Having photographed thousands of people, it’s true that most people have a ‘camera smile’, and most people desire ‘natural expressions’ in their pictures. Whether you’re photographing children or adults or groups, there are two tools you can use to elicit natural expressions: props and prompts.

How to Use Props

Using the birdie over the camera is an age-old device that gets kids’ attention or hitting yourself in the head with a rubber chicken. But in this case, I don’t mean that the photographer should use props, I mean that the subject should use a prop. simply giving your subject something to hold usually makes them feel more comfortable and helps distract them from the camera. Give a kid a piece of paper to hold and ask questions about what they would like to draw on it, how far could a paper airplane fly, have you ever made a paper crane, etc. Whatever you hand the child is simply something to talk about other than being in a picture. Start your discussion without the camera in front of your face so that they can communicate with you. The same thing goes for adults but giving a person a baseball to hold just lets them do something with their hands–you don’t have to ask silly questions about it, but as you discuss anything with your subject, the object in their hands will usually help them feel more comfortable. Of course, you don’t need to include the prop in the photos.

How to Use Prompts

When you sit a person in front of your camera and expect them to make great expressions because you said, “Smile!” you’re doing them a disservice and your results won’t be awesome. If you give them something to do while sitting there then you can work on getting natural expressions. With kids, doing things like twirling in circles, or standing on tip-toes, or jumping three times will get them to give you terrific expressions in no time. I bet if your adult subjects would do the same things, they’d also give great expressions, but good luck getting a lawyer in a suit to jump around the studio :D  Instead, give adults simple prompts like, “Turn away and then look slyly at me,” or “Look down and then look up at me like Tom Cruise.” Or just directing them with specific places to look can make all the difference.

Proof: The Steve jobs Portrait Project

I regularly photograph complete strangers for the Steve Jobs Portrait Project. This is a particular kind of picture, but I distract people from the strangeness of it with specific directions on where to place their feet, how to hold their hands, and how to look at the camera. The results are some of the most natural expressions folks have ever made in front of a camera, and many people tell me it’s the best picture they’ve had of themselves. It’s really just because I’ve given them prompts and turned their own hands into the props. #SteveJobsPortraitProject


If you give your subjects somethign to do while they are in front your camera, they will be more comfotable because sitting around with someone watching you simply is not comfortable. Doing things is normal, and that elicits natural expressions and gives you opportunities to catch people off guard so that their natural expressions come through more easily. Use props and prompts and you’ll have an easier time making portraits.

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