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5 Tips to Help You Take More Natural Looking Portraits

You’ve probably seen those beautiful portraits where couples are embracing, and laughing naturally off-camera, or two children are skipping up the beautiful country lane-way, bathed in the most perfect light. Everything in the image looks flawless, yet it still seems like the photographer just happened to be walking past at the exact right moment to capture the perfect shot.

So why is it when I try and capture those perfect candid moments someone always has their eyes closed, hair is covering half of their face, or the lighting is wrong, or worse still an unsuspecting passerby in bright pink sweat pants walks through the background of the shot.

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In this image I gave each model one action to repeat over and over, to achieve a natural candid feel. (The Footy Show cast – image courtesy Nine Network Australia)

Getting realistic and natural looking shots can be really tricky. If I set up the shot, and try and direct certain poses and reactions, the shots can look really stiff and contrived. If I try and get people to laugh on cue, it tends to look fake.

I can always leave it to chance in the hope that the people I’m working with do something worth photographing but this isn’t always an option. So what’s the best way to get people to look natural on camera? Here are my five favorite and most successful techniques to help you take more natural looking portraits:

1. Check your mood

People tend to mirror, and reflect the mood of the photographer, so if you are having a bad day or feeling grumpy, then your models are going to pick up on that vibe. If you want happy and excited looking expressions, then you need to have that vibe yourself. If you are not feeling it before the shoot, for whatever reason (stuff happens right?) then do whatever it takes to put yourself in a good mood. Listen to a funny podcast on the commute in, call a friend who makes you laugh, read funny stuff. Eat half a jar of Nutella (don’t judge me).

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2. If you want people to laugh genuinely, then give them something to laugh about

I’m constantly wisecracking through the shoot, and ever ready to capture the expressions as the joke hits. The best way to do this is to set up your models in the position you want them, start with serious poses, and then throw in a funny remark between frames.

You don’t even need to be that funny for this technique to work. You only really need two or three good jokes, or lines, that will crack a group of people up. I’ve been using the same lines for years and they still work. The important part is that you make them your own, and it’s something you would say, or feel comfortable saying.

3. Laugh with people

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To get this image of the Dalton family (above) I actually just started laughing with them. Laughing with your models is infectious. I felt a bit embarrassed doing it at the start, but soon discovered it was totally worth the genuine laughs, and reactions I got. (The Dalton Family/Foxtel)

Another great trick to make models laugh is I actually ask my models to laugh, and will start laughing with them. This always starts out really awkward, everyone laughs uncomfortably, and at first they are laughing at me. But, after a while, everyone is laughing with me, and I’m always able to capture some genuine and beautiful laughing shots.

4. Give each person something to repeat

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In this image, I gave each of the girls a specific action and eye-line, while they walked toward my camera. The client wanted a fun, positive, natural-looking shot. If this sort of image is left to chance, all the girls end up looking in the same direction, or have the wrong facial expression.

Try and give everyone in the group a set of actions to repeat as you shoot. This makes it easier to control the group, and keep the shape of the shot you are trying to get. I find I have greater success when I give each model only one action to repeat, and a direction to look toward.

An example of the direction I gave for the girls walking above would be:

  • Girl A (use their real names or course!): Walk towards me, look into the camera and smile at me like you’ve just seen your best friend
  • Girl B: Walk towards camera and smile over at girl A
  • Girl C: Tell a story, and gesture with your hands and look over at girl B
  • Girl D: Laugh to yourself and walk towards camera

5. Keep talking, coaxing, encouraging, directing

People perceive silence from a photographer as a sign that you are unhappy with what they are doing.

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What’s your favorite technique for getting natural looking portraits? Do you have any great tricks we could all try? I’d love to hear about them. Please share any others in the comments below as well as your images of natural looking portraits you’re proud of.

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Gina Milicia
Gina Milicia

has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on “Portrait and Post Production Essentials” and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

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