Poser: Achieve Perfect Portrait Expression

Poser: Achieve Perfect Portrait Expression

We’ve all heard it from clients before. “I don’t like formally posed pictures of myself. I always look so stiff. Can we get pictures without being formally set up?”

Fortunately for our clients – and for us – the world of formal portrait and people photography is now coming to a new era: Portrait Photojournalism.

Stiff, unrealistic, unnatural portraiture is no longer a Photographer’s only option.

A technique used by internationally acclaimed wedding photographers of Poser Image, Jim Garnier and Jerry Ghionis, Portrait Photojournalism combines the techniques of formal portraiture and photojournalism.

The Photographer will “set up the shot” by formally posing the subject[s], to include location, poses, etc. Then, in a seeming irrational move, the Photographer will either coach the subject through expressions by pulling out emotions through dialogue, or leave them to interact with one another.

Sound too simple? Don’t take my word for it. Organize your shoot with the following steps and you’ll find a technique that will revolutionize the way you take portraits – and your results.

1. Location. Location. Location.

Just as you would in a formal shoot, find a few locations that will facilitate the look and feel you want to achieve. This location should match the subjects personality, and be creatively stimulating [Read more about finding locations here].

2. Consider your Lighting

Watch your location for the kind and quality of available light. Is it harsh and contrasty, lending to a dramatic feel? Is it soft and subdued, more conducive to a nostalgic mood? If the available light isn’t sufficient to create the portrait you want, be sure to add light with a reflector, or an off/on camera flash [Read more about using flash in on-location photography here].

3. Set up your Scene

Place your subject within the context of your entire setting. Remember, you aren’t taking only mid and detail shots of your subject; with the photojournalism aspect, you are shooting to tell a story. The story of your subject will include their place and involvement in the scene, and the mood you are creating.

4. Pose your Subject

You don’t have to pose your subject in a complicated manner. At the least, pay attention to the placement of your subjects feet, knees, and shoulders. So long as you pose to achieve variance and levels of these joints, you will be set [More on posing here].

5. “Break” the Shot

Think everything is perfect? Now is the time to make it all natural. Tell your subject to “relax”. Allow them to settle into the pose by drawing them into conversation, or allow them to interact with one another. Achieve authentic expressions, natural posing, and artistic portraits by letting go the expectation of “perfection”. After all, nothing in life is perfect. The key to perfect portrait photojournalism is controlling which elements are broken.

6. Take the Shot

Watch for that “After moment” and “Spontaneous moment”. Oftentimes the most beautiful moments happen just after you take the camera away from your eye. Allow your subject to believe you are done with that set up, and take the shot that they are most natural and relaxed – pulling a hat down, tucking hair back, the cute shoulder shrug. You truly never know what you will be able to achieve.

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Matt Dutile is a New York City based travel and lifestyle photographer. He recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a book on Mongolian nomads. Check the page out to learn more. You can view his website or join in on his Facebook page as well.

Some Older Comments

  • Alejandro April 24, 2013 03:31 pm

    a small introduction to photojournalism would be very nice ;)

  • Keith December 31, 2012 10:48 am

    Back into photography after years away. Taught yearbook in the '90's and my focus, for myself and my students, was capture the moment, so I've never shot many traditional portraits. Just this past year, I've started shooting others, but again not in the sit and face the camera in a studio way, but rather out somewhere, usually that the subject(s) are familiar with and let them "go to town", posing to suit them selves. Glad to see that this technique is promoted by professionals. So far I've shot my daughter's engagement photos, two families, and even an international model, Angela Ryan, all in the outdoors in different surroundings. Definitely works for me.

  • Simon Young February 9, 2012 09:49 pm

    For a natural expression, just ask your client to "Think of a time when..." they naturally had that expression..

    e.g. "Where is the best place that you've been in the World?"
    "What was special about it.. Just watch their lips smile and their eyes light up...


  • Sal February 5, 2012 05:39 am

    I want to shot a subject in focus while his surrounding are blurry ; I hace Nikon D90 ,lense 35mm,200mm and 300mm,please help me in this

  • Sal February 5, 2012 05:34 am

    I want to shot a subject in focos while his of her surrounding are blurring ,please help me in this situation,I have 50mm,200mm and 300mm macro lenses

  • BillG February 4, 2012 02:56 am

    One of my best family portraits was accomplished by telling everyone to make the ugliest expression they could. I took that shot, then another with them all laughing at their own silliness.

  • Rex Haw February 3, 2012 01:54 pm

    This has always been my most basic portrait procedure...although not necessarily confined to portraits alone.

