The Uncooperative Photo Subject

I think every parent has been here:
You pick out the perfect outfit. Schedule haircuts and other grooming appointments. Rearrange everyone’s activities so that they’re all present and accounted for at a specific time. Chosen the ideal photographic deal and the best photographer for your needs. And waited, knowing from the very core of your being that the resulting portrait would be one to send to family, friends, and even the boss – – one to mount on the wall above the couch or fireplace.

But when the session finally arrives, it’s as though Pandora’s minions have plotted to foible every plan. She enlists your children to refuse all cooperation. She speeds up the clock so that even though just a minute ago you were early, you are now “running” late slowly. And arriving at the studio or meeting place, harried and aggravated, your wonderful dreams of handsomely smiling faces in a “we love each other” pose are dashed, slashed, crumpled by this:

Not a Chance Finger Wag

Absolutely, under no circumstances, do I plan to allow you to accomplish any photographic goals involving me.

It’s enough to make anyone soliciting portraits rip his hair out in frustration.

Do I whip out the candy and wave it in a “Smile nice and follow directions and you can have this” bribe?
Perhaps I should bust out in my best Hammerman scurry or a Superman zoom?
Should I demonstrate my inability to learn how to Dougie despite the teaching?
Sing badly and with the wrong lyrics any song that the brain conjures really loud?
Insist that “there’s a bug on my lens, do you see it?” for a look in my direction?
Or maybe it’s worth it to surrender the session fee, wave a white flag, and go home defeated?

Oh, dear stubborn parent, no. We will not leave, will not give up, until we’ve forced the “cheese.” This child, this disobedient model, will look at the camera and look good doing it.

This happens a lot for me. I broke the lock on that darn box of photographic bad luck a long time ago and the locksmith refuses to help me fix it. Inevitably, the “golden hour” for outdoor photos is during nap time, meal time, play time, or “me” time. And so, I’ve decided that personality will trump formality and expectations of the unforced, carefree, “I am abundantly happy right now” image that I crave for my mantle will have to be set aside.

mean at you

The beauty of shooting digitally and of choosing lifestyle portraits over the more formal studio images is that there is no formula for creating the ideal photo. It just sort of happens – or doesn’t. I’m not saying it’s hit or miss. If the photographer is a click happy nut like me, the model forgets the protest, relaxes, and sometimes decides to stage the “heck no” strike some other time. Conversations about anything and everything except this portrait I’m commissioned for seem to ease the nerves and the facial muscles that display them.

in disregard

Yes, I’d love for every portrait to be a poster for the “so happy in this life that I’m beaming” club, but it’s not going to happen. And truth be told, the pictures that emote personality, just ooze out the “this was him or her right at that age, exactly” commentary, are my favorite.

blowing kisses

And if I follow the unwilling muse as he or she busies doing other activities, I often get that coveted, genuine smile that melts the heart and makes us forget the time span elapsed trying to coax out cooperation.

OR, I don’t… and that’s okay. A sincere expression is worth a click.


When all else fails (because let’s face it, you can’t always cancel and reschedule):

Solicit Mommy and Daddy or sibling silliness.
Demand “don’t smile” or “don’t look at me.” Repeat as soon as he does it and snap the resulting expression.
Ask for a mean face, a silly phase, a monster face, a fish face, any face not usually in a picture.
Break out the clown – demonstrate the most hideous smile possible and you’ll see a real one generated.
Bring out the favorite toys, props, whatever is available for distraction.
Play a game. Keep the camera ready, but get involved.
Cry. It simply conjures sympathy.
and finally,
Let go of expectations. If you’ve been shutter clicking, there’s likely some gem on that memory card.

PS: I noticed that the more anxious I am, the more discombobulated my kids are. It’s why studio portraits didn’t work for us, nor did the time constraints and image limits. When I relax and let it flow, they let go and become totally likeable, enjoyable photographic inspiration.

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  1. Love that shot of him… eyebrows crunched up and looking up very annoyed at you! What a cutie he is!

  2. For some reason, I immediately thought, “You try to take my photo and I say NO NO NO.” HEHEHEHE

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