to really laugh about this in-joke. She could roll her eyes at me and the effort I’d gone to for the joke, and we could sing along to old cheesy songs and relax!

Making your model laugh is key for helping them settle into their role in front of the camera. You can tell them a funny story about something that happened to you – maybe even share empathy with their nerves by talking about a time you were so nervous and ended up embarrassing yourself! Or where you were really nervous but everything turned out fine, with a few laughs along the way. If you can get them to go into some gossip about their own life, you can also capture some really natural expressions and reactions, and get to know one another better – which is very conducive to relaxing.

Key Lesson:

Music to dance and sing to, jokes to laugh at, and gossip to get absorbed in are all tools you can use to help your subject to relax and forget about their nerves or apprehension.

Giving Praise and Reinforcement

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Photo By Upesh Manoush | How it feels to be told you’re doing a great job!

When you’re nervous about something or not sure you’re doing it right, how amazing does it feel to be told you’re doing great?

A little gentle encouragement can go a long way! Tell your model they’re doing fine, they look beautiful, you love the way they’re standing. If and when they do manage to find a pose and expression that actually really fits what you’re looking for, make sure to dial that praise up accordingly! 

When I’m shooting with anyone – even if they aren’t nervous – I make sure to tell them when they’re doing a great job. Not only will this boost their confidence and make them perform better, but they can also get the hang of what you want from them, resulting in much better photos!

Key Lesson:

Let your model know when they’re doing great! And even if they aren’t, a bit of encouragement can go a long way towards helping them do great.

Stepping Back and Being Invisible

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Photo By Tyler Nix | A great candid moment can only come when the model forgets they are being photographed!

There may be some cases where no matter what you do, the model just can’t relax. It could be that they are far too nervous or self-conscious, or perhaps for some reason your efforts just haven’t landed. 

In that case, what I like to do is to put the camera aside and maybe sit down for a bit. No, really! At this point you might be feeling stressed out and thinking that you’d like to get things over and done with as quickly as possible, but don’t let yourself show it. Instead, pretend you’re taking a break. Don’t let the model walk away and have a snack or look at their phone, though – now’s the time to capture them! 

Keep trying to engage them – or let them do something else if it will help. They could chat with another member of the crew, letting them forget you are there completely. Then your job is to just watch, and wait. You could get lucky in a candid moment where they finally smile or laugh, now they think the pressure is off. That’s when you lift that camera, quick as a flash, and grab the moment after all!

Getting the first good shot is really important. That’s when you can say “Oh, you look so beautiful in that one” and encourage them to do another. If they still aren’t responsive, just keep up the silent background act until they let you capture the moment that you need!

Key lesson:

If your model still isn’t comfortable, just try to remember the old phrase “just pretend I’m not here”. There’s a reason it’s a cliché – when you don’t focus on the fact you’re being photographed, you tend to look more natural and relaxed!

In Conclusion

Here are the key steps to take when you’re confronted with a model who is too camera-shy to look good in your shots:

  • Ask them why they’re nervous and try to put their fears to rest
  • Get them to talk about something they’re interested in so they relax
  • Put on some upbeat or calming music that they enjoy
  • Have a dance and a sing so they feel they can join in
  • Tell some funny stories or jokes
  • Get your subject gossiping so they can share some natural expressions and poses
  • Praise them until they get it right, then praise them even more!
  • Pretend to take a break and relax until they forget about the camera

Self-Check Quiz

  1. Why should you try to speak to your model?
  2. What topics are the best to make someone relax and feel more confident?
  3. What kind of music will help improve the mood of the shoot?
  4. How can you use the music to help your model relax?
  5. What kind of stories can you tell to help break the ice?
  6. What’s the best way to get natural smiles and laughs from someone who is nervous?
  7. When should you start praising your model?
  8. When should you stop praising your model?
  9. How can you trick even the most camera-shy subject into giving you a genuine moment captured on camera?

Learning Assignment

With this topic, there’s no better way to learn than to dive right in.

Find someone who you know full well is going to be nervous in front of the camera. It could be your mom, your teenage son who thinks posing isn’t cool, or someone you work with who is more used to being on the other side of the camera! The point is to seek out someone who never has their picture taken willingly, and set yourself the challenge of getting some fantastic shots with them.

Work through the tips in this list in order, and hopefully next time you’ll find it even more natural to put someone at ease!

Cover Photo By Rhiannon D’Averc

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