Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Act Natural: Tips on Portrait Photography

I've been a photographer for five years, my main focus being extreme sports in the outdoors. This summer, I was excited to be able to focus on portraiture. I worked onboard 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. And yes, people can be just as 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 the tricks I came up with.

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.
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.
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."
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.
The Dialogue
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 dare devil? 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 fifty pictures from one five minute shoot, and end up keeping just two or three.
Remember how you felt back in high school when you walked past the boy or girl you were crushing on, and suddenly you forgot how to walk? What should you do with your hands? Were you swinging your arms too much? Was this your normal pace?
This is how it can feel to be in front of a camera. Standing still and looking straight into a lens can feel like the most clumsy, unnatural thing possible. Solution? A prop. Hand your subject a coffee cup, and watch as her body language changes. (You know how it's easier to mingle at a party when you're holding a cocktail? Same idea.)
The sugared rim and layered colors of this raspberry concoction gave our bartender Jen something to hold and focus on, even though, as crew, she wasn't allowed to drink it.
In the following photos, the boys got so involved with their props that the tone of the portrait switched from natural to something more staged and humorous, and everybody loved these shots. Don't be afraid if the tone changes from what you envisioned. These two were season favorites.
The Honest Environment
Not every picture has to be shot in a pretty setting with soft lighting. Think what a monotonous photo album that would be!
Onboard the Endeavour, I was always searching for unique atmospheres to explore. I was quickly enamored with the chaotic state of the Chief Engineer's room. The plumbing on the ship was broken, and Patrick had been up for three days straight. The piles of books and drawers thrown open were indicative of his frantic search for a solution. This environment was exactly the place I wanted to shoot his portrait. This was his world, after all, not the fresh, blue skied world above decks where the rest of us lived.
The light was low, which could be a turn off for some people. Since I don't love flash, I cranked up the ISO to 800. The final product is grainy and a bit sepia-toned, but the image is raw and honest. As a bonus for me, Patrick was so tired, he didn't have the energy to be self conscious in front of the camera.
Of course, some of us did have the luxury of being outside most of the day. A bright blue sky was the perfect backdrop for cheerful, holistic Noel.

Whereas the mischievous nature of Aaron, whose job it was to keep an eye on the sea at all time, was better reflected in a dramatic sky and mist.
Just as soft light and pretty mountains would make for a perfectly boring photo album, so too would a whole book of big smiles and cheerfulness. Allow your portraits to be an honest example of your subject's true personality.
Our deckhand Adam was quiet and reserved, but had a hint of a smile with him at all times. Adam was my favorite subject onboard as he looked the part of a handsome sea captain. His natural environment was outside in the ubiquitous Alaskan rain. Adam did not smile on command, and I was thankful for that. I was laughing hard as I took shot after shot of him and his stubborn poker face. The combination of his stern demeanor and my genuine laughter produced this wonderful shot of Adam with just a hint of a smile and humor in his eyes.
I had to be very patient, and diligently bring my camera everywhere, to get the reward of a true, unguarded smile from Adam. I'll just have to admit that the delight he found in a bald eagle was not something I could conjure on my own.
Spontaneous Gifts
Sometimes, the natural world presents itself so spontaneously and dramatically that you, as a photographer, need only to react. This could include a sudden rainstorm, a strong wind whipping up out of nowhere, or people jumping up and reacting to a pint glass of beer that's been spilt on a bar counter. Anything that causes people to react and forget about the camera is a gift.
For this shot, we only had the ringing of rails to warn us that something spectacular was imminent. In the thirty seconds I had to prepare, I made everyone stop and wait, set my ISO and white balance and dropped the shutter speed to capture movement. Then, as the train rounded the corner, I threw Kristin right right beside it.
"What do I do?" She asked. "Just stand here?"
"Sure!" I answered, "But don't look at me, look at that giant, loud thing passing by!"
The result was the perfect contrast of powerful movement and Kristin's calm, hand-in-pockets curiosity.
Phone Portraiture
Finally, remember to play around with different cameras in order to gauge your subject's comfort level. Your DSLR with the fancy lenses can capture beautiful photos, but it can make people feel more nervous and on the spot than an easy point and shoot. Probably the most convenient camera, in terms of having a relaxed subject, is the camera phone. By now, everyone is used to seeing phones out, everywhere, at all times, and their demeanor will hardly shift when you pull yours out. And I'm a huge proponent of filters- they are like a quick, instant airbrush.

Go forth, read your subject, keep them laughing, and just go with it. Good luck!

This post is part of BlogHer's Pro Photo Tips series, made possible by Panasonic.


Lee Timmons said...

yes!! I've found that, in formal portraiture, I often feel as awkward as the person on the other side of the lens... then we bond over the awkwardness and it diminishes...

Lee Timmons said...

Yes! I love it... I've found that, in formal portraiture, I'm often more awkward than the person being photographed... then we bond over our mutual awkwardness and it diminishes.

Niki Lesniak said...

Hey Lina,

This is a really nice article. Do you have any photography websites that you can recommend, that give tips on things besides portraiture as well?