    I've been utilising that approach for more than 40 years as a professional photographer/journalist. My most successful ploy is to set up the shot, then totally disarm the subject by saying something funny or outrageous at the most unexpected moment...taking the shot a split second later as the subjects face lights up with unbridled mirth...or even a wry smile.

    It always works.

  • Industrial Photographer February 3, 2012 11:35 am

    In many cases it is very important to explain to the client the various ways in which the photography can be done. There are always additional efforts involved in these type of shoots, that must be considered by the client.

  • robert kerr February 3, 2012 03:34 am

    I thought of this a long time ago.

  • Jai Catalano February 3, 2012 03:05 am

    I agree with Jason to have a theme in mind. Most people have no clue what they want and when I say to them I have an idea let's do blah blah blah they usually are super excited and more gets accomplished.

  • Average Joe January 31, 2012 11:24 am

    Fantastic post! This helps so much!

  • ccting January 31, 2012 10:45 am

    Wow, excellent wedding sites..i found!

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 31, 2012 08:03 am

    To update my comment from when this post was originally put up by dPS to go with the post now being republished....

    ....I would add that I find it helpful to have a theme in mind for the overall shoot before starting the portrait session and tell the client this, especially if just shooting one person. On a recent portfolio shoot for a local model, I suggested I wanted to produce dynamic images, not just her standing prettily next to cool backgrounds. The results:


    Some shots explicitly had motion in them, others had her interacting with elements in the location itself.

  • Chris January 31, 2012 05:52 am

    What exactly is the phrase "portrait photojournalism" supposed to mean? I think the term photojournalism has lost its meaning completely, and become a meaningless buzzword...

  • Evan January 30, 2012 06:41 pm

    These are great tips, another really cool idea is to tell people to imaging being happy - instead of imaging what a good smile looks like.

    When people try to remember what a good smile feels like, then it comes together beautifully.

  • raghavendra January 30, 2012 05:24 pm

    Good one. I usually find the portraits covering the face and people around them
    This article is nice one.


  • Rich Copley January 30, 2012 12:55 pm

    Portrait photojournalism. I love the term and thanks for defining the technique.

  • Mario January 30, 2012 08:07 am

    I've noticed that most people's facial muscles get rigid when they're posing, which makes them look stiff and unnatural. I encourage them to first completely relax their facial muscles before smiling or posing. I think that's why an authentic laugh can photograph so well--the muscles are relaxed, especially around the cheeks, forehead and eyes.

  • The Guig January 7, 2012 12:49 am

    I know this is a year later, but if I'm reading this then others will be too and it's a truly invaluable article. I can't wait to try out many of the tips provided and would love to add one to complement #6.
    Set the camera on the tripod, switch it to silent, get away from the camera, chat with the model and use the remote. You have to consider keeping yourself out of shot and also remember that the model will be looking at you (so think about where you want them facing). I find this ramps up the ratio of "natural" shots of the person significantly. Have fun!

  • Jason V January 3, 2011 11:06 pm

    For a group photo for Christmas, I wore a "Santa Hat". I was able to get them all to focus on the hat and laugh a bit and it helped get them to all look at the right place!

  • Rho March 17, 2010 03:29 am

    Thanks for the tips, but I think the post processing made the example photograph come to life. That goes for any photos. Can you also share some tips on post processing?

  • Rho March 17, 2010 03:27 am

    Thanks for the tips, but I think the post processing on the example photograph makes it more interesting. It would also help to also include the post-processing on the photos that made it come alive.

  • Hamish March 10, 2010 03:07 am

    Here's something to make people smile just at the right time.

    I like to 'ham it up' a little while I'm setting up my camera. When the shot is ready to go I'll make as if to say "Say
    Cheese." But in fact I extend the word 'Saaaaay' (so they are expecting 'Cheese') and instead I say:

    And they usually all burst out laughing and I take the shot(s).

    Not recommended for high-end weddings..

  • Ian Seddon March 3, 2010 10:05 pm

    I always start by setting up the formal shot, then start talking to the model and take the actual shot when they are relaxed and not rying to pose.

  • Marisol Risakotta March 3, 2010 09:47 pm

    Appreciate this post very much. It offers great practical information. Thank you very much!

  • Josh Self March 2, 2010 12:38 am

    This blog is just what I have been looking for. I'm a shy person which can sometimes make my subjects feel uncomfortable, so I have been practicing telling jokes and chit chatting with them to bring out a natural look. All great tips!

