How to Direct Portrait Subjects

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We share a simple technique that’s easy to understand and implement with any portrait subject, even if they’re a bit camera shy.

Why You Need to Direct Portrait Subjects

Many photographers think it’s their job to take the photos, but there’s much more to photography. It’s your job to be a producer and director, also. If you want your photos to stand out and convey your vision, you need to take charge of everything.

Don’t expect your subject to show up and magically give you everything you want without giving them some direction. Even professional models need and look for your direction.

When you direct portrait subjects, you’re helping them achieve your vision, not theirs.

Not that there is anything wrong with taking photos with their vision, but you must ensure you get your ideas nailed down. Otherwise, you’re just a technician operating a camera.

You must know how to direct portrait subjects if you have an artistic vision for a portrait.

How to Get the Right Expression and Gesture

We’ll discuss it in the podcast, but here’s the simple trick to communicating your vision to direct your portrait subject.

Give them a character or role to play.

In other words, invoke their imagination. Tell them they’re part of a story, and you need them to act the part. It’s a simple game of pretending to be the person you want to photograph.

It’s incredible how well this works. We all understand stories and can use our imagination to put ourselves into a part.

Check out the episode for some examples.

Time Stamps

Whether you're a portrait photographer or not, you probably run to this situation. You go take some photos of somebody and you look at them later on. It's like their expression just really isn't doing it for you. Most photographers get taught one thing early on, they say, okay, big smile. But that big smile, isn't always what you want.

So what we're going to talk about today is how do I direct my portrait subjects? I'm William Beem. Welcome to I Like Your Picture. The show that helps you improve your photography with visual storytelling. What is visual storytelling? It's a method of approaching your photography with a knowledge of who you're trying to serve with your photos and what emotion you want to make them feel.

We encourage you to concentrate on your subject, light and background to create a photo your audience loves. I'm glad you found us. Hi, my name is William Beem. Hello. My name is Lee Beem. And Lee Beem is sitting here with her kombucha. It's like carrots and onions or carrots or ginger and turmeric. It's all stuff I wouldn't have, but that's okay.

They were going to be talking about doing portrait subjects and how to bring the expression that you want out of them. We want to talk about the importance of gesture and mostly this is going to be about how do you direct your subjects to get the result that you want. So I wanted to start off with why it's important to take charge and direct people.

And Lee, you've seen this. And then some of my photos as well, before I really learned this is you can't always depend upon your subject to have the expression that you want. Yeah. Someone else you have to work it's out of them or work them into it. This isn't just with average people who are not used to being in front of the camera.

I mean, we're talking about paid professional models who look great, but they don't always give you the expression they want. And it seems like many of them, not all, but many of them default to this, what we call a dead fish expression or kind of a blank expression. There's no emotion or anything interesting in their expression. I think that's because it's playing safe.

It's neutral. And that's, what's so important to communicate. You know what you're looking for. If it's a paid professional and also probably a different approach with somebody where it's casual, like maybe it's a friend or a family member, you know, group of people you know. You're, you're not going to give them directions in the same way. One of the things that I wanted to really say,

though, is it's important for you as the photographer to take charge. You can't just sit there and say, okay, this person isn't giving me anything. You can't yell at them, obviously for that, you can't whine inside of your head and then say, okay, thanks very much, go away and find somebody else. You want to make sure that you get a good portrait.

Whether it's someone that you've hired or whether it's someone that's in your family or friends or someone you just pulled off the street because you think they look interesting and you'd like to get their portrait. It's really up to you as the photographer. You're also the director and that's why it literally is directing people. Now, the question is, how do you direct people?

And my answer is to use storytelling and imagination. In other words, have your subject play a character. Yeah. If you want to get an expression, they need to know what you want them to give you. So the best way to do that, it's like put yourself in the position to this character. You know, maybe you're on a ship.

