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6 (Mostly) Tangible Practices to Help Clients Be Themselves

8 min read

I’m going to start with the lousiest, lamest, most 90s primetime sitcom dating advice there is: just be yourself.

Of course, it absolutely is not that simple. Well, it sort of is. But not really. But sort of.

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Why it’s not simple:

You’re a messy amalgamation of your experiences. It’s the reason that “be yourself” is such crappy advice: not because your “self” is bad, but because it’s complicated.

It would be like if I asked you how to take great photos with my camera, and you advised me to “just push the button.” It’s not wrong; it’s just comically inadequate.

be themselves

Why it IS simple:

I’m going to make two assertions here that have consistently proven true in my life:

  1. Each day I have only a finite amount of “emotional energy”
  2. Once that emotional energy is spent, so am I

Not being myself AND activating creativity requires the expenditure of emotional energy. So, in theory, I can have more energy to be creative if I’m not pretending to be someone else.

Interacting with people I’m not comfortable with requires emotional energy because it requires constant vigilance and filtering.

Do you have any people in your life who:

  • Offer unsolicited advice when you mention difficulties?
  • Yuck your yum?
  • Minimize your feelings, accomplishments, or experiences?

I certainly do. And as a self-preservation tactic, I avoid saying or doing anything that might elicit a response that makes me feel bad. It’s mostly not a conscious effort, but nevertheless, it requires significant use of emotional energy, the evidence for which is that I feel exhausted and enervated after such interactions.

Conversely, do you have people in your life who:

  • Identify with your experiences by sharing their own instead of offering advice?
  • Make you feel heard?
  • Appreciate you?

I’ve found that I leave these interactions feeling capable and refreshed; they replenish my emotional energy. I’m not engaging in filters or self-preservation tactics because I know I’ll be accepted for exactly who I am.

So why is this relevant to interacting with our clients?

For two reasons. First, because you need to be this second example to them.

If they feel judged, unheard, or unappreciated, they’ll shut down. They will filter and self-preserve, not show you their true selves, and leave feeling exhausted and thinking photography sucks.

help clients be themselves

Help clients feel comfortable

But if you can make them feel awesome, validated, and appreciated, they will do what all people do when they feel awesome, validated, and appreciated: THEY WILL BE THEMSELVES. And if you’re reading this, that’s exactly what you want: to capture the true heart of your clients.

The second reason is for you.

YOU need to take the leap first. YOU need to show your clients you trust that they are the people in the second example. And that’s easier than it sounds because they wouldn’t have hired you in the first place if they weren’t. If you can be yourself, I promise you that will rub off on your clients (ew).

And this benefit is twofold: the less energy you expend filtering yourself, worrying about them judging you, or <> being professional, the more energy you’ll have to create stunning works of art.

This is all well and good, but what can you actually do during a session to get there? I don’t have all the answers or best practices for you, but these are some of the things that have worked really, really well for me.

When the self-doubt comes (and it will come), acknowledge it and move on

The last wedding I photographed, the bride requested a “90s CW-style teen-drama” photo of the bridal party. Badass, right? My idea was to arrange them in moody, coupled-up poses, do a long shutter in a dark room, and walk around manually flashing on each couple with an off-camera modifier.

Well, it didn’t work.

I tried it three times, and each time, the flash didn’t register in the exposure. I started to panic. The imposter syndrome started worming its way in. I’ve got all these people in dopey, dramatic poses, and I’m up here futzing with my camera. So you know what I did? I quit nerding around with the slow shutter and complicated “mobile flash” and just used the dang umbrella. “Strike a new pose after each flash,” I told them. And I think it turned out pretty sweet.

help clients be comfortable

Maybe I should’ve titled this section “Keep it Simple, Stupid.” Oh well. Maybe next time.

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Keep it simple

We photographers LOVE to overcomplicate. We think that because we can, we should. We love that we can control three different off-camera lights right from our little zone controller (I mean, I love that).

There is definitely a time and place for complexities that take exposures to the next level: light painting, super-specifically-spec’d commercial work, etc. But I think focusing our attention on that side of the creative pursuit cannibalizes our ability to connect with our clients and make them feel comfortable. I guess what I’m saying is don’t worry too much about the “how” of the photo. You know how.

Give compliments and validate

This will vary based on your and your client’s personalities, but here are some things I have found myself saying:

  • “Your hair looks incredible”
  • “You have the prettiest eyes/longest eyelashes” (works especially well on boys)
  • “You two are SEXY kissers”
  • “I just love how you two look at each other”
  • <<screaming>> “THAT’S SO GOOD” or “OH MY GAHHHHD”

Most of my clients tell me at some point how awkward or “bad at photos” they are. Instead of telling them they’re wrong, I say something like, “90% of my clients tell me that. Awkwardness is a social construct that has nothing to do with your personality and everything to do with selling beauty products.”

Or “it’s my job—not yours—to be good at photos. You just be you.”

I’m acknowledging their concerns while shifting the burden of responsibility to things outside their control. Now (hopefully), they don’t need to worry about what to do with their hands and can just be present.

Embrace your failures

If you aren’t pushing your limits, you’re not growing as a photographer. At a recent engagement session, it was chilly, so they were all jacketed up. I asked them to take off their jackets and throw them at me. It turned out fine, but I couldn’t get it to match what was in my head.

So I told them, “Thank you for trying that, but it was a dumb idea, and you can put your jackets back on.” Then I got an awesome shot of them laughing at my self-deprecation. And honestly, it’s not that bad of a shot.

help clients relax

Don’t pose too much

This might be a bit controversial, but here it is. Most of my clients want some direction but don’t want poses to feel contrived.

If you do a ton of very deliberate posing and it works for you, great! Keep doing it! Just be aware of why and how you’re doing it.

If you want your clients to be themselves, be careful not to undermine their personalities with your vision for perfection. While I could benefit from a wider variety of posing options (I’m working on it), I firmly believe that less is more.

Instead of very specific poses, try super-simple ones, like holding hands, nuzzling noses, or hugs from behind. We want to avoid giving them “assignments” and simply promote togetherness.

Work on your brand so that it reflects your personality and your strengths

My brand (like myself) is loud, confident, and borderline inappropriate (lol borderline, yeah, right). So, most of my inquiries come from people who mesh well with that personality type. Certainly, it removes a huge swath of potential clients, but that’s fine. Not fine, actually. It’s awesome.

People who would be uncomfortable with me just don’t reach out. That means by the time we’re shooting together, it’s already a good fit.

photography clients

While I won’t go too much into developing your brand, check out some of these excellent resources that can help if you’re finding you don’t mesh well with your clients.

What next?

Be gentle with yourself! Not every single photography experience needs to involve deep catharsis and healing of childhood trauma. Honestly, your clients hired you because they like your work, and they like you. That makes a session with them a safe space. You don’t need to pretend. You don’t need to impress.

You are already impressive. Just show them who you are, and they’ll return the favor.

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Written by Mike Stempler | Photos by Shutterhead Studios