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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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, www.natalienortonphoto.com.

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Natalie Norton

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 www.natalienortonblog.com. You can also connect with Natalie via Twitter or on Facebook.

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