You're looking off in the distance. What do you see? And you might give them some, give them the chance to come up with some ideas, or you might tell them exactly what you see. It's like, okay, now you see a pirate ship coming at you. What are you going to look like? And Lee, you've done this obviously with children before,

how do you get the expressions you want out of a child? She do with children. For me, the best thing was patience. And just sit and wait for it. I very, very rarely did I pose Tové for a photo, actually sit and have her pose for a photo. Now she was, she actually loved cameras. So she would always give you a dazzling smile.

And it was a pretty natural looking smile because that's just what she did. And it reflected her personality. A lot of kids are very uncomfortable with that. My nephew, he, he was less likely to smile for a camera. He also was almost extremely unlikely if at all, to sit still for long enough for you to take a photo. So my approach with him getting pictures was very,

very different. When he was younger, I used to find something for him to do or find him doing something. And I just positioned myself and wait. And sometimes he'd move out of the frame. Sometimes he was against the wrong background. I didn't do anything because when he wasn't focusing on me, that's when I was getting the expressions that I wanted.

Now, when we talk about getting expressions, it's not always going to be a smile. I mean, if I want someone to smile, I'll just make stupid jokes until they crack up. And a natural smile is usually the best smile to have. And that's going to happen, not because I told them, give me a smile. It's going to happen because I gave them a reason to smile.

So I will do things like that, but I don't always want a smile. Sometimes I want somebody to, to project confidence. And let's face it for most people being put in front of a camera, particularly if you have lights around, is not a confident area for them. So I have to give them something to think about. So I tell them, imagine you are a champion fighter and you're out on the town.

And someone comes up and starts giving you problems, giving you hassles. And there's talking about all these things they're going to do to you. Who knows why? What are you going to look like when you know that you've got the confidence that you can defend yourself? Or you can wipe your, this guy's face up against the wall. You don't want to do that,

but it's like, you're thinking like, are you just bothering me boy? Or what is your look? You're getting here at their mind into that role? Exactly. That's and that's the point you want to get their mind to say, all right, how would I behave if were wrapped in this person's skin? You know, this character in the story that you give me,

how does that affect the way that I look? And you'll see how people will kind of clench their eyes a little bit. Maybe they'll clench their teeth a little bit, depending on what it is. Or maybe they'll look very relaxed. Like you're just really wasting my time. Yeah. Here's something else. And I think more so for women than for men.

But if you are, if this is something that, where you've planned to go in and take photos of a person or people have a small mirror with you. One of the things that, that knocks confidence is not being sure if you look okay. You know, is that piece of hair sticking up again? Do I look where it does? You know,

as my chin sticking out or whatever it does, this show, the biggest side of my nose. People worry about these things and they will not say anything. So it kind of sits there. Even if they're not consciously thinking about it, causes them to be tense. And when they're tense, you're not going to get natural expressions. I think also remember that when you're looking at somebody and taking a picture,

you can see exactly what they look like. They don't know, they cannot see you. They cannot see themselves. If you've got a small mirror, you know, once they're in position, you can say, Hey, do you want to just check? Make sure you're happy with your hair, your makeup, your, you know, are you good?

Do you need, or do you need to check? Just offer it instead of, you know, telling them what they should. But I think that gives people an air of confidence. They want to fix anything they can. And they kind of feel like you've taken the time to make sure that they're happy. And confidence was an example that I gave. You may not want confidence all the time.

Maybe you want someone to look frightened because you're going to composite them into another photograph where there's something that's going to eat them. I Don't know. My imagination is kind of running around, but think of the spectrum of emotions and expressions that you want to get, and then try to think of a story that you can give to your subject and say, this is the story.

You are this person in this situation, here are all the little variables and factors that go around with it. How would you look if you were in that spot? And it's that simple, really. You just have to come up with a story. For example, I can think of how men would look. Now. One of the things I've got to look at is I do a lot of portrait photography or I've done in the past.

