How to Photograph Natural Looking Portraits

How to Photograph Natural Looking Portraits


In this post, Hawaii wedding and portrait photographer, Natalie Norton talks about how she achieves natural, relaxed portraits from her clients.


Here’s the scoop. This is how I do things. You don’t have to do them this way, you may have a system that works better for you, if so, please, do tell in the comment section of the post. I just want to make it perfectly clear that this is MY system, not THE system for creating natural portraits. Take it or leave it! Enjoy.

I think people work on the presumption that in order to create a relaxed portrait, a shot that has that natural, genuine candid feel we all love in our photographs, you have to back off completely and just capture the moments as they unfold. This is completely true and completely false all at the same time. I’ve found that subjects who aren’t given good, sturdy, confident direction have a VERY hard time feeling relaxed and therefore looking natural. They end up acting awkward and looking incredibly posed when in reality the exact opposite holds true.

Creating relaxed portraits isn’t complicated in any way shape or form, but you do need a system. Here’s mine, step by step.

1. Get to know your subject

Even if it’s just a little small talk, you’ve got to take a second to break the ice with some informal conversation. For me this starts all the way back when I’m emailing back and forth with clients setting things up for their shoot. I try as hard as possible always to be myself, so they get to know me and are comfortable with me from the start. My style of photography is an extension of my personality, so it’s really important that people feel comfortable with me. It helps them feel safe and open to give me their genuine selves at a portrait session, and frankly it helps me get to know them as well. Once we start shooting, I generally have a pretty solid feel for my clients. I know what they need from me to help them be at their best.

2. Plan on a few shots to break the ice

I always expect the first 10 or so shots to be junk. I’m nervous, my subject’s nervous and that just doesn’t equal awesome. Does that mean you wait for nerves to settle before you start shooting? Absolutely not. Get in there, get working and things will loosen up within just a few minutes. It’s like jumping into the ocean. When you wade out and take forever to get in, it’s a lot harder than just plunging in and letting your body adjust to the temperature.

3. Make your location work for you

When I get to a location I already have an idea of my client’s personality and they mine, so at this point it’s a matter of finding a location within the location that is going to help us both really shine. If they’re a little shy, I’m obviously not going to take them into the middle of a crowded park and expect them to cuddle up and give me something sexy to work with for their shoot. I’ll need to be familiar with the location so I know a more private place I can take them so they can be comfortable enough to be at their best and I can still feel inspired and make their shoot rock. This is hard for me sometimes, because I pay a lot more attention to (and actually find my inspiration in) the available light (which I use almost exclusively) than I do to what’s happening in the background. Sometimes I do have to sacrifice that awesome light for comfortable clients. I just have to remind myself that in the end a well lit picture that looks stiff and awkward is a lot worse than an image with light that’s maybe only so/so but has a good genuine connection from my subjects.

4. Help it happen

Like I mentioned above, you can’t just stand back and wait for magic. At a wedding, sure, of course, because people are experiencing an event and you’re job is to capture it as it unfolds. A portrait session is a whole different kind of animal . . . 99.9% of the time with regular subjects (ie not trained professional models) you’ve got to give some basic direction. You also can’t get in there and say, “Ok, hold hands, head turned at exactly a 80 degree angle. . . WAIT! Not that far! I said 80 degrees for crying out loud!”

Generally what I do with a portrait session is as simple as getting my subjects seated/standing in a way that is compositionally sound within my frame. Then I step back and let them “work it.” I tell them just to be themselves. If it’s a couple, I tell them to just be into eachother. I make them laugh, I make them smile. I ask them to pretend I’m not there and just snuggle up. I let them do their thing, but I’m helping it happen.


Sometimes I’ll give the my subjects an activity to participate in. I let them do their thing and I capture the magic moments that happen naturally. Even then though, if it’s a family portrait for example, I try to tell mom and dad to remember that I’m there. Otherwise I may end up with a lot of pictures of the back of someone’s head etc. They need to have a vague awareness that I’m around, but not focus on me. Does that make sense?


