The Shy Photographer’s Guide To Putting Subjects At Ease

Have you ever found yourself putting on a long lens to photograph someone because you were too shy to approach them? Even if you brace up your courage and ask to photograph a stranger, how do you pose them? How do you put them at ease? How do you bring out their personality in an image? The answer is–it’s tough.

After years of photographing people on location for various magazines, I have found there are essentially 5 steps to the process of putting a model at ease in front of a camera.

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

portrait of a confident young woman on a bicycle

Step 1: Discard the notion that you are the shooter and your subject is the target. Rather, start thinking about a portrait as a partnership or relationship between you and your subject. It’s a dialog. You only have thirty seconds or so to establish the necessary trust between the two of you. Show interest in what they do. Be respectful, but also curious. Get them talking about themselves and be a good listener. Get their focus off your lens and on to you.

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

portrait of wildlife rescuer and young opossums

Step 2: Have them hold something. People visibly relax in front of a camera if you give them something to do with their hands. There was a reason you asked to photograph this person. Give them a prop to hold that gives the viewer more info on what the person does or how they live.

portrait of a baker holding bread

portrait of a baker holding bread

Step 3: Ask how they would like to be photographed. I know, this is your photo, but don’t forget the partnership. Admittedly, sometimes their suggestions are not going to work well for your image, but sometimes the subject comes up with a brilliant idea. In any case, you will need to try all their suggestions just to maintain the trust you have established with them. This is a step many photographers skip, but the collaboration can sometimes produce a much stronger image.

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

portrait of a barista checking roasted coffee beans

Step 4: Compliment your model. Don’t go overboard on this and sound like a caricature of a fashion photographer. Just pick out something about them to compliment. Everyone likes a compliment. If they still seem a little stiff—harass them. I have found that kidding a subject about their mannerisms or attitude can loosen up some people much more effectively than a compliment. As a photographer, you need to “read” people quickly and be flexible in your approach.

portrait of restaurant hostess

portrait of restaurant hostess

Step 5: HAVE FUN! Before you start the shoot, work out the lighting, posing, depth of field and lens focal length in your head so you can concentrate on the relationship while shooting. If you worry about the technical stuff while you are shooting, the model will pick up on that tension. If both you and the model are having fun, it will show in the final images. As a bonus, I have walked away from shoots with strangers carrying all kinds of gifts, from cupcakes, bread, fresh eggs and chanterelle mushrooms to wine and even cookbooks. If it’s not fun, you are doing it all wrong.

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

portrait of young woman behind counter of cupcakes

Apply each of these steps to your next location portrait session and watch how your subject relaxes and develops the confidence to let their character peak out. It’s well worth the effort and you can finally move away from that nagging feeling that you are stealing someone’s portrait with a long lens ambush.