A lot of portrait photography with women. I want them to look strong and confident in some situations I want them to look vulnerable. And other situations. It's hard for me sometimes to think of how is a woman going to feel, and what's going to help her come up with these stories that I could tell them? And usually if you just talk to your subject,

they'll get the idea of what you're talking about and they'll get into it and they'll, they'll develop their own character. But the whole idea is in order to get the expression, they need to understand what you want them to deliver. Also hands, I think hands are a big part of it. What are the things that make people feel awkward is when they're standing still,

they suddenly don't know what to do with their hands. And I mean, if you've got a group of people who know each other, just have somebody put a hand on somebody's waist, or, you know, just touching, resting it on the person's shoulder or beside them. And they're all give them something to hold in their hand. If you've got a personal narrative,

if that works for the photo. But I think once you've taken care of a hand, they don't feel quite so spare. Well, that gets into the next topic that we wanted to talk about. It was to avoid awkward poses. One of the things that I see a lot of local models do, which I don't know where this comes from, they will touch the side of their face.

They'll put an arm over the top of their head and try and make these different shapes and to combine that with a blank face. And he's just thinking like, nobody does this in real life. It doesn't look like a natural pose. It looks very awkward. Same thing with some of the positions with their legs. And again, with their hands, some people don't know what to do.

So they start over-exaggerating their body language. And that can be a good thing. If you've got a very strong, confident pose, like, you know, I've seen some like runway kind of strides, you know, where the legs are crossing over in front of each other, or maybe somebody turns to, I'm going to call it a lunge and then turns their body,

you know, halfway back to look at you. But there are different poses you can do. They're very strong, confident. And then there are poses that people come up with. And I think what the world is going on here. And as far as the hands, I will always tell people, I don't want your hands near your face. If you put your hand up with the side of your face,

it makes me think you have a toothache. Yeah. But, and this is something that nobody thinks about while they're doing it. And you cannot expect that or put it on your subjects to think about it. This is your photo. And as something you like, or don't like. It's up to you to lead them. You don't want to boss them around,

but you want to lead them. People want to feel, if they're trusting you to take pictures, they expect that you're in charge and they want somebody to be in charge because someone in charge is now responsible for making sure that things are okay. And there's a reassurance that comes from it that leads to relaxation or confidence about certain things. And this is where the photographer has to step up and be the director because yeah,

you do need to be in charge of whatever photos that you're taking, because people are expecting you to come up with a result. If you're sitting there expecting the model or subject to come up with what they're going to give you without you giving them any input, chances are, you're not on the same page. I agree. I was wanting to go back to the hands.

Why I tell people, never touch your head or your face, because think about when you normally touch your head or your face, it's kind of a stress issue. Yeah. It's like, if you're touching the side of your hair, you know, there's stress. If you're touching just under your eyes, you know, that's like a stress relief thing. And the side of your,

you know, your palm on the side of your face, are you leaning into it? And you just kind of supporting your head. You know, that might be a little bit more natural, but you know what? I still think it looks better if you weren't resting your face in hand. It does. I think there are very few exceptions. I have a tendency sometimes to lean over a table and I'm busy reading something or drinking coffee.

And I've kinda got my hand under my chin because my neck's lazy or something. I didn't know. But it's not. That is not a typical position for me to, to assume. Well, think about it for a portrait. You know, if you're blocking, if your hand is blocking your throat, it's kind of like, I don't want you to see here.

I don't want to let you in. The idea with most portraits is you want your subject to be open and let the viewer in. Now blocking your throat, or either just resting your chin on your hand is blocking your throat. It's a protective or defensive kind of move in a way. Most people would never think about it that way. But when you look at it,

who do you trust more? Someone who's sitting there open and smiling with their hands out of the way or someone who's resting their chin on their fist. That fist kind of makes you think something even subconsciously. And my thought is, unless you want to show someone who's in distress, keep the hands away from the head. Yeah. I think a lot of people it's,

if you see somebody putting their hands up by their face, they probably are feeling awkward and uncomfortable without even realizing it. I think it's something that we do without noticing. I know that if I get stressed, the first thing I do, I mean, there was a joke that followed me all my work in life. You can tell the kind of day Lee's having by

the state of her hair. I have a habit that I never realized at the time, the more stressed or anxious or kind of frantic I'd get about something. The more I run my fingers through the top of my hair. And that's even if it's tied up and by the end of the day, I look like a lion, but it's something that I do because I'm frazzled.