FOR EXAMPLE: In the image above of Robin from Twigg Botanicals, I couldn’t bring myself to give someone with a job as cool as hers a basic, typical head shot, so I met her while she was setting up for an event, gave her some basic direction and let her rock out. I love this triad, and it’s perfect for what she needed for the about page of her website. You should know, Robin is pretty shy and does NOT love having her picture taken. You’d never know it from the images above!

Just give it a go. . . truly engage your subject on your next shoot . . . and see how it goes. It can be as simple as saying, “Ooh YES! PERFECT. Give me more of that!” You may feel like a quack, but I swear to you that your clients will appreciate it.

5. Get in there

My subjects will be the first to tell you that I’m not a passive, standoffish photographer. No sir. I’m right up in there with you. That’s one of the reasons it’s so darn important that we’re comfortable with each other. I shoot my portraits with fixed focal length lenses, so that means that my feet are my zoom. Guess what, if I want a tight shot, that means I’m nearly right up on top of you with my lens. I know this may sound uncomfortable to some of you, but for me, I find that it helps my subjects and I feel like a team. We create a real harmony together and end up with real, genuine, connected images, and new friends to boot. Because you can’t shoot all up in there the way I do without bonding in some way shape or form.


All that said, I’ll tell you outright, I am not afraid to PULL from my clients. I expect them to work with me. It sounds like a headache for them when you read it here, but I’ll tell you that after nearly EVERY shoot I’ve EVER shot I’ve gotten feedback from clients saying things along the lines of, “Wow, that was totally painless, fast and fun!” They appreciate my engaging them in a way that makes them feel like they’re contributing. They like to feel useful and busy. I know what you’re thinking, “Well, duh. They’re getting their picture taken, of course they’re feeling useful and busy.” But I’ll tell you what, it’s amazing how many photographers frustrate their clients by not engaging them in the process. They just say ok, let’s do this. And they leave their clients to themselves and they just stand back and shoot. Most clients HATE that, and I’ll promise you that nearly 100% of the time if you try to work it that way you’ll end up with forced smiles and awkward poses.


Now, I can’t write a post like this and not end with a little shout out to all my clients. You are all SO VERY wonderful and I’m so thankful to each of you for letting me capture the natural, real, beautiful moments of your lives. You’re all my BFF’s and have enriched my life in so many ways!

Happy Shooting!

Natalie Norton is a wedding and portrait photographer who lives on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Check out more of her work and tutorials at her popular blog Pics and Kicks,

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Natalie Norton is a writer and a lifestyle wedding and portrait photographer who shoots across the globe. She is based off of the North Shore of Oahu and out of Gilbert, Arizona. Enjoy more of her photography and writing at You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

Some Older Comments

  • Teri September 27, 2012 08:08 am

    Something which I've found (and was given to me as a tip from a photojournalist) is set up your camera, look through the viewfinder and snap a shot (nobody's going to miss you took a photo with that sound from your camera!) Then go as to line up for another shot (this is one of the few times that I have the focus confirmation beep on) and then look out the side of the camera and grin (stupidly) at the people you're about to take a photo of. While it doesn't work too often in a row, you usually get a grin at your antics - perfect time to take the photo.
    (And yes, this has backfired on me many a time - why I get the photo at first! But when it works, I find it works well. Not that I'm usually taking photos of people, horses are my thing, but it's a great way to get some more relaxed shots at parties or events where you don't have a long time to get to know people).

  • azzra September 26, 2012 04:30 pm here sharing sibling action…how do u feel?

  • azzra September 26, 2012 04:29 pm

    here sharing sibling do u feel?

  • Stefan Baumann September 30, 2010 09:29 am

    Another thing that I find helps me to capture natural looking shots is to have them pose, crack a joke or something, and then snap the shots in between the poses. That's when their personalities show through.

  • Katie September 22, 2010 05:25 am


    This was such a helpful article for me. I am trying to get a business off the ground and this is the part I feel like I struggle with the most...interacting with the clients, ahhh! Thank you.

