The Best Portraits Are Not Intentional
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
Having trouble bringing out the best in people when you're shooting portraits?
Maybe you're working with someone who isn't used to being in front of the camera. They have a big, fake smile plastered all over their face while their eyes show they're not really there. Or maybe your model is too good, smizing like a pro, but you're not getting the connection you were hoping for.
There are a ton of tips to bring out the best, but here's one that might surprise you.
Portrait Tip: Capture the in-between moments.
(Sidenote: When I say in the title the "best portraits are not intentional" of course I'm being hyperbolic.
Intentional on whose part? The subject. You, the photographer, are being very intentional. Are they the best? Depends on the photoshoot. That being said, I've had many photoshoots where many of my favorite shots are from those in-between moments.)
Some of my favorite pictures are when the subject isn't ready, when they aren't posing. This will work for both non-professional and professional models.
Non-professional models will often be very wooden, being hyper-aware of their body position and every twitch of their facial muscles. With a limited amount of time to coach and pose them, you need to catch them when they are relaxed, when they're not under the pressure of the lens.
Professional models will also benefit from this. They might be "on" during your shoot, but that Zoolander "magnum" look can get old. Their guard is up, they are ready to perform on-camera. this technique will capture them at their most honest and vulnerable.
In the case of this photo, the family and I were doing a shoot for the winter activity issue of 10Magazine in Seoul, Korea. I got the money shot of the family happily skating toward the camera, beautiful lights shining in the background. Super, that's a wrap, right?
In between one of our takes (they were gamely doing laps in the rink), the youngest of the bunch lay down, exhausted from his recent sprint. I immediately saw an opportunity, and snapped the picture. A second later, he was up and ready for more laps.
It wasn't appropriate for the cover, but this shot made for my personal favorite photo of the night. It's a brightly lit, fun setting (who doesn't like the ice rink?) with a kid who's cashed out. It's comedy.
Okay, so how do you capture those moments?
1. Keep your camera in shooting position at all times.
Much easier to do if your camera is on a tripod. Even if you're hand-holding the camera, keep it in shooting position. Chat with your subject, crack a joke, make them smile, and be ready for the magic to happen.
2. Make sure you're in focus.
Obviously if you're using a shallow depth of field and you're hand holding your camera, it'll be tougher to have your subject tack sharp. Increase your f-stop or do a little burst. For those purists out there, yes this is technically "spray and pray". But remember, you're doing it for a purpose!
3. Repeat after me, "Oh, this is just for practice."
The model might be befuddled. "Why is the photographer taking pictures, I thought we were on break?" Okay, sometimes you'll have to tell a white lie. I always make sure to tell the model after I get a great shot or two that it looks great and show it to them. Afterwards, when you're using the technique, they'll be aware of what you're doing but so happy with the result that that they won't mind. An alternative, deflect their concern with a "Don't worry about it, you're doing great!" and show them the results after.
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