Portraiture can be a tricky animal, given all that goes into the creation of the image. There’s the equipment you use and the lighting. Your ability to compose and frame a shot are clearly very important. Timing is also critical, of course.
But another element that’s perhaps more important than the rest is the subject. You can have the perfect lighting and the precise camera settings all you want, but if your subject looks uncomfortable or unnatural, none of that other stuff will make any difference at all.
In this week’s free step-by-step lesson, we take a look at a few tips for helping your portrait subjects strike a much more natural pose.
Step 1: Take Them Off the Beaten Path
It’s hard for some supermodels to perform well in front of a camera when a crowd has gathered, so the everyday moms, dads, and kids you photograph would most certainly tense up if you take them to a public place for their portraits. If the park you’ve picked for your client’s senior portraits is just a little too crowded, move on to plan B and find a more secluded place where they feel less in the spotlight and can relax as you pose them.
Another aspect of being flexible in terms of your shoot locations is simply respecting the wishes of your client. If they are uncomfortable, you need to do everything you can to help them get to a comfortable space. The photos you create will be much better, but so too will the client’s experience with you. The better their experience, the more likely they are to come back to you in the future (and recommend you to their friends and family too!).
Step 2: Give Them Something to Hold
It’s amazing what holding something can do for even the most anxiety-ridden portrait subjects. Whether it’s a flower or a sledgehammer, giving your nervous nelly something to grab onto will instantly make them more relaxed. Simply having something to hold is enough of a distraction to keep the nervousness at bay and allow a more natural portrait to take place.
Have a discussion with your subject and learn about the things they like to do. If they like to fish, have them bring their fishing pole. If they like to garden, have them hold a bouquet of flowers. Doing so will accomplish two things: they will be more relaxed in front of the camera, and the more meaningful prop will thereby make the portrait more meaningful as well.
Step 3: Have Them Have a Seat
Many of the unnatural looking portraits you see probably feature a subject that’s awkwardly standing around, looking stiff and uncomfortable. The solution? Have them sit down. Give them a chair or a stool. Have them sit on the steps of their front porch. Find a park bench or even a tree stump. Just find a way to get them off their feet and into a more relaxed position.
Once you have them sitting down, you can play around with the angle at which you shoot and the perspective of the shot. You can shoot downward from an upward angle, which is a good way to eliminate seeing double chins or wrinkles on the neck. You can take a profile shot from further away for a nice environmental portrait as well. Perhaps even a silhouette might be in order! Whichever direction you choose to go in, your subject will thank you for getting them off their feet and helping them to become more relaxed in front of the camera.
Step 4: Provide a Distraction
One of the best ways to relax an uncomfortable portrait subject is to disarm them with conversation. You’re not just there to push the shutter button; rather, you’re there to make them the best model they can possibly be. Ask them questions about their family and friends, their favorite movie and TV show, the kind of music they listen to, and so on. The more you can engage them in conversation, the more relaxed they will be and the better your portraits will be as a result.
The trick, of course, is to get them talking, and then start shooting images without them necessarily realizing it. A good trick is to say that you need to take a few test shots to look at the lighting, framing, etc., when in reality you’re ready to go and you’re taking actual photos. In those few moments, your client should still be relaxed and conversing (and hopefully smiling and laughing), which makes for incredibly natural portraits.
Of course, you need not use all four of these steps at once! Doing so might be a bit much. Instead, give each one a try and see how they impact the look and feel of your portraits. Keep each tip in your hip pocket and be ready to employ them the next time you have a portrait subject that just isn’t feeling it. Your images will be much more successful by doing so.