FAQ: Shoot Direction and Comfortable Posing

The way I approach my shoot direction and posing is a major part of my brand. Many people have commented on how comfortable my subjects look in my photos, and I’ve been asked how I accomplish it, since we all know how people generally don’t like being under the lens. I’m excited about this FAQ post, and glad to finally have the time to write this out!

If I had to pick three words to describe my photography, I’d pick “honest,” “amazed,” and “alive.” I am incredibly honest, and my clients – every single one of them – amaze me with the life inside them that comes out in front of my camera. Before every shoot, I tell the client that their responsibility is merely to bring themselves; my responsibility is to find them.

To find them, here are the factors I take into account:

The most important factor to me for any session I shoot is TRUST.

I start building trust from the time I get the first query, and I continue to build it up to the meeting and usually about 20-30 minutes into the session. I consider myself an advocate for my clients. They’re not just income; they are people. I treat them like people, and I inevitably spill some of my skitzy (yes, I coined that word) peoplehood over in my emails and on the phone. I want people to feel comfortable being themselves with me. I want them to feel that if somebody’s going to be the fool, it’s going to be me. They are going to be beautiful.

The second factor is TIME.

I schedule 1-2 hours for portrait sessions, and 2-3 hours for engagement sessions. I start shooting within five minutes of meeting a client, playing with my settings, getting them used to me with the camera, both in front of my face, and clicking all over the place. I want people to see it as an extension of me, not as an intruder to our conversation. I don’t put a time limit on the session – I shoot until I have what I need, however long it takes. Sometimes I get everything within 45 minutes, sometimes I use the full 2-3 hours.

The third factor is FAMILIARITY.

I generally don’t get usable images from the first 15-20 minutes of my shoots. I use this time to find out my clients’ stories, to watch them interact with me and with one another, to really SEE who they are and how they love. I want to find out what positions are comfortable for them, how they are familiar with one another and how they engage through touch. I use this time to figure out and finalize a direction for the remaining time – does their personality need grungy or clean backdrops, does a height difference mean I will need to go more intimate, how much drama do we want here – do we want any? I need to gain familiarity with my clients so I can tell the truth about them. I’m not just using them to create my own vision with a routine set of poses.

The fourth factor is SPACE.

I take a slightly photojournalistic approach to all of my sessions. Lifestyle photography is fantastic in that it uses the light to terrific advantage, but I feel like it also puts people into pre-planned positions and poses that might not reflect who they are as people. This is why I don’t call my style “lifestyle photography.” Just because a pose is good for a camera doesn’t mean it’s good for the subject.

So in that first 15-20 minutes, I tend to be a bit standoffish with my camera. I’ll pretend to mess with my settings, ask the couple to take a walk, follow, let them get more comfortable with the camera around them. I’m looking for their real life, because I totally, completely believe that their love is beautiful – and I’m willing to go the extra mile to find and reveal that beauty.

If someone is really nervous and I can’t connect, I almost immediately back off and transfer the attention either to their more-confident significant other – or to something else entirely, to give them a chance to regroup. Sometimes, I will show them a good photo I’ve taken, to ease their minds – especially if I’ve got one that I’m really excited about. They’re making MY day, sitting under my camera, and I want them to know that, and to know that they’re doing awesome.

If I can’t break the ice, I switch lenses to zoom or macro, and I move WAY back to give the couple time to reconnect with each other. They’re not going to love their pictures if they were upset with me or with one another, and I go out of my way to facilitate all the space they need to be themselves with me around.

When I do direct posing, I rely on what I learned as I gained my familiarity with the couple. If something looks horribly awkward, I adjust with a quiet direction, OR I suggest we move to a different spot, which often creates a natural redirect.

The fifth factor is DISTRACTION.

If I can get my clients to focus on their conversation or on each other, or on anything other than posing, they tend to fall very naturally into the way they typically touch and interact. I will be honest. This leads to a lot of overshooting on my part, because capturing people who are talking or hanging out can be a little tough on the in-between shots, but it is ABSOLUTELY worth it.

Sometimes, I will ask clients to pose the lower half of their bodies for a detail shot – say hand-holding or standing on tiptoes – and I use my wide-angle to its best advantage to capture them off-guard to the camera. They have no idea they are even in the photo, so they’re not thinking about what faces to make.

The absolute biggest factor for me is getting my clients to forget that they are even under the camera. If I can do that at a shoot, I KNOW we’ve nailed the whole thing.

The sixth factor is EFFORT.

I work HARD at my shoots. If my clients stop naturally in an awkward location, I MOVE to get the shot. I don’t make them move or change what they did naturally. I’m constantly aware of what they are doing, how they are moving, and where I am in relation to them.

Sometimes when I see a shot in a particular spot I will ask people to stop, go, touch, hug, kiss, turn, dance, whatever, but I let them do it, and *I* angle for the real.

I run backward to zoom out, come in close when I can, throw my camera up, shoot behind and before, get in the water, get down on the ground or up in a tree – basically, I will do anything to tell the story we’re putting together of two people in love in whatever location we’ve got.

