Okay, so we made this all about dads because that’s what we get asked about all the time, but actually, these tips can be applied to pretty much any less-than-willing subject you may encounter on your journey as a portrait photographer (and there will be many!) — whether it be a bride, a groom or a grumpy grandparent!
Firstly, let's consider some of the possible reasons why he might not want to be there, which will help us be less judgemental and more empathetic:
- He wants to be in control
- He's worried about the kids’ behaviour
- He's self-conscious about his appearance
- He's unsure about what to do/how to act in the session
- He has a preconceived idea that photo shoots mean stiff, awkward posing and fake smiles
- He's The Disciplinarian: Likes to keep order in the family, and doesn't want any silly business
- Uninvested: Doesn’t value family photography, hasn’t played any role in booking/preparing for the photo shoot
- He's sick of being nagged! He's been nitpicked by his partner in the lead up to the session—from his hair, to his outfit to his 'weird' smile. The tension between them has been building for days, if not weeks! Not participating is the ultimate act of re-asserting his power.
Acknowledge the elephant in the room
Let him know from the outset that you realise this is probably not his favourite way to spend an hour of his free time but that you promise to make it really easy for him. The time’s going to fly—he just doesn’t know it yet!
Assert yourself as the expert and give plenty of directions
Most subjects are going to feel much more comfortable being guided as to how to stand, what to do with their hands and where to look rather than just being told “do whatever you feel like”. And, in my experience, this is especially true for difficult clients (ie. those who are experiencing fear and expressing it as anger or coldness). Imagine going to your tax accountant and her telling you to do whatever you feel like! Would you feel like you were in good hands?
Another little trick I was taught by my mentor was to brush imaginary fluff off the dad during the session. This subtle action shows you're the expert and you're watching everything!
Before the session begins, I let the parents know that I'll be guiding them into different starting positions throughout the session that will be aesthetically pleasing, flattering, and bring out the connection between them. I prefer the term "starting position" over “pose” as it has less awkward connotations, and implies it will lead to movement. I follow up by telling them that once I’ve got them in those positions I’ll be giving them something to actually do together, little games to play to take their minds off being photographed and to allow them genuinely connect with each other and to look and feel more natural. They can absolutely break free from their positions as these moments unfold. Something I often say is, “I won’t ask you to smile, and I won’t ask you to look at them camera. Your job is just to play with your kids and enjoy yourself as best you can. I’ll let you know what to do, but also give you lots of time to just enjoy some fun moments together, while making sure you all look your best. Does that sounds okay?”
There’s a fine balance I try to strike between engaging with him and yet not giving his bad energy too much attention. Personally, I try not to come on too strong too fast. From there I gradually engage with him more and more as the session unfolds—not a dissimilar approach from how I handle grumpy toddlers really! I also like to get shooting within about 10 to 15 minutes of their arrival. Using the Show Me Your You approach, I find that it’s really once the shooting begins that everyone starts to relax. Rather than just taking your word for it, they can actually experience for themselves how easy and fun it actually is!
A surefire way to build rapport with him before, during and after the session is to get him talking about himself and his family. Let him do the talking, as you do the listening. Here are some questions I commonly ask grumpy dads:
- What would you be doing right now if you were having your perfect day out with the family instead of being here?
- How would you describe your relationship with your daughter? What do you think she loves most about you? What do you love most about her?
- What’s one thing about being a (insert occupation or hobby) that most people wouldn’t know?
In my humble opinion, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie, is an invaluable resource for portrait photographers and I'm so glad I read it in my early days of becoming a photographer!
Take the focus off him
This is where the Show Me Your You prompts will really be your best friend! They’ll get him more in the moment and focusing on his family rather than thinking about himself, the camera, and his funk!
I like to start with whole group shots, as there’s less pressure on each individual, and more people to build the positive energy with. Later in the session I tend to move into some moments of each parent with each child. Ask him how he usually interacts with each particular child. Are they cuddly together? Playful? Physical? Competitive? Silly? Are there any special physical games they play? Here’s a chance for him to shine as a dad, without you or his partner telling him what to do.
When I’m dealing with dads who don’t want to be there, I usually stick with fun, playful or slightly competitive prompts and would usually avoid anything too mushy unless he really warms up. If I can get him to the point where, by the time he has one-on-one shots with his daughter, I manage to get him telling her the story of the day she was born—BOOM—I’ve nailed it and my work is done! There’s nothing that makes me prouder than turning these difficult dads around.
Don’t let it drag you down
Okay, so this may be easier said than done, depending on your personality type. I found it really hard to tolerate sulky adults for the first year or two of my career. I used to take it personally, and they would really throw me off my game. However, after dealing with my fair share of difficult dads (and difficult clients in general!) I got to a point where I just didn’t let it get to me anymore! On weekends I was often shooting 5 or 6 studio sessions back to back, so I literally didn’t have the time or energy to make too big a deal of it. I had to conserve my energy (hands up, introverts?) and they just had to get on board! (And they usually did.)
Psst... Seriously though, these prompts are my secret weapon!
If you don't have them yet, or are in need of a top up, you can find out more here.
Thanks so much for reading and I hope there's at least a couple of little nuggets of wisdom in here that will help you turn your difficult dads into dads that want to be there! And, if you're a member, make sure you share your dad wins over in our private Facebook Group (before and afters are a hoot)!