Portraits are a huge part of my work. Whether it be candidly at events or just you and your subject face to face, portraits are my thing and what I shoot professionally. Portraits are fun and can be great to experiment with and also easily taken into the conceptual and surreal. Obviously you need knowledge of lighting (whether it be natural or artificial), your camera, and basic photography knowledge (such as composition) to take a good portrait but did you know that I reckon about 75% of a portrait is actually making someone comfortable with you and the camera you hide your own face with?
Portraits can be intimate. It’s a moment between you and 1 other person. This kind of intimacy can frighten a lot of people and make them feel very awkward and self conscious in themselves. Any feeling of awkwardness or self conscious-ness can show within your portrait. Whether it be in their body language, a minute facial expression, or shown within their eyes, any emotion of awkwardness they feel will come across and tar the whole portrait as uncomfortable. Us as photographers need to know how to make our subject feel comfortable enough to relax and then let loose in front of our camera to capture that perfect moment. Us as photographers need to be people persons especially if our job is within portraiture and photographing other people. There is so much more to photography than just ‘clicking a button’ after all. Not everybody is born a model and instantly loves the camera and knows how to be photogenic or how to capture their best side, but it is our job to figure that out for each person we photograph whilst also making them feel comfortable and ultimately they need to go away having had fun otherwise it will put them off for life!
The simplest way of making someone comfortable in front of your camera is by building a rapport and a relationship with that person. You tend to only get a designated amount of time with someone when you are photographing them, but take a few minutes just to talk to them naturally and get the conversation to flow. Find out a bit more about them and get them to relax through the art of natural conversation. Often when I am shooting someone for the first time I take a few minutes just to talk about their day and find a way to keep the conversation flowing. I will often carry on talking as I am photographing them so they start to forget that the camera is even there and it makes them feel like they are with somebody they already know. Social media helps us out nowadays as somebody can already talk to you and engage with you before they have even hired you and this adds on a new layer to being comfortable with someone. If I want natural smiles within my photos then I’ll often tell a funny story that has happened to me and then snap away through their various reactions to the story.
If you are in a studio setting, what you can do is put your camera on to a tripod and use a remote so that your camera isn’t covering your face and you can continue a conversation with your subject with no camera to your face which will help someone feel more comfortable and you become a person, rather than the machine you are using. If I can tell my subject is even more uncomfortable being in a studio setting (it isn’t familiar to some people so can be very daunting to be surrounded by studio lights!) I will often put my camera on to my Manfrotto 190 Tripod with head and then use my camera’s built in wifi to use my mobile phone as a remote control so that my face isn’t stuck behind the camera and my subject can see my face and my facial expressions.
Once you have broken the ice a little bit and helped them to settle you are obviously then shooting away, but hold on, you notice a little bit in your subjects body language that suggests they still aren’t comfortable. A lot of people have insecurities about parts of their body and if they feel uncomfortable about that and it is showing then it is definitely showing in the photos which will give you a portrait that just reeks of uneasiness. It’s our job to then problem solve and find a solution. When I shot a girl named Chloe I could just tell she was uneasy about her stomach area as she kept clutching it as if she wanted to hide it. The way she was clutching it made her face look so uneasy and awkward but as soon as I saw she had a hat in her bag I asked her to get it out and hold it over the area she was uneasy about. Instantly her face lit up in the photos as the area she disliked was no longer physically on show and in the photos it looked like she had just taken the hat off. Not everybody will have a hat to hand but if you can tell someone is disliking a part of their body it is up to us to find a way to hide it that’ll aid our portraits.
This leads me on to my next point that some people are far more comfortable looking away from the camera than directly into it also. Looking into a lens can seem super scary and really intense so if I can tell my subject isn’t comfortable with this I will ask them to move their head slightly to show me more of their favourite side (everyone has a favourite side after all). This lessens the connection they feel between the camera and helps someone to relax a little bit more. You can still ask them to look at the lens, but because their head is at a slight angle it doesn’t seem like you are intensely staring down the lens and feels a bit more softer. Play around with complete side profiles if you wish and get them slowly to change the angle their head is at a bit more after a few shots. Get them to change the position their eyes are in also, after all some of the best portraits are ones where your subject is looking like they are daydreaming off into the distance.
