families, for photographers

May 2, 2016

Directing vs. Posing – How I Capture Natural Expressions


You don’t achieve those quirky, heart-melting moments through direction like “sit here,” “say cheese,” or “don’t move.”

Lifestyle sessions are all about gentle direction to achieve natural, yet flattering images that skip the staged and awkward stuff.

When my clients look back on their images from a session with me, I want them to feel something about that season of life. 

Some people warm right up to the camera while others need a little more reassurance. If I’m working with an outgoing and vivacious senior girl, I’m going to really get creative and get her working it like it’s Fashion Week. If I’m working with a more reserved couple and dad is all this was all my wife’s idea, a directive tone could come off very harsh and demanding.

There’s a very fine line between being confident and in control vs annoyingly bossy. 

I don’t want to be annoyingly bossy. I just want you to look good and feel comfortable enough to be yourself.

And obviously there’s no directing a 6 month old so this is more geared toward my family shoots and older kids. 🙂 


5 Tips to capture natural expressions

1. Set the stage 

When I was in school to become a teacher, I would often think of myself as an actor on stage when I stepped into the classroom. No matter what was going on in my personal life, I had to shake it and become that teacher my kids needed.

I think of a photoshoot like this sometimes, too.

And it’s not only my job to step onto the stage with confidence, but to prepare my clients to know what show they’re seeing. In other words, preparing your clients beforehand to know what to expect is KEY in a successful approach once you’re all together. It sets them up for success to respond without shock when you begin to do your thing.

I communicate in at least 3 different places, through video, email, their questionnaire etc. about my style and how a session with me will look before we ever meet.


Encourage, encourage, encourage. People are not used to being in front of a camera like this, so kids and parents alike need tons of encouragement to loosen up. The very first time they naturally laugh or you see something through your lens that really works, RAVE about it.

“Oh that was amazing! You look so happy! Oh my goodness, you guys are the sweetest! Wow, that was magical!”

Make your clients feel like a million bucks – if it feels like too much, it’s probably just right.

The more you encourage early on in your session, the more they will begin to understand realize “I’m doing it right!” and engage more like that on their own.


3. Give prompts, not poses.

Instead of telling them to “stand here, put your hands like this…” I use games, actions, and conversation starters.

Sometimes these start with posing, like arranging families on a blanket or standing in great light, but evolve to actions like “everybody squeeze dad!” or “uh oh, surprise tickle for Henry!!!”

Other times, like with couples for a maternity session, I’ll have them tell me about how she shared the news about baby, or even just stand back and let them have a moment with baby as I ask them to think about the moment they finally will get to meet him/her.

One of my favorite prompts to use with families is something I call “the bear hug” – I ask the kids to stand closer to the camera and have parents to take a few steps behind them – I then direct them to sneak up and surprise bear-hug the kids. It always gets everybody close, embracing, and for-real-belly-laughing.

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4. Watch your language

This one’s similar to the previous tip, but takes it a step further. You have to be careful not only about what you say, but how you say it.

There’s a huge difference between “I love how you just leaned your head on his shoulder, that was beautiful!” and “Do that again.” The first approach is encouraging, engaging, and says, “you’re doing a great job, keep doing more of that!”.

The latter offers no energy or positivity – it just sounds bossy.

Even if something’s not working, I’ll keep the positive vibes flowing and just subtly pivot with either my words, angle, or whole set-up all together. I will never say “oh that wasn’t what I was going for,” or “that’s not working, let’s try something else,” because it immediately stirs up self-consciousness.

I always want my clients to leave a shoot feeling confident and beautiful. 


5. Show don’t tell

If I want a senior to walk and then flip her hair over her shoulder like a shampoo commercial, I’m going to do it myself first, no matter how silly it feels, because

A. Somehow, seeing someone else do it makes it seem more fun and less awkward.

B. It’s way easier to show you which way to turn, how fast to spin, how to turn your shoulder, etc. than you try to explain and troubleshoot it.

I will get down on the blanket and show a mom how to sit before we pile kids on top of her.

I’ll demonstrate “freeze face” vs. “relaxed face” if they’re getting hung up on cheesy smiles.

It’s like a mini modeling lesson, and also a bit of a workout, but hey, it’s efficient. 

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5. Calm, cool, and collected

Energy is key for a session with kids, and just as a your favorite teacher was the one who was fun but also firm, you have to find the balance with keeping the session engaging while also staying in control. A cranky kid can turn the attitudes of everyone else pretty quickly if you let it, so it’s your job as the photographer to provide quick solution to problems, and improvise in whatever the situation, while of course, staying positive.

Kids are unpredictable, but clients will naturally feed off of the confidence and attitude you project. That’s why it’s imperative to make sure you’re not flustered by anything that comes your way, but simply adjust and roll with the punches.

Achieving natural, yet flattering expressions can be a challenge, but it’s the photographer’s responsibility in a lifestyle session to help those moments unfold.

There’s a lot that goes into achieving something that looks so effortless, but if you use these tips, you’re far more likely to get great, natural expressions and create a fun, stress-free environment while you’re at it!