  • Leah September 21, 2010 09:19 am

    Thanks for the tip! This was dated from 2008 and I'm glad its still there for me to learn. I always get nervous before my shoot but once I get into it, I think it was successful. My clients appreciate it. What they dont realize is I'm deaf and I have been very fortunate that it didn't matter! What kind of lens do you use? I own a Canon 50D.

  • Andrea September 19, 2010 12:48 am

    This is some awesome advice, thanks!! :-)

  • Nicole September 18, 2010 06:01 pm

    I once read telling your couples that they are on a first date is the best way to get natural shots... It has worked wonders for me! It saved me from a near disasterous shoot the couple seemed to just calm and my best images came from that.

  • Jovell De Guzman September 18, 2010 02:14 pm

    Great to know more about tips and techniques to end up outstanding effects/outcome in capturing your subject. Portraits capturing is my favorite. Thanks so much for this article, you shared me more room for improvement. Thank you so much

  • Jovell De Guzman September 18, 2010 02:13 pm

    Great to know more about tips and techniques to end up outstanding effects/outcome in capturing your subject. Portraits capturing is my favorite. Thanks so much for this article, you shared me more room for improvement. Thank you so much

  • Rosh September 18, 2010 03:30 am

    Thanks. I really liked the tip of having people aware that others are with them when they pose for a group or family photo. I have seen many photos from professionals where each memeber tends to single out in family photos. After seeing them, I feel they are included in those photos by adding their single photos in post production.

  • Keely September 18, 2010 02:59 am

    Thanks for posting this article, it will really help my shoot on mon

  • RichardH September 18, 2010 02:33 am

    Great article - I'm doing a couple of portrait shots in the few days and I know this will help. Thanks.

  • RichardH September 18, 2010 02:33 am

    Great article - I'm doing a couple of portrait shots in the few days and I know this will help. Thanks.

  • Norm Levin September 18, 2010 02:13 am

    Looks like DP School is getting short on new material. This article was recycled from 2008, as the comments attest. Anyway, the info has shelf life as the author makes good points. Especially about engaging with the subjects. Yet, for someone working on the north shore of Oahu, I was expecting the backgrounds of her portraits to be more exotic, romantic and vibrant. To an image, these portraits could have been taken in Anywhere USA.

    My approach works best with telephoto lenses (zooms) that allow me to have a comfortable distance between myself and my subjects. This provides the added option of being able to throw the backgrounds into soft focus, for a painterly look. Hey, we're all different, which is how it should be. [eimg url='' title='3273171_vNPqi#511946614_wPtro-A-LB']

  • Amit September 18, 2010 01:59 am

    Very good Portraits photography tips.. I will remember it..


  • mark September 17, 2010 01:12 pm

    cool. your post is a big help...indeed, interpersonal relationship with clients is important. you just stressed the importance of rapport that would basically lighten up the flow of shooting..great job! :-)

  • Jami September 17, 2010 12:21 am

    This was a really helpful article. I can't believe you said you get a little nervous at the beginning of the shoot. I thought I was the only one! :)

  • Poonam September 16, 2010 06:42 pm

    @Jason ....agree with you .... location matters a lot for natural of the tips are also helpful ....thanks for sharing

  • Juan September 16, 2010 10:21 am

    Great, great, great pictures

  • Tim September 16, 2010 08:05 am

    Thanks for the great post. This is exactly the area where I know I need to imp;rove in my people photography.

  • Bryan Lao September 16, 2010 07:26 am

    Hi Natalie, I was wondering how you get the colors for the first photo here. Amazing colors. I've always wanted that effect since I started photography. :)

  • Shawn September 16, 2010 07:02 am

    Okay, but what about the editing. How do I get the natural look of the photos under #4? To me it looks like added a color boost. IMO I would sharpen also. But Im looking for an Action in PS or something that does this well. Im going fo...r this look, can anyone help me? the colors look rich and sharp More

  • Jason Collin Photography September 16, 2010 03:20 am

    To get myself to look natural in a portrait, I had to take to the air in a natural way:

    I most agree with point 3 in the post, make the location work for you. Since I only ever shoot on location, I am always making the best of it. Beach at sunset, urban landscape, places to get much higher or lower than the subject, etc.

