5 Steps to Natural Portraits

By: Acacia Trenholm

Many weeks ago, I started my article for Beloved by telling you how to use your camera, ensure a decent photograph, maintain good light, etc. But you see those types of posts splattered across the internet (simply google it and you'll find thousands of results!). Perhaps you’ll hardly ever see a post which tells you how to photograph the personality, laughter, and essence of a person. On top of all the technical stuff, to take photos that make the subjects look relaxed, happy, and ‘themselves’ rather than posed, awkward, and rigid is a tremendously wonderful skill to have!

Recently, at a wedding I was photographing, I was told by the bride’s father, "You know, portraits aren’t easy to take! It’s so hard to get people to look natural."

I laughed, lightheartedly, agreeing (albeit hesitantly) and said, "Yes! It is. Until you get them comfortable in front of the camera."

That got me thinking. What is it that enables me to photograph natural, unstaged moments? 

To photograph open, free, natural love, be open, free and natural. Not being yourself behind the camera, awkwardly telling people to say "cheese?" Not fun. I ask engaged or married couples to tell me how they fell in love, I’m constantly complimenting on how they’re doing such a great job (because honestly they usually are!) and how beautiful they look. If you’re photographing young children, I ask them to look deeply into my lens and see if they can find something in it. I’ll giggle with them, tell them a joke, have them spin around. I ask photography clients to stare into space, to close their eyes, think of their favorite person, then open their eyes and look at me. We laugh together. If I’m photographing a couple and they’re having a quiet, intimate moment - I let the moment unravel before us. I don’t jump in and say, "please just tuck your hand into your pocket, take five steps back and look at me, and - smile!"

Have your subject laugh while saying ‘A-E-I-O-U’…that’s what some celebrities do as they walk down the Red Carpet; it brings out a natural laugh and smile.

Ask your subject to tell you about what they’re passionate about, their families, hobbies, etc.  Get to know them!  You can break down barriers and get to know a person well and then photograph them for who they are because of it. 

Play music!  Play a few of your favorite songs to build atmosphere… it’s fun to get a little movement and rhythm involved in your session, and it adds to a chilled atmosphere and hopefully more free-flowing, unstaged photos! 

Pick a location or spot drenched in light.  Always ensure the sun is behind your subject rather than directly shining on their face.  This type of lighting is almost always more flattering, and it means you won’t catch any awkward squinty eyes!  In order to be relaxed and natural in front of the camera, ensuring that bright light isn’t in your subject’s eyes is a great first step to enabling your subject to be relaxed. 

Take photos while your subject is talking to you and while you’re walking to a different spot:  This will invariably capture a handful of natural moments!  Just encourage your subject to keep chatting since you'll easily get some lovely natural shots just by photographing them talking to you! 

Ask your subject to bring a few of their friend’s along!  Your subject’s friends are guaranteed to make your subject laugh (just tell them to if they don’t!) - a sense of community is built, there’s hardly ever an awkward silence, and you can always have a friend jump in the photograph to switch up the shoot. 

At the end of every photo session, ask yourself what you could have done better and how you will change it for the better for next time. And just keep photographing!

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