August 11, 2020
The backwards secret about posing families naturally is that you have to get them to do things that are completely unnatural. But while doing unnatural things they look natural. Say what? This seems completely counterintuitive, so let’s dissect.
What do we all look like when we’re being “natural”? Probably slumped unflatteringly (but comfortably!) on a couch. Do we act and dress the way we do in a photo session in “real” life? nah. It’s a special experience to be photographed and should remain so. As photographers when we say we want “natural,” clients freeze up because they know we don’t mean let it all hang out, but they’re not sure how much to relax and how much to keep on their best behavior. What we really want is the sweet spot at the intersection of natural–not stiff, uncontrived, authentic–and the gorgeous, the magical, with a splash of extraordinary. But how do we get there? It’s seeing everything that naturally occurs with love goggles–lenses that let us see the magic in the mundane and honor it with art. no one wants their regular, “natural” self or life documented without love goggles. That’s a fluorescent light at the wrong angle when you’ve just rolled outta bed. Love goggles change it to candlelight with a great blowout on your best day. Which is more real, more natural? In something as permanent as photographs, it’s a dance between seeing what is authentic to the family and inserting ourselves to make it come alive. Holding space for everything that is true and real, and sprinkling that bit of extra sparkle to take your photos and their memories, their family, from pure documentation to the best versions of themselves, the version they can hang on their walls and be inspired by because they want to be more like the people they see in those photos. We shouldn’t deny people the opportunity to see themselves that way because they weren’t naturally touching heads or relaxing their shoulders or dropping their chins. It’s the tiniest details that make images feel natural, the littlest changes in body language that make a loving connection or a stiff pose and even if it feels unnatural to clients to touch cheeks or hug for an entire minute, the resulting images communicate the
Whether it’s in a photo session, the grocery store, or on the street, we humans read each other immediately, all without exchanging a word. When you see someone with their arms crossed, that sends a message,while someone with their arms outstretched for a hug communicates the complete opposite loud and clear. As photographers we are visual communicators. The only thing that ultimately matters is what is communicated in the finished images–and yet many of us get lost in the weeds trying to make sure our clients have an explosively fun and connecting experience and cross our fingers that the images look natural.
Photographers wonder about creating an experience and making clients feel comfortable, and they think that making clients feel comfortable is the key to great images. You can absolutely get beautiful images when your clients feel comfortable, but listen–have you ever encountered a stiff family who no matter what you did, said, or directed them to do still wasn’t able to loosen up and “act natural”? Me too.
So instead of concocting an elaborate plan to get clients to FEEL natural and emotive–focus on getting clients to LOOK natural and emotive. That runs the risk of sounding heartless, but you as a photographer need to be able to deliver killer images every time, and you can’t do that if you’re constantly waiting for clients to give you what you want, yet you’re not sure exactly what you want because you’re waiting for them to show you through some connected, mega-fun experience.
I’d rather spend 5 minutes making everyone look natural than spend the whole session chasing some elusive natural “feeling” and crossing my fingers for the final images.
The first step is to get ultra clear on your vision and what you want to say as a family photographer. Vision has become a bit of a buzzword in our industry and can feel nebulous in trying to figure out what your vision actually is. Here’s the magic question to ask yourself in regard to vision: If you were being paid by an art gallery instead of a client, what kinds of images would you want to create? Your answers will give you all the information you need about what kinds of emotions you most want to convey, and then you can work backwards in actually creating them. Once you have that crystal clear vision for what makes people look natural inside what you want to make, you will be able to create it piece by piece, asking dad to smile no matter what when kids are about to hug-attack and having mom drop her chin, and then moving on to molding and shaping the energy in a shoot to make magic moments happen on command.
But Brooke, you’re thinking, won’t this make my images feel contrived? And how can I worry about mom dropping her chin while kids are running around like crazy?
The key ingredient is making moments happen when you’re ready instead of constantly waiting for them and then chasing after them with frantic “I hope I get some good shots” energy.
When you know you can create a loving, connected moment any time, you have all the confidence that you’ll get natural images and all the time in the world to fix little points of stiffness so nothing gets in the way of your visual story.
So many photographers are concerned about posing the family, with whose hands should go where and a formal list of dos and don’ts, and while that can be helpful, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Get ready to graduate! Graduate from posing to creating interactions within the family, and from interaction to collaboration with your clients to truly create your vision of what a family is. That might feel gratuitous, but your version of family is the reason your clients hired you! Any photographer who becomes known for their style has a specific vision of how they make each of their clients look in a photograph, and they’re able to do it every time–not because of the way their clients feel necessarily, but because of the way they look.
Here’s the secret bonus, too: once you get clients to look natural- -once mom’s head is relaxed into dad’s chest and they take a deep breath and release it together–they’ll start to feel natural too. But even if they don’t? You’ve still gotten an amazing image. One that speaks to the authenticity of who they are too, even if all the nuance and multi-faceted brilliance of who they are didn’t have time to fully come out in a two hour session–because they resonate with the way you portray family enough to trust you to photograph them. When you’re willing to go there emotionally with your clients, you give them an opportunity to be transported, to transcend the daily grind of family life and flutter in the delicious, otherworldly depths of every feeling that comes in the package deal of being in a family. That is a priceless gift, one every bit as natural as it is glorious.
Brooke Schultz is a wild-hearted family photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah and can most often be found dancing on the street (sounds a lot more sketch than it is–just for FUN, peeps!), and helping other photographers make meaningful art + businesses that light a spark inside ‘em.
She’ll never be able to go a day without hugging someone (the big, squeezy variety) and singing (holy moly in another life I’d be Aretha Franklin herself amen and amen).
Yeah, her work’s been featured in Vogue and Martha Stewart Weddings and blah, blah, but what Brooke really cares about is what she’s accomplishing in the name of love. In the hard, hard work of not only feeling love–anyone can do that–but choosing love, within the four walls of her family every day, silently, with no one else there to witness. Because those battles and wins–those are her reasons for creating, and the most excruciating and gloriously joyful experiences on this planet.