  • Brian Geving March 2, 2010 12:00 am

    I like these tips a lot, but what about small group portraits of 8-10 people?

    I've tried to be very informal and candid, and usually get lucky to get a few shots where everyone looks normal but most of the shots have one or two people with a weird expression or in the middle of a laugh or sneeze, etc...

    Any tips on small group protraits to not look posed?

  • Greg Taylor February 27, 2010 07:28 am

    I especially enjoy self portraits although I still can't get my subject to relax.

    FOCUS eposide 2 about my self portrait experience in Papago Park / Phoenix, AZ http://grtaylor2.com/2010/02/focus-self-portrait-papago-park/

  • Amir Paz February 27, 2010 03:00 am

    let them play the part :)

    like in these:




    and my best ever:


    it just makes the portrait so much more special :)


  • Sarah Green February 27, 2010 02:44 am

    I start off my shoot by telling my client that the first twenty or so shots we won't be using; and they are freebies -to get comfortable with the camera and being photographed. In 90% of cases, this relaxes them imedietly becuase it removes the pressure of looking perfect and alows them to start the shoot having fun! I've gotten a fair amount of my favorite shots in the first 30 images this way! Take a look at the couple playing tug-a-war in the commercial section of my site. Perfect example! www.newlightlife.com

  • dblayn February 27, 2010 01:21 am

    Great post --- I love shooting in a photojournalistic style and really work on it. Great game plan. I recently took photos of a young couple and their baby. The plan going in was to take posed shots in a location, but the unexpected photos that I was able to make spontaniously inbetween the poses while they attended to the baby ended up being special shots I could've just as easily not even looked for. I do try to be in the moment as mister interaction with those I'm photographing -- I'm always working to get people to feel comfortable and out of their shell (including myself sometimes!) and some days are better than others --- anyone have any thoughts on that part of it?

  • Joerg Borchardt February 26, 2010 04:32 pm

    I emphasize what Jason Collin mentioned: I even use partwise a 70-300 Lens, for beeing in far distance. This made it possible for me to get wonderful pictures of my 17 year old daughter. :-)

  • johnp February 26, 2010 11:18 am

    I think "photojournalism" is becoming more the way to go. I find, although they say it is hard to work with children, in a wedding shoot if you let the bride (or groom) be distracted by the antics of flowergirls &/or page boys you can get some good candid portrait shots of the bride and groom and the rest of the party. I try to make it fun for them rather than having them worrying about the kids getting in the way or misbehaving.

  • Harry Joseph February 26, 2010 08:00 am

    Bring a joke-book with you, because unless you have, or develop the gift of Gab, some clients are impossible to bring out of their shell. This style works well with digital cameras, because you get an instant reaction from the client and the can tell you right there on the spot whether they like the picture(expression) or not. I would not try this with film.

  • Ken Frazier February 26, 2010 04:42 am

    Not being a pro, this is my favorite style of photography. I've had great luck setting my camera for multiple burst shots. I'll do the 1,2,3 count (if I say anything at all) and after they hear that first click, they immediately relax. In a burst, I'll usually pick the second or third shot just because how they relax in that second after the first 'click'. I've also taken shots when I've told them to 'hang tight while I get the light measured', they stay relaxed and I'll sneak off a shot that way.

  • Elizabeth Halford February 26, 2010 03:48 am

    @darren this is quite possibly the biggest lightbulb moment I've had in a million years. I can't even explain how much I L-O-V-E this post.

  • Jason Collin Photography February 26, 2010 03:24 am

    I find the word photojournalist style to be overused now and use the word candid to describe my specialty.

    I would add a #7 to the list and suggest putting physical distance between you and your portrait subject. I would use a 70-200mm lens and not crowd the subject.

  • Vitaliy February 26, 2010 03:06 am

    I really like #6. I find spontaneous shots to be always great, when are captured properly. Many times I would put my camera down just to raise it up the next moment!

  • Greg Taylor February 26, 2010 01:18 am

    Great tips for making a photoshoot look natural especially location. Some people will never get comfortable in certain locations no matter what type of rapport you have with them. Scout out locations that naturally fit your clients personality and that will be half of the battle to get them to relax. Familiarity is very important yet often overlooked aspect in photography.


  • G February 26, 2010 12:25 am

    I can attest to #6. I am very new at this, and during the first 'photo shoot' with my wife a few weeks ago, we were chatting in between poses (we were going for the formal look) and she end up laughing at something (probably me). I click the shutter in mid laugh and got the best shot of the day, much better and more natural looking than the posed shots we were going for.

    Great post.