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How To Get Your Subject To Act Naturally

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Read Time: 6 min
This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
The Best Way to Learn About Making Portraits
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Working as a portrait photographer can sometimes feel like a real chore. If things aren’t going your way, then it can be really difficult to change the atmosphere of the shoot towards something productive and creative that will produce good results.

Having a model that looks awkward in front of the camera can make life very difficult. Some people just don’t like having a camera pointed at them, they don’t know where to look or what to do with their hands, but here are a few simple tips to help you get your subject to act natural so that you can get that all important shot.

Use a Neutral or Familiar Location

Finding a location where everyone feels comfortable will really aid you in your efforts to get natural looking shots. Try to find somewhere that is either quite neutral and will be easy to adjust to, or select a location that the subject already knows well and will feel at home in.

Obviously you need to choose your location based upon the theme and style of the shoot, but it’s certainly worth having a conversation with the clients beforehand to ensure that on the day, everyone will be comfortable and happy.

Photo by White Ribbons

Break The Ice

It’s very unlikely that everyone will feel normal and comfortable from the off, so sometimes it’s worth doing something just to break the ice a bit, in order to level things out and put people at ease. This could be as simple as explaining a bit about what you do and asking them about what they do. Try to find some common ground by talking about something totally unrelated to the shoot, such as places you’ve traveled to, films, music or food.

Don’t be in a hurry to start the shoot straight away, it’s often worth spending half an hour or so just easing your way in, ensuring everyone is relaxed and if you feel it’s necessary, explain a bit about how the shoot will work and what you’ll require of the subject.

Photo by Tomas Sobek

Set The Tone

Now this depends a lot on the style of the shoot, what it’s about and who it’s for but there may be certain requirements for the subjects to appear in a certain fashion within the shoot and there are things you can do to aid that.

For example, if the subject needs to look relaxed, then have them sit down and read for a bit with a nice cold drink whilst you set up. Alcohol can work well for loosening people up a bit, but only if you feel it’s appropriate. If your subjects need to look excited or energetic, then maybe have them do some exercise, jump around a bit, run around, just to get the blood pumping, rather than starting from cold.

Photo by cacostello

Allow Plenty of Time

Now I say this knowing that on every shoot, we all probably want more time, but when it comes to portrait shoots with those who aren’t used to having their photo taken, it can be really helpful just to have that extra hour on the clock just in case things don’t go to plan.

I always find with new subjects that the better shots are taken towards the end of the shoot once they’re more relaxed, so the longer you’ve got, hopefully the better shots you’ll get as everyone gets into the swing of things.

Photo by Douz Diop

Allow Friends To Come Along

On the more high end shoots, you may well have make up artists, hairdressers, art directions, assistants and everyone’s PA hanging around, but with the smaller shoots, it can often just be you and the subject. In some cases this is fine, but it doesn’t necessarily aid the subject in feeling natural and relaxed. It can be a good idea to have a few of their friends along. Not only will they aid the subject, but they can help you out with reflectors and carrying gear!

Photo by fotupia


Think about what might feel natural for each subject, ask them whether they feel happier standing, leaning, sitting, squatting or lying down and start with that. Certainly having someone sitting as opposed to standing will help them relax and look natural. That way, they can do their own thing, rather than feeling like they have to perform for the camera.

Photo by Sam Beebe

Give Them Prompts

To start with, a subject may well not know what to do with themselves, so it’s worth offering suggestions for where they could look, into the distance, into the lens, over your shoulder or at another person. It’s also useful to tell them which way to face, so slight turns and movement suggestions can go a long way.

There’s no need to be bossy and hopefully after a few suggestions, they’ll begin to relax and work it out for themselves, which will certainly look more natural than any poses you’ve asked them to pull.

Photo by Valentine Ottone


If it’s appropriate or the subject is really struggling to know what to do with their posture or with their hands, then props can come in really useful. Handing a flower to a girl on a shoot may sound quite cliched, but it gives her a focus point, something to hold and look at. Often, nervousness manifests itself in twitchy hands, so having something to hold can really help.

Photo by Jeremy Jenum


Again, if you feel that the subject is struggling from nerves, then offering them a distraction will really help them look natural and less tense. Even a simple conversation starter like asking, what did you have for lunch, will take their mind off the fact that they’re being photographed.

Entering into a conversation about their job or family or something you found common ground over in the chat before the shoot will engage them in a different way and hopefully allow for more natural results.

Photo by Adriel Soctrates

Don’t Over Do It On Gear

There are few things more intimidating for a subject than turning up to a portrait shoot and being overwhelmed by all the gear. Big lighting set ups and back sheets might help you get the neutral backdrop that you want, but it could really put off your subject from feeling relaxed. Regardless of the amount of gear you’ve got, it can be a good idea to briefly explain what you’re doing, give the subject some confidence that you know what you’re doing with your camera and that you’re going to take a lovely picture of them. I'd even show them some shots on your LCD if you feel able.

Photo by Burtoo

Timing Your Shot

So once you’ve got everything set up and the subject is at ease, it’s up to you to get the shot. You want to get to a point where the subject is comfortable with you and then it’s all about timing it, waiting for that natural reaction, that smile or expression and click, you’ll have your shot. You have to be patient, you can’t force it, but when it all comes together you’ll know!

Photo by Dominik Golenia

Give It A Try!

So, hopefully those few simple tips will set you on your way to getting some beautiful natural portrait shots. Try a few of them out on family and friends, they’re used to having you and your camera around and will therefore be relaxed, which means you’ll find that you get more natural shots.

Don’t just take pictures in set up situations, take them in natural day-to-day scenarios, almost in a documentary style, and you’ll find that getting natural portraits isn’t as hard as you might have thought!

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