How To Break The Ice (Before Photo Shoot)

Getting your portrait taken is an extremely vulnerable position to be in.

It can be stressful, uncomfortable, and frankly quite intimidating. Whether you’re shooting a family portrait, corporate headshot, or big time celebrity, we all have our insecurities.

And when it comes to holiday photo shoots, the stakes are often raised: people are stressed out, there are a million things on their calendars and to-do lists, babies are crying, you name it.

It’s your job as the photographer to recognize that, disarm the situation, and get your subjects to enjoy themselves and have FUN. Make this shoot the most lighthearted and memorable part of their week.

I always try to stop whatever I’m doing when my subject arrives. I sit down with my clients in my studio or on-location and have a bagel or coffee and do everything I can to find common ground.

Especially the type of common ground we can laugh at.

You have screaming toddlers at home? Me too! You like the beach…me TOO, I grew up on surfing the waves. You like smoking cigars? I’ve got a great one you should try.

I try to have a good laugh with my subjects before I ever put a camera between us.

Start a photo shoot off laughing and chances are you’re going to hit a home run.

Here are five easy, practical things you can do to make your holiday clients and families feel more comfortable (so you can take amazing photos of them):

1. Genuinely compliment your subjects immediately.

One of the first things I do when my subjects walk in the door to my studio is find something I can GENUINELY compliment about them. But be careful – this has to be from the heart. Maybe it’s their eyes, eyelashes…or even their shoes. FIND SOMETHING.

This will disarm them right away and you'll notice that they start acting more comfortable with you.

2. Stop & deeply connect with your subjects.

Stop whatever you are doing to set up and take a few minutes to break the ice. I take some time to sit down, look them in the eye, and in a lighthearted curious way ask them ice breaker questions. Where are you from? Tell me about what you like to do for fun?

I then tell them something vulnerable about myself that helps them let their guard down and trust me more. Don’t drop a bomb on them like “when my father-in-law passed away,” but instead make it lighthearted like “I can NOT figure out what to give my Aunt Susie for Christmas” or “I got a speeding ticket the other day…” Everyone can relate. Find some common ground. Before you know it, you'll be swapping hilarious childhood memories.

If it's a family, I also try to connect with their kids during this time. I'll get down on their eye level, make some really silly dad moves and jokes to get everyone feeling connected as a family.

Note that we haven’t even started talking about the photo shoot yet.

This time is about breaking down defenses and getting know each other as vulnerable humans. Helping them trust you.

3.  Make them feel beautiful.

Even if your technical settings are perfect, the background is stunning and the shot looks incredible, if your subject doesn’t feel beautiful…chances are they won’t like the shot. When you are shooting portraits the way your subject feels will determine how great the shot is. Don’t say things like “oh that looks bad” or “OOPS” or “this doesn’t work.”

Too many photographers spend too much time focusing on their settings than they do affirming or directing their subjects in a positive way.

Regardless of what the last shot looks like…let them know THEY look awesome. This comes back to finding stuff you can genuinely compliment them on. Keep repeating step 1 above throughout the rest of the session. When they feel like they look beautiful, they will look beautiful.

Even if you’re not in love with the shot or their pose…tell them you love their dress and how you loved it when you were standing at such-and-such an angle.

DO NOT SAY I hate this angle on you…or that dress makes you look fat. Always try to be encouraging…and work towards a great shot. Even if you haven’t achieved it yet, keep encouraging everyone until you have some gold. I will sometimes take 300 shots of them doing the same thing until I dial it in and get one incredible shot.

4. Have a list of jokes handy.


Seriously…keep the fun going. It's the holidays after all, and people are stressed! Remember, your goal is to make this session the most fun and memorable part of their week.

Naturally, I am a cheesy joke collector…but my friend Jeremy Cowart told me a few years ago that he starting writing down jokes and keeping a list of them on his phone for easy reference. The jokes I have stored are TERRIBLE…which is great for my personality. They almost aren’t funny by themselves but when I laugh at my own dad jokes – that’s where the comedy is. It breaks the tension for them and gets their mind off of other stressors, insecurities, etc.

Humor is definitely a learned skill for some people and for others it comes naturally. I’ve had to work really hard at it but I can disarm a room fairly quickly now with terrible puns…because I’ve spent thousands of hours practicing. 😜

5.  Thank them from the heart.

Most of the time your subjects/clients are going to thank you for your time or expertise. But I try to close the shoot with a genuine attitude of gratitude. I thank them for trusting me to do this for them. I tell them how much fun I had and if it’s true…that I’m honored to work with them to capture beautiful images for whatever project we're on.

Last But Never Least

Word of caution with all of these steps above: BE GENUINE. People can sniff a fake miles away.

Practice remaining positive through tough shoots with crying toddlers, offering encouragement at every turn, and finding real things to compliment about the people in front of you. People (almost) always love unsolicited genuine affirmation. Practice giving it freely.

You may even find it making YOU more merry this holiday season.

If you’re ready to start pursuing YOUR photography dreams today, check out my FREE portrait training Your confidence as a portrait photographer will soar after this training. JOIN ME HERE!

7 thoughts on “How To Break The Ice (Before Photo Shoot)”

  1. I love this list! It truly makes a difference when you take time to connect with your subject if you are looking for genuine, relaxed expressions during the shoot. Thanks for the tips- I’m going to have to work on my jokes!

  2. Shirley Charles-Hall

    Ask about their pets. Children love to share little tid bits about their critters! It puts a child at ease very quickly. For that matter adults love their critters as well!

  3. I love the tip to genuinely connect with my clients “before I ever put a camera between us.” I can hurry along and be halfway thru a session before I realize I never stopped to ask enough questions to determine my client’s expectations; really a no-brainer when I stop and connect?

  4. Pingback: How To Prep for a Client Photoshoot | The Loft On King

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