  • Landon McAllister September 16, 2010 02:52 am

    Great advice--with the goal of capturing the personalities and interaction of the subjects. And the best one is to shoot, shoot, shoot while it is taking place.

  • Jim Crotty September 16, 2010 12:52 am

    Beautiful article, Natalie. You are so right - good portrait photography is that careful balance between direction, connection and letting the subject be him or herself. Perfect timing with this article as well, at least for me. Outside portrait shoot with kids scheduled for this Friday. Your article was the perfect primer on the best approach. Thank you.

  • Dan Ketcham September 16, 2010 12:34 am

    As you know (hopefully ) I love your work and follow you

    I am glad that you wrote this, and I love the way you did...
    its a great article and yes, thats the way you have mastered this... doesnt mean everyone will do the same, but ... still... none the less, its worked for you and for someone who is starting out and looking for that inspiration and pointers.. this is great

  • hfng September 16, 2010 12:10 am

    WAIT! Not that far! I said 80 degrees for crying out loud!

    LOL! Usually followed by beating them with the light stand..

  • Travel Pictures September 16, 2010 12:02 am

    Thanks for these wonderful informations. Cheers!

  • Paul Collins September 15, 2010 11:53 pm

    Fantastic, someone after my own heart, I love natural pictures not the, posed I really don't want this taken picture.You have given me more idea, family are used to me sitting there with a camera in hand , so really don't take much notice so I take a few pictures during the course of the day all natural, and very popular .
    Also at a wedding I should there while the pro photographer took his group pictures , when he finished , and the natural smiles came back I fired a few frames off.

    I just love your arcticle

  • Wayfaring Wanderer September 15, 2010 11:40 pm

    Fabulous tips! Having done my first bonafide portrait session a few weeks ago, I learned that being as personable as possible is very important.

    My first clients were my friends, but it was still nerve wracking. I tried not to show it and instead did my best to make them laugh and have fun. They told me at the end that I was much better than the wedding photographer they hired, because she was like a drill sergeant! haha



  • Jill December 4, 2009 07:09 am

    I just got serious about photography this year and my feet are my zoom too! Love that expression.

    Friends have told me the shots I take tell so much about the moment and the people. I love capturing the moment when the subject has forgotten I am there. My kids have been great models for me to practice this technique.


  • Abul Bashirullah June 17, 2009 02:10 pm

    Hi Natalie,
    I appreciate very much your tips. I like photography but hardly I go out to photograph. I will follow your advice now. I am interested to know the best lens for outdoor portrait photography. Should I use a zoom or Macro lens?
    Thanking you,

  • Abin Joboy January 16, 2009 01:08 am

    Really thanks I'm not a pro , but I like photography. Thanks again it's a nice post

  • Elfin Woman November 21, 2008 10:47 am

    I'm totally infatuated by your expertise. Would you mind terribly if I used your site link on my Blogger? I'll keep you in my favorites until I receive an answer. Thank you in advance.

  • Lisa-Marie November 15, 2008 06:33 am

    Thank you for the tips, there are some of them I've already used for some years now.

    3 words I've always found that gets a sure smile from most of my clients are YES, MONEY and SEX! Yes I mean the word sex, however, it also depends on the clientele. If you're working with business oriented clients , money's the word. I only use sex when it's close friends or how well I know the client & I've found the word yes works best with kids.

    There's something very natural in the smiles these 3 words bring about & helps loosen up the subject(s) a bit more.

  • Caroline November 7, 2008 02:43 pm

    This is an awesome post! I don't do anything professionally or even semi-pro, but I do take my kids' pictures instead of buying them from the school... a lot of these tips will come in handy. No more trying to mirror what is done at school! Time to get them in all their natural glory! :)

  • Steve G Bisig Photography October 29, 2008 11:58 am

    Great article. This will be a big help for my next portrait session. I've been doing a few of the tips already and this brings to my attention what I still need to work on to improve. - Steve

  • Denis October 26, 2008 11:01 pm

    Nicely said! I'll try being more "myself" and getting "connected" with the subject as you stated.
    This is so much more than I expected from the title (after reading all there is about portraits)....but this post stands alone ! And really gets you to do what the title promised ! Thanks a lot! Happy shooting to you too!

