Natural Portrait Photography On the Go

BlogHer Original Post

I've been a photographer for five years, focusing on shooting extreme sports in the outdoors. This summer, I was excited to be able to focus on portraiture. I worked aboard a small cruise ship, the Endeavour, in the stunning inside passage of Alaska. While it's easy to shoot breathtaking photos of wild Alaska, my job as ship photographer was to focus on the crew and passengers.

A challenge for a portrait photographer is that people can be stiff and self conscious in front of a camera, even as whales breach in the background. Because I had to churn out thousands of photos every week, I had to be quite crafty to make my subjects relax in a very short amount of time. Here are some of my tricks.


If you've ever tried to shoot candid portraits, you've probably already noticed the distinct shift in temperament that comes over people when you bust out the camera. The chorus of "No way, not me, not in these clothes, not today!" can be deafening.

The solution? Always have your camera on you. Always, even when you're not planning on taking pictures.

Man posing on boat

Next time you're trying to shoot photos at a social gathering, pull out the camera and thunk it on the table. Don't touch it. When people relax again, turn it on and fiddle with the settings. Order a drink and talk about something else. After a while, hold it up to your eye and move it around. Take a few photos of the food, drinks, and general atmosphere, and adjust the white balance and ISO settings. Then put it down, ignore it, maybe order an appetizer for the group.

Be cool.

People will soon become desensitized to the camera. They will begin to relax, even subconsciously, and the real photos can begin.

Step 1: The Act

When I am shooting one-on-one, I acknowledge that it can feel awkward to be the focus of attention. I often find myself using the same language with my subjects as I do in the emergency room, especially when I'm using the wide angle lens and have to be just inches from their faces. "Yes, I know, it's a big lens in your face. This isn't going to hurt but nobody likes it. I promise you it will be over soon."

It's the same tone as when I say, "We're going to wrap your arm up now. You may not like it, but we gotta do it." I think of it as business-comforting.

As I'm saying all of this, I'm snapping photos with my shutter on the "continuous" mode.

Another trick, and this is dirty, telling all my tricks, I aim the camera at my subject's face and say, "You don't have to worry now, I'm just adjusting the settings because of this tricky light." Thinking they're off the hook for a minute, they relax. I'm not actually adjusting anything, I'm firing away. When they get suspicious, I say "Well, these photos won't actually work. Don't worry."

woman and kayaks

By this time, I've adjusted the settings, broken the ice, and gotten a few photos that I know I'll throw out, but they are a necessary first step. Now I'm really ready to shoot.

Girl with life ring

Step 2: The Dialogue

Portrait of woman on ship

Repeating phrases such as "Just relax," "Act natural" and "Smile like you normally do" prove about as useful as instructing a cranky two-year-old to calm down and act polite. First, model the behavior yourself. Be lighthearted, chatty, and competent with your camera. Come off as friendly, understanding, and effortless.

When I am doing a professional or casual solo shoot, I always strike up a dialogue, but skip the small talk. With the camera to my eye, I'll try a range of forward questions to see what makes my subject the most at ease.

"How did you meet your girlfriend? Was it love at first sight? Have you always been such a daredevil? How did you choose your daughter's name?" Questions that make people actually pause, think, and respond with emotion will relax them better than meaningless discussion about the weather.

Specific Instructions

After you've developed a rapport with your subject, give them small and specific instructions. Tell them which way to look, where to aim their eyes, and how to tilt their shoulder forward. Keep it fast-paced and snap photos the whole time. Keep it casual, so your subject doesn't feel like they're being "posed," and keep up the conversation the whole time.

Because I'm firing away, I can end up with 50 pictures from one five-minute shoot, and end up keeping just two or three.


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