If they keep darting their eyes back and forth and not sure where they should actually be looking, sunglasses make for a chic accessory as they are always in fashion, everyone owns a pair, and it hides their eyes so they don’t need to worry about where they are actually looking or if they have ended up blinking through 90% of the shots. Honestly I get so many people thinking they have blinked for 90% of the shots and it eats away at their mind worrying they keep blinking at the wrong time when it’s actually the opposite. Some people also worry about the ‘bags under their eyes’ also so again, sunglasses help to hide this which is an earlier point I made. Sunglasses in a portrait isn’t for everyone though so don’t feel you HAVE to try it.
Depending on what length of portrait you are taking some people don’t know what to do with their hands and will often laugh about the fact they don’t know what to do with their hands. A hand on the hip pose only goes so far. I like to shoot a lot of portraits that cut off at the waist or thigh, it normally depends on the outfit. I have a few tips for what people can do if they feel truly awkward with their hands. I LOVE a good hand in the pocket. It instantly makes people feel more relaxed and cooler and it works for men and women. Pockets on jeans and/or jackets, just get your subject to stuff 1 or both hands in to a pocket and instantly they no longer worry about what to do with their hands and arms and can focus on just moving around.
No pockets to their outfit? No problem. PROPS! Props can be anything from a coffee cup to a phone to a pair of sunglasses in someones hand, to a hat, absolutely anything that adds something to the portrait and the location you are in will instantly help someone relax and give them something to do with their hands. If the subject is sat down they can even lean their own head into their hand to give them something else to do with their hand and arm, or play with their hair is also another great way of giving them something to do with their hands and I then consider their hair as a prop. Not going to lie also, I am a HUGE fan of food as a prop and people genuinely seem to have more fun knowing they can then eat some food afterwards.
You know how I said some people don’t know what to do with their hands? The same goes for legs. If standing, a LOT of people don’t quite know how they should stand or have their legs or feet and then they get awkward again and massively over think the shots before they have even seen any. For some reason sitting down seems to eliminate a lot of that awkwardness as the subject can then forget about how they have their legs AND their arms AND their face and instead just focus on their face and arms. It’s one less thing to worry about in the grand scheme of a portrait and depending on how they sit can give an air of elegance, or real casual vibes. I love it when girls sit like boys and have this “i don’t care” attitude and they just cross their legs and kinda forget about them and focus more on what their arms are doing in shot. Where they sit also can become a massive prop in itself. A stool is great for in a studio but not so much a location, but as soon as you find a bench in a location your subject can sit in it and also then lean their arms on the arm rests and that way they then only need to think about what is going on with their face with the photos. The less they have to worry about in terms of body position and poses, the more relaxed they will be.
Sometimes, somebody will just never feel comfortable by themselves in front of a camera. That comes with time and practice on their part. But one way of easing them in is to have a friend of theirs join them within the photos. It means we as a photographer get tested because we are directing 2 (or more) people and I always see challenges as a bit of fun, but it also means they can play off of each other and have a bit of fun together and try not to take a portrait session as seriously. You can also direct a duo or a group in such a dynamic way also that may come out better than if it was just a solo portrait. Because the subject is within a small group or with a close friend of theirs they really will forget you are there as they then get talking to the other person and having a bit of fun and you can just keep on snapping the interaction between the 2 of them, or between the group of them. That way you start capturing a natural interaction and get the freshest of perspectives and start to capture something more honest and real than just a portrait, you start to capture a relationship.
I have mentioned it already but PROPS PROPS PROPS. Not only can they enhance a portrait but it just helps someone feel so much more comfortable as they then have something to actually do or they can play some kind of part and pretend to be someone else. They can pretend to be a girl boss if they have a coffee cup in their hands rushing down the street to their next meeting, a bunch of flowers can be girly and cute and they can then hide behind the bunch or peer over them, sunglasses instantly make someone chic and fashionable and people can pretend they are Anna Wintour of American Vogue, magazines and/or books help showcase a passion of the persons without it being in your face and too obvious. Props can help give a lifestyle aspect to the images also which help to tell a bit more of a story about the person within the actual photograph and give a sense of their personality. Give a subject a prop true to them and watch them come alive in front of your camera!
Like I said, I feel like 75% of our job as photographers is making somebody feel comfortable in front of the 25% of tech stuff we do with our camera and behind the scenes of the photo. That 75% is the most important and helps us portray someone truthfully and with their personality showing. If we don’t get that 75% correct then we end up with something unusable, awkward, and uncomfortable. Nobody wants to sell a family a portrait of them all where they look 100% awkward and uncomfortable. Everybody wants to buy that portrait where they look happy and truly comfortable. Mastering how to make someone feel comfortable makes the job that much easier.