  • George October 25, 2008 05:32 am

    When I started photography some 45 years ago, I was very much like you suggest being. Some where in the past 30 years, I've lost it!

    Thank you very much for bringing it to my attention.

    PS: I like the way you put it, " feet are my zoom." LoL

  • fiona October 25, 2008 02:06 am

    Suzanne--My mum taught me to use the "think of someone you love" trick about 50 years ago (yes, I'm that old!), and it has never failed to work for me!

    Natalie, you're so good in every facet of your work. How DID one person get so much talent??

  • Marie October 24, 2008 11:57 pm

    Great tips! I hope this will start me on the road to better portraits.
    And Victor, I love the idea of giving the subject the camera-- I know when I gave my nephew my camera to 'play' with he got much more comfortable letting me 'play,

    Thanks. I love this site


  • Percy October 24, 2008 09:58 pm

    Awesome tips... Thanks for sharing.

  • vto October 24, 2008 09:56 pm

    Hi Natalie,

    I want to share with all of you two things I like to do, first, while I`m talking with the subjects I give them my camera in auto and give them the possibility of take some shoots, let the camera in his hands for some time, let them to take the "control" and then begin with the work.

    Another completely different way: Years ago my father teach me how to hunt but I never want to kill an animal so finally I take these know-how for make make shoots like a sniper. I try to go to some normal activities, stay with them until they forget that I`m there.

    I like to hear "when had you do these photo".

    Thanks for your post and best regards from spain:


  • Rob October 24, 2008 08:51 am

    Loved the tips and will try them. Boldly go where no man has gone before......ok, this one anyway. Thanks Natalie.

  • Larry Reeves October 24, 2008 08:03 am

    Hey Natalie! Thanks again for this advice! I had a wedding last week where one of the brides maids is also a photographer. On almost all of the bridal shots she was behind me "directing" every little head tilt and hand placement...kinda drove me nuts!! Anyways, this was, of course, inspirational and I appreciate your work and advice.

  • Andrea October 24, 2008 04:24 am

    Thanks Natalie. This was a great post, as I am doing my first engagement shoot this weekend. I am totally nervous, but after reading this, I am just going to go with it.

  • Kieran October 24, 2008 04:08 am

    Many thanks for opening up to the world at large with all your experience and for sharing all those tips on portrait photography.I will definitely take on board all the advise you have given.I look forward to achieving better results the next time I do portrait shots.Perhaps others will even notice the difference.

  • Annie October 24, 2008 03:17 am

    Very useful info. I always find it hard to make sure all the lighting is correct and that I am getting a good shot of everyone. I know mom is really most important. If she looks good, she will love the shot! :) Thanks again for the tips

  • Mandy October 23, 2008 04:50 am

    Thanks for this post, I've not really done any portrait photography to speak off. But I may have the chance soon to give it a go so these tips will come in very handy!

  • Gina October 23, 2008 02:00 am

    Love #2 that is soo true my first 10 shots are junk too!
    Love this advice.

  • Chris October 23, 2008 12:16 am

    Great advice! I wish this was posted last week before my very first "semi-formal" portrait shoot. I can totally see where these tips would help. Especially with the awkward poses. Can't wait to try these tips on my next shoot.


  • fromBrandon October 22, 2008 10:15 pm

    This is something I am really having to learn. Wanting to take natural portraits of people and not learning these things does not work.

    Good tips, as always!


  • Author: Natalie Norton October 22, 2008 07:54 pm


    I do that all the time too! Especially if my subject's eyes are getting "tired". . . as in glazed over and disconnected. It's like that movement forces them to engage and gives me some life. Nice nice nice reminder!


  • Tarique Naseem October 22, 2008 06:38 pm

    Wow. Great article! Just the other night I was trying to take natural shots of the wife (with her new hair extensions!), and I wish I'd have read this earlier. Would have made a world of difference to my rather poor attempts. :)

    @Suzanne, That's a brilliant tip. I'll give it a go the next time.