I don’t go in expecting clients to “behave” for me and my camera. I expect them to “misbehave” badly (I HOPE they do, actually!), and I plan to be wherever I need to be to tell the story of the moments they live while they’re with me.

I know my approach is unorthodox, and I don’t know if I would recommend everyone follow it. I see life a bit differently, and I learn on the fly, so this works really well for me. And my clients – well, here’s what they’ve said on seeing the results:

I had won an engagement shoot through Kelly’s blog and didn’t quite know what to expect as the fiance and I hadn’t really ever had our pictures taken professonally. When we met Kelly on the day of our shoot, she asked us several questions about ourselves and our relationship to get to know us better. She encouraged us to be as natural as possible and though it took a while for us to loosen up, by the end of the shoot, we hardly knew she was there; Todd and I were just hanging out on the beach. Despite this, he was not convinced that the photos would come out very well. And who can blame him? How often do “professional” photographers really do people justice? After a childhood of posed, awkward Olan Mills school pictures, I didn’t know what to anticipate either.

After a few days of processing, Kelly sent us a few samples of what she had produced. The fiance and I knew we loved each other, but Kelly managed to catch a palpable intimacy that we didn’t know could be captured on film. We were instantly moved. I shared some of the photographs with friends and family and their reaction was priceless. My parents cried. Friends welled up with tears. Strangers commented emotionally on Kelly’s blog post featuring our pictures.

A true artist is able to evoke emotion from their audience and take them to a new place, regardless if they have been there before or know the subjects. I feel that Kelly’s photography was able to let other people experience the commitment and love that Todd and I have for each other and were able to vow to each other just a few months later. It took a very special photographer to capture what we knew all along, and Kelly Sauer was just that photographer.

-Ashleigh, of Todd & Ashleigh

I really want to tell you something – something more specific than Iabsolutelylovethepictures (which I do).

This picture makes me tear up every time I look at it. I love the soft light, how Kent and I seem still in the midst of the movement of the guests around us. I love the intimacy, the forehead-to-forehead as we’re mouthing the words of a song to each other. I almost wish I knew what song it was, but really, it doesn’t matter – because this picture somehow captures one of the qualities I most appreciate about my relationship with Kent.


Peace amid the chaos, peace in togetherness, peace in oneness of mind.

And you somehow got that on film.

I don’t know how you do it, but you do.

Thank you.

– Leeann, of Kent & Leeann

Your photos and description honestly made me tear up! I was so overwhelmed with how well you captured us and our love for another, and then wrote about it so sincerely. I don’t even know where to begin to thank you for this. I love ALL of photos!! I didn’t think we gave you enough to work with in order to come up with good shots, but we both are blown away with your talent. As for word-of-mouth, don’t worry – I am a blabber mouth when it comes to recommendations :) I have taken part in a lot of wedding message boards concerning Charleston weddings, so I will confidently recommend you as the perfect engagement photographer (and beyond).

-Christian, of Aaron & Christian

If you don’t think my approach will work for you in your own photography, don’t worry. I’ll be the weird one, okay? But in case you’re still curious about posing and shoot direction, Jasmine Star shared last week about her approach to posing – I would totally recommend her advice – she’s terrifically good at what she does, and she teaches it ever so much better than I ever will! Also, she shared a post geared toward beginners that was even more basic.

Related – FAQ: What’s In My Bag

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9 thoughts on “FAQ: Shoot Direction and Comfortable Posing

  1. Kari

    Kelly this is the best FAQ I have seen I think pretty much ever. You have no idea how grateful I am for someone to be so detailed and honest! I was so curious about how you get these natural shots- oooh I’m so happy :) lol anyways thanks for the time you took to write it! :D

  2. Erin

    I love how you put your heart in what you do, Kelly. I know that sometimes the unusual way you see the world frustrates you– but whenever you share your beautiful photography it pays off. Artists must see the world differently in order to produce art. And that’s what you do. Beautifully.

  3. amanda {the habit of being}

    I was reading along and nodding my head in agreement because our approach is very similar. The only difference, I usually shoot a lot of kids rather than couples so my knowledge of all things Thomas the Train, Dora and the Backyardigans has been a bonus ;-)

  4. Karenee

    Heh. I need to start saving, and NOW. Someday I am going to visit you and have photos to enjoy forever as a result. You’re my ideal people-photographer, hon. {{{hug}}}

  5. Danielle

    I enjoyed this “behind the scenes” post. I’m with you, usually the first 30 min are unusable images for me, and it’s as everyone warms up the stiffness tends to melt. I’d actually go so far to say as most of my “best” or favorite shots often tend to be right towards the end of a session.

  6. Jenny

    “its their responsibility is merely to bring themselves; my responsibility is to find them.”

    this is why I love your photos. You are not “creating” the pictures, you are unlocking the mystery of the art that is already there :)

  7. kirsten

    thanks, kelly! this is helpful. i love your style and your quirky approach. this definitely helps. ;o)

    p.s. i’m planning on taking a lot more pictures when i get to florida. and when i stop throwing up every day.