Photographs extend one instant for eternity. That’s a long time and when you’re making a portrait that will last forever, the instant most critical to your success is when your subjects first step into your studio. That first impression will set the stage for the rest of the shoot. Now, when I say ‘studio’ that includes the park, or the office, or wherever you’re making pictures that day. There are three things I do that make a big impact on how the shoot will go, and these three things, done your own way, will impact your shoots for the better, too.

What Are You Wearing?

In my first year making portraits, I was at the park awaiting a family to make portraits. I was wearing a polo shirt and khakis with my fedora. The family drove up, everyone wearing their Sunday best, and the nine-year-old son got out of the car looking really grumpy–he was wearing a shirt and tie on a Tuesday evening, after all, so he had good reason to be grumpy. He took one look at me in comfortable clothes and said, “Well, why didn’t he have to dress up?”

After that night I decided that I should never be the least well-dressed person at a shoot. If you dress well, you’ll make a strong impact on those you photograph. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on clothes, and you definitely don’t need the most fashionable stuff. But you should put some effort into what you’re wearing and show your clients that you care enough about your work and their portraits to put on your best.

Tip: I always wear decent slacks, even when I know I’m going to be climbing rocks and trees to get the shot. My slacks retail for up to $100, but I only buy them when they are on clearance for less than $20, or at the second-hand store for a low price, too. Sacrificing trousers to get a great shot is a small price to pay to show a client that you care most about making their photos great.

What Are You Saying?

Again, the first impression is paramount. You should warmly welcome your subjects with handshakes for adults and fist bumps for little kids. Compliment their appearance and thank them for their effort. These simple words validate the hard work mom has done to get everyone ready.

Regarding children, talk to them like people. Use the same tone of voice you use to address their parents, not the tone of voice you use for addressing dogs. If you ask a question, answer it for yourself, too. If you ask how they are, tell them how old you are. Consider how it feels to be grilled with questions from a stranger before you lay it on them. Treating kids like normal people earns you a lot of credit when you ask them to do things for the photos later.

What Are They Expecting?

You should talk with your subjects about what is going to happen next. They have no idea–last time they had a picture made was at the Mall, or at school, or at the DMV. Just tell them what will happen. “Step in here, and I’ve got some directions for you to help you look your best.” Tell them what you think their portraits should portray and ask what they want their portrait to show. Tell them that you’ll take care of how the kids look and act and advise them to just keep looking toward the camera themselves. “The best shot of the kids is usually the one where Dad is scowling and telling them to take their hand out of their mouth.”

You just need to explain what will happen and ask if they have any questions. Showing up for a portrait shoot is a bit like going to a new church for the first time, and if you just explain what will happen and what is expected then everyone will feel more comfortable.


The more time passes, the more a portrait made in an instant is treasured. You can help your subjects and clients make their best portraits by preparing yourself and showing that you care enough to dress well, by warmly welcoming them, and by giving them a simple map of what is going to happen. These things will help your subjects be comfortable and that will help you be more successful.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.