Forget the settings…we have 6 OTHER ways to improve your photo sessions!

One of the questions I get asked the most about my images is “What were your settings?” I totally understand why. It can be hard to conquer aperture, ISO and shutter speed, and the give and take between those elements. We naturally stress those details. But settings are just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to photo sessions. There are lots of other ways you can wow clients and they have nothing to do with settings. Today, we’ll discuss five tips to improve your photo sessions and images without ever adjusting a single setting!

Improve your photo sessions with visualization

Tip #1 – Prep yourself to improve your photo sessions through visualization.

Athletes have been using the power of visualization for years. But did you know it can also help you improve your photo sessions, too?

Before your session, do a mental walkthrough. Visualize yourself greeting the clients, getting started and moving through your workflow. See yourself posing or prompting the clients and adjusting your settings to accommodate the light or background, etc. Think about how you’d use the environment to your advantage or handle any problems.

I know it sounds crazy. But it works.

This mental imagery helps solidify the actual act in your brain. Visualization can help with motor control, planning, and memory. You are actually training your brain and practicing without ever seeing a client or holding a camera.

According to Psychology Today, “mental practices can enhance motivation, increase confidence and self-efficacy, improve motor performance, prime your brain for success and increase states of flow…”

Why visualization help improve your photo sessions?

Several studies have shown that your brain doesn’t differentiate between a real memory and an imagined (visualized) one. If you visualize successful sessions, your brain records that as if it actually happened, and with it the confidence and experience it brings.  You’re giving your brain proof that you are successful and capable so that in the actual moment of a session, it defaults to success instead of doubt.

So visualize your sessions. Feel yourself directing clients, adjusting settings, posing and interacting with them. Visualize rocking your sessions and your clients having a blast and the beautiful images you’ll create. Imagine the amazing reviews you’ll get and those social media shares you’ll see. Override your limiting beliefs and give your brain proof that you can succeed.

Need some extra help with the exposure triangle?  We’ve got a tutorial for you!

prep your clients before a session

Tip #2 – Prep your clients

Just like we prep ourselves, we should prep our clients.

Give your clients a little overview of the session before starting. Tell them how the session will flow and how long you will shoot at that location.  Answer any questions they have, make sure they don’t have any last-minute requests (which they usually do) and complete a final wardrobe check.

Next, give them an overview of your workflow.  For example, I tell clients we will start with some simple walking photos to get them loosened up, then move on to some sitting, standing and playing poses. I also explain that we might repeat some poses in different spots to create different looks.

Finish by asking my clients to put away cell phones, sunglasses, hair ties, keys or other weird things they might be packing around. It’s a great way to break the ice and start to build a rapport with clients. Catching a hair tie at the beginning of the session will save you editing time on the back end!

Give them an endpoint

By letting clients know what to expect, they’ll feel more at ease. You are establishing yourself as the expert which lets the build trust and relax into the session. You are also setting clear expectations for how the session will go.

I find the last tip really helps with a grouchy dad or surly teenage. Giving them a firm end time lets them know that this will not last forever and then they can get on with the rest of their day.

Create positive memories

Use positive language. Be confident. Talk as if the session is done and you are just giving them a recap of how amazing it went. Why? There’s psychology at play here. Just like visualization helps your brain as a photographer, it can also help your clients. A walkthrough prepares clients for what to expect. And you are helping them visualize a successful, fulfilling session. You are training their brains on how to act and feel.

I assisted a fellow photographer a while back who used visualization exercises with her clients. She told the mom something like “You are going to absolutely rock it. The kids will have fun and we will create some seriously beautiful images. You will feel beautiful. You will feel so in love with your family and that love will just pour off-screen into your images. You are going to love them and practically cry when you open that gallery and be so excited that you are going to share too many images on social media because you can’t pick just one.”

And that is almost exactly what happened. The crazy thing is this photographer isn’t the most technically accomplished ‘tog on the block. Her work isn’t perfect by any means. But her clients love her and their images. I mean LOVE her. I’m convinced a huge part of her success is because she lays the groundwork for clients loving their sessions and their images from the first moment they contact her. And she keeps setting those positive expectations throughout the photo session, follow-up communication, and sales session.

Tip #3 – Slow down.

I get it…sessions are nerve-wracking. We want to give your clients an amazing experience and beautiful images so we place a lot of pressure on ourselves. And then the clients are there staring at us and we don’t want to appear as if we don’t know what we’re doing, so we just jump in and start shooting.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve told myself “Oh, I’ll just edit that out later.” Instead of slowing down and fixing my shot in-camera, I rushed and made more work for myself on the back end.