And this is something else to keep in mind is when you get to post-processing, if someone's been running their fingers through the hair, you're going to have all these flyaway hairs and all the work that you've done to make sure that your subject is presentable gets undone, unless you're shooting somebody bald. But look, I've got photos like this that I've never shown because I thought there are like a million flyaway hairs that I've got to go back in and edit.

And post-process because they were a little bit nervous and I didn't control their hands. They were in their hair. And then there's like the strand over here and it's, but it's still coming out and then back behind. And I thought, this is just too much of a pain in the neck to have to go back and fix and post-processing to make them look the way I remember them.

So keep your hands away from your hair, particularly for women. And I just think it's, it's not an open and engaging look when you've got your hands up by your hair. Now, as far as awkward poses, you kind of know awkward when you see it. If someone's trying to be grand and do something unusual, it's worth a photograph.

That doesn't mean it's going to work. I think that I find most of my favorite photos are positions that look comfortable and natural and calm and confident. Yeah. So if you're going for the really bold thing, you need a subject who who's comfortable being bold and, and outlandish, and that can work with athletes. It can work with professional models. It can work with people who just have a natural air of confidence with them,

but it also comes from people who just think I'm going to show off and mug for the camera and they don't realize just how silly they look. My advice is to avoid the awkward poses. Hey, I hope this has been helpful for you. I would love it. If you would go to, I've got a few eBooks there. I've also got some Lightroom portrait adjustment brushes,

and there's a little video series that goes with it. It's very brief, but it's like, you know, four or five, maybe six videos. I think that shows you how to enhance a portrait. So it smooth the skin, whiten teeth, enhance the eyes and it's free. All you have to do is go through There is a little blue button at the top.

It says, sign up. Once you sign up, you can download one or all of those things if you want to. And it is my free gift to you. Hey, thank you very much for joining us on I Like Your Picture. This is episode 245. And the show notes are going to be available at Also, if you're listening as these come out,

this is our last show of 2020. So usually I like to take a couple of weeks off at the end of the year. And this year is no different. Even, well, this year is different. 2020 is very different, but as far as the idea that I'm going to take some time off to be with Lee and our daughter, and just enjoy and relax and have some family time.

We'll have new episodes coming out in January and so where I normally say see you next week, this time, I'll see you next year.

Related Links

I recommend a book by Lindsay Adler called The Photographer’s Guide to Posing: Techniques to Flatter Everyone.

The Photographer's Guide to Posing: Techniques to Flatter Everyone

If you're a photographer, you know that posing is essential to getting a great photo. But sometimes, knowing how to pose your subjects to flatter them and create an excellent composition can be challenging. That's where this book comes in.

In "The Photographer's Guide to Posing: Techniques to Flatter Everyone," Lindsay Adler covers everything you need to know about posing your subjects for photos. She discusses how the camera sees and how different camera angles, lenses, and perspectives affect your subject's looks. She also covers the five most important things that can ruin a pose, such as poor hand placement or an unflattering facial expression.

Then Lindsay dives into "posing essentials," outlining her approach to start with a base pose and then build on it to create endless posing possibilities. She also discusses posing the face, with specific sections dedicated to the chin, jaw, eyes, and forehead, as well as posing hands.

Finally, Lindsay discusses posing specific subjects, such as women, men, couples, curvy women, families and small groups, and large groups. In each chapter, she addresses the challenges specific to that subject matter.

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