“No, Don’t Take My Picture, I Always Look Bad in Photos”

Robert and MaryamMeliqua, and Bernard, 6th Street, San FranciscoRyan BlockMeta Trevor

I hear this alot.

I’ve shot literally thousands of people over the years. I love shooting people. Every so often though someone will tell me not to take their picture, because “they always look bad in photos.

Of course I almost always comply if someone really truly doesn’t want to be photographed, but usually not before first trying to clarify things with them a little more.

Most of the time actually people who don’t want to be photographed really don’t mind. They are just shy and after talking a bit more agree to be photographed. Sometimes people though really do feel strongly about not being photographed and if this is the case I won’t shoot them — well unless it’s some sort of an altercation with a cop or security guard or something and they drew First Blood.


Here’s the thing. The reason why some people “always look bad in photos,” is *exactly* because they object and complain about always looking bad in photos in the first place. It’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. When I shoot someone, I might take 5 photos, or 10 photos, or 500 photos. But I don’t publish all 500 of course. I only process and publish the ones that I think are the absolute best. I want whomever I’m shooting to look their best and I want my work to reflect positively on them.

Bad Ass on South Beach

When I have 500 photos to choose from, the chances of my getting a good picture are *much* greater than when I only get three.

So the more comfortable you are with the photographer, the more you relax and let them do their job and even encourage them instead of objecting, the more likely that they will get a good shot of you. If the photographer senses that you are resistent, or even worse if you stop them after only taking a few shots, you almost assure that the resulting photo won’t be good.

My advice to people that want to look good in photographs? The key to getting a great photo taken is to make the photographer as comfortable shooting you as possible. Never object to being photographed or say that you look bad in photos. Never stop them while they are shooting. Relax, engage with them while they are shooting. Pose a little, but also be natural. Ask them about their camera, make *them* feel relaxed and unrushed. Ask them if you are in the best light or if you should move somewhere else. Because the more time they spend shooting you, the more total frames they end up making, the more likely that they will get a good one.

So if you don’t like how photos of you turn out, consider the interaction with the photographer. If your goal is to get the best photo possible of you, your job should be to encourage them and have them make as many frames with you as possible. Give them 50 frames to work with and they’ll get a better final photo of you than if you only let them have 3.

Deeper, Plate 2

Most of the time that I’ve taken photos of relaxed people they end up liking them. I’ve had several people use my photo of them for their avatar online or link to the photos or republish them. But I think the key to taking a good photograph is how well you communicate to the photographer that you are comfortable with them shooting you.

This post inspired by Rob’s question on Buzz here.

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  1. Cathy says:

    Great post! If I can get someone to laugh, we get better portraits right off the bat. Having something in common to talk about while shooting will help tremendously.

  2. Suyog says:

    Good post. Recently experienced that when I was doing some street photography. http://www.flickr.com/photos/suyog/4615749343/

  3. Very relevant post Thomas. When I run into a person like this at a wedding, or event, etc., I still try to take their photo upon first meeting, but if I do not like the results then I keep coming back to them and eventually my persistence usually produces a smile by them and I can get a shot worth keeping.

    I recently had a mother of a bride tell me she was told she does not look good in photographs so she was very reluctant to have her photo taken at all, so I told her to hold one of her grandchildren for a shot and that softened her up and I was able to make the 2nd photograph here:


    I will keep the point about it becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy in mind too as I definitely think it’s true.

  4. Marios says:

    Agree making person comfortable with the photographers means a lot, Great Post,

  5. Sam Posten says:

    For some of us no matter who does the snapping we’ll probably not like the results, because of body image, self esteem, or simply the poor results of those who have tried before. I’m definitely in that category which is why I do most of the snapping and also try to be respectful of folks wishes. Your list of strategies above is very strong, I might have to print this one out to remind myself of them from time to time.

    That said, of the one picture you have posted of me, while I look like my goofy old self and think you did better than most of not making me look like Shrek =)

  6. Man, one of those dudes is one handsome guy!

  7. Mei Teng says:

    I feel like that about myself too. As in not looking great in photos. But I like photographing others. Just not myself. Yet. Looking forward to experimenting more with self portraiture.

    You have a great website.

  8. Spike says:

    Good job placing all the blame on the subject. It’s all about the photographer, isn’t it?

  9. As a subject (I’m in one of the photos above) I try to get photographers to get closer and I try to give them something that I haven’t given anyone else. Maybe a sign. A look. A tongue. A moment.

    Spike: I’ve seen executives be rude to photographers. I never got that. It’s not how you’ll get a great photo made of you. But, yes, great photographers find a way to get their subjects to relax.

  10. Spike says:

    Robert, I was paid to photograph you a while back. You were an easy subject, but I still talked about it with you for a while after I set up the equipment. However, an executive that is rude to a photographer probably isn’t looking for a photo that makes them look “good.”

  11. Thomas Hawk says:

    Spike, certainly the photographer has something to do with the photo as well. I’m just saying that it’s much harder for the photographer to get a good shot if the person is resistant and especially if they stop you after just a few clicks.

    I think many people who routinely tell photographers that they never take a good photo do themselves a disservice.

    As a photographer you want to do everything you can to get your subject to relax. Frequently I will actually talk with them while I’m shooting to try and get different expressions and get them to break pose. Sometimes I’ll try to joke, or say something really crazy. If that’s not working sometimes I’ll move them just to move them. Just to break up the routine. I’m not shy about moving people into better light as well. All of these things are important. But many of these things take patience and time from a subject that sometimes are not willing to give it.

  12. Brad says:

    >>> I hear this alot. … Every so often though someone will tell me not to take their picture, because “they always look bad in photos.

    From shooting on the street all the time (just people, with tens of thousands of images in SF) and doing a ton of posed portraits of total strangers I engage on the street, not once has anyone every expressed concern about looking bad. In fact, it’s rare when anyone refuses to let me take their portrait. And through gentle persuasion I can get a few of those to agree.

    But rather than put the burden on my subjects to make *me* feel comfortable, I put my subjects at ease through conversation and joking around, talking about a variety of things. Immediately trust and respect flows in both directions. I’ve never felt uncomfortable shooting anyone, except possibly the time approaching and shooting a couple of Norteños dudes hanging around. They ended up liking me, and when finished said if anyone ever gives me crap in SF, to let them know and they would f ’em up real good for me. In all I’ve made many friends from my engagements/photos.

    I always carry small 4×6 prints in my bag of people I expect to see again. And have given back somewhere between 100 – 200. People love them. Several times estranged relatives see people I’ve snapped on my blog. Sending them prints and the stories I get in exchange are priceless. Now I give people on the street small handmade books. Always a good ice-breaker for future portraits.

    In the end, it’s always about *my* approach trying to make my subjects feel comfortable and never the other way around.

  13. Karen Hanım says:

    This is just such terrific advice! My daughters needed it when they were teenagers and now I need it since I have hit the age of 60. Thanks so much !!

  14. ALbySpace says:

    This is a must!
    I get the same sentence most of the times and my default answer (as a photographer) is:

    “It’s my job to make you look good, not yours”

    Of course I say it decisely and ironically, so they know that you “have the power” but that will be fun, and somehow this answer takes some weight down the model’s shoulders.

  15. Aron says:

    that’s really good advise. Thanks!

  16. marcos says:

    Fuck you! Do not take my photo period plain and simple you nazi photographer.

  17. marcos says:

    Fuck you! Do not take my photo period plain and simple you nazi photographer. Can you not take NO for an answer? Following me around with a camera like some kind of idiot. This is harassment!!!