Stop. Breathe. In fact, take a few deep breaths and center yourself. Then start thinking through your shots. Then start shooting.

One of the best things you can do to improve your photo sessions is to simply slow down and methodically work through each session.

Take a few seconds to think through the composition in your head (and the other tips below). Evaluate your background, your light, and the foreground. Now think through your settings and make the changes in your camera. Double-check the settings. Then start shooting. Then slow down again and evaluate. You don’t want to check every single image you take, but it is okay to check a few on the back of your camera every now and then.
Each time you change poses or locations or people, do the same thing. Breathe, think, shoot. Evaluate.

Talk to yourself if need be!

I literally had conversations with myself as if I were a mentor photographer standing over someone else’s shoulder. Now I can work through these things instinctually, but starting off, being methodical is great. It helps you build your own routine and get you more comfortable in sessions.

If you feel like you’re taking too long and clients will question it, say something like “I like to keep my sessions fun and light-hearted but not super fast-paced. I want you to really love these images, so I’ll be slower and methodical to make sure I’m really nailing these.”

Clients will appreciate you taking the time to get it right and understand you’re doing what you need to do to wow them!

Click here for ideas and help on prompting clients!

Tip #4 – Use Layering

Improve your composition by adding layers to your images. Strong photographs often contain elements that help lead your eye through the image or pull all the elements together. Layering is one way to add cohesion and visual interest to your image.

In photography terms, layering is using a foreground, subject, and background together to tell a more complete story.

This could mean using plants or other vegetation in the foreground to frame your subject or set the scene. Try shooting through a doorway, window or another opening. Or shoot the reflection instead of the subject.

This could also mean using the background more actively in your image instead of just rendering it into oblivion with a really wide aperture.

Great layering is hard to explain but you’ll know it when you see it! Study some examples of layering that you love, then work to try to incorporate those ideas into your images!

Tip #5 – Look at the background (and foreground)

In a session with clients, it’s really easy to get focused on how they look and forget about the background. But so many little elements can distract from your subject and either ruin the shot completely or cause you more editing time.

If you are shooting outdoors, look for branches, plants or other elements in the foreground that will overlap the subject in a distracting way. Next, look at the background. Is there a tree growing out of your client’s head or a trashcan over her shoulder? Are there powerlines running overhead?

Indoors, be on the lookout for light switches, outlets, pictures or corners that don’t add to the scene. If you’re shooting with props and a backdrop, stop every so often to make sure the drop is straight and your props are shipshape.

I shot a series of wedding party portraits where an ax in a tree stump in the background looked like it was coming out of the bride’s head. I spent more time than I want to remember cloning it out in post. If I had been paying more attention, I could have easily moved 5 feet to the right and eliminated it from my composition altogether.

Once you’re aware of the problem, take a second and fix it. Sometimes that’s pulling a weed, taking a different angle or moving the client just a few inches either direction. Other times you might need to do some quick decluttering or tidying up clients’ homes.

improving photography sessions

Tip #6 – Straighten the horizon in-camera. And don’t run it through your client’s head.

I have a tendency to shoot with my left hand slightly lower than my right hand. Consequently, my horizon line appears to be running downhill to the left. I can *usually* fix this in post-production by cropping and rotating. But again…why create more work if you can get it right the first time?

Periodically check to see if your horizon is straight. If you’re like me, make a conscious effort to check your horizon and correct your posture during the shoot. Use the gridlines in your camera to help make the vertical lines or horizontal lines plumb and level in-camera.

And speaking of horizons…the last of my tips to improve your photo sessions is one more about horizons. Don’t run them through your client’s head. Having the horizon cut through the subject’s head weakens your composition and draws your eye away from the client. If your normal shooting position puts the horizon in the wrong place, take a higher or lower angle. Or have your client get lower or higher. Or move your client to a different area. There are lots of ways you can overcome a distracting horizon in-camera, but your options become limited once the shutter is fired and you’re in the editing room.

Settings are just one part of a successful shoot

Getting the aperture, ISO and shutter speed right is part of creating beautiful imagery and running successful sessions. And they are important! We need to understand how our camera works and how to control it to create the scene and final image we want.

But nailing settings is just one way to improve your photo sessions. There are other things you can do to ensure you and your clients have a successful shoot. Try visualizing your sessions on a regular basis. Help clients visualize successful experiences. Then slow down, really see and use the environment to your advantage, and double-check your background and foreground. THEN concentrate on your settings.

With some practice (mental and actual!) you can improve your sessions, your images and cut down on your editing time. And none of these tips to improve your photo sessions involves changing a dial or button AT ALL!

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