  • Suzanne October 22, 2008 09:56 am

    I wanted to let you know what I do, even when it is my picture that is being taken. I'm NOT photogenic and my husband is 100% of the time. I learned (after dating and falling in love with him) that if my picture was being taken I would think of my husband and how much I love him. The thought alone would change my expression and I would have great shot of my self. Even at the DMV and Costco. Not necessarily all the time, but the percentage has gone up 60% of the time.

    Now with other people (and my self) I'll tell my clients to look behind themselves and on the count of 1 2 3 turn around and face the camera. Just the action of turning around you get photos of people with great expression and not stiff.

  • Rowell October 22, 2008 09:12 am

    Thank you for this article! This topic is hardly discussed and this is a great example of what every photographer should do. Don't be shy and get in there and make it comfortable and fun.

  • Rose October 22, 2008 08:51 am

    I was recently engaged & married, and our photographer did similar things. She would give us a little task to do, like walking down the beach and enjoying each other's company, or cuddling up and looking out over the ocean. Once she told us to give her a kiss, so we both puckered up and looked at her (not realizing she wanted to photograph us kissing each other and not her, lol!)... anyway, the little activities gave us something to do while she was shooting and helped us to feel more natural and at ease (even though it was a bit strange off & on). Our photos turned out great & everybody loved how natural they were...

  • Shelly October 22, 2008 08:32 am

    This is EXCELLENT! Thank you for making your posts so easily understood -- it's very much appreciated. I'm feeling inspired!

  • chris yarrow October 22, 2008 08:09 am

    Thanks Nat.

    Greetings from the UK!

    Love the post and love Pics n' Kicks. You're a great teacher and I love your writing style. Thought about publishing?

    God bless.


  • Heather October 22, 2008 06:06 am

    I love this article! Thanks Natalie!

  • rick October 22, 2008 05:18 am

    I liked your article very much. All to often I end up trying to use lights, stilted poses and flash and usually get crappy portraits. I guess I just need to relax.


  • Carlos October 22, 2008 05:02 am

    Gracias Natalie; you are great.

  • Steve October 22, 2008 04:19 am

    I think as a photographer it is so important to have fun with your clients. I find that I try to chameleon my personality to who ever I am shooting. My business partner always jokes that when I shoot toddlers I run around wobbly and goofy just like them. It is the same with a engagement or wedding shoot. I have fun with them.

    I think there are universal truths about every situation in life from an infant, to a newly married couple, or the gigantic family reunion. When you approach people on those points, they feel understanding, and will approach you. Once you have the two coming together, you have great moments.

  • anniebluesky October 22, 2008 03:13 am

    Great post! I haven't even begun anything with clients, but I'm learning for when that time comes. I will remember this post for sure.

  • Sunnyman October 22, 2008 03:10 am

    Very nice and personal post on a tricky subject.
    To be successful at portraits, it is really essential that you manage to make your subjects feel at ease... this is true of both grown-ups and children (I was just writing about how to photograph children at my blog).

    With adults, I really agree that you probably need to give them some direction, otherwise they don't know what to do with themselves. Also expect the first couple of shots to be junk....

  • Henrik October 22, 2008 02:47 am

    This is a great and inspiring post! Thank you!

  • Gayle October 22, 2008 02:26 am

    Natalie, I always love your posts! Your step by step instructions are very helpful.

  • taryn October 22, 2008 02:03 am

    this was a great post! it's going to help with my session on saturday. :o)


  • Daniel October 22, 2008 01:52 am

    This is great info, as I'm very amateur and have no clue how to take a natural looking portrait.
    One question, what lens you use, or what should I use with my camera? I have Canon 30D, and 50mm fixed lens.
    Thank you, and thanks to the owner of this blog, I learned a lot from here.

  • Mike Allen October 22, 2008 01:10 am

    Really good points. I especially liked the part about getting to know each other and finding a setting that works for their personalities. Burning off some practice shots in the beginning is also a great tip. Thanks.

  • rachel October 22, 2008 12:22 am

    this is a REALLY great post. Thank you so much!