How to Work With Portrait Photography Subjects Who Aren’t Models

There are tons of tutorials on the web that teach you how to photograph people who are models; but not a whole lot for those that want to get into it and work with portrait subjects. A lot of this month’s content is around studio photography and ranges from those offered at beginners and advanced photographers alike. With that said, a large number of photographers (such as those who shoot street photography) have been considering getting into things like studio portraiture. Why? It makes them money. But the problem is that many people know how to find moment and photograph them, but they don’t know what to do with a canvas that’s right in front of them. It’s the idea of creating vs capturing. So how do you photograph portrait subjects that aren’t model when you’re just trying to get into studio portraiture.

Good Intentions

Bronica ETRS, 75mm f2.8, Kodak Tri-X 400. Flash placed off camera left.

I’m going to emphasize this point before all the others. You should have good intentions. There are way too many photographers who take to Instagram to simply exploit people and gain followers simply by showing off images of barely clothed, beautiful women. Don’t be one of those. Let your work actually stand for itself. For that to happen, you have to have a holistically good idea and intent all around not just for you, but for your subject. You have to listen to them. If someone says no, then both of you need to respect those decisions. Everyone on set should have respect for one another. When you’re starting out, that can typically mean just you and your subject.

“A thing that you see in my pictures is that I was not afraid to fall in love with these people.”
— Annie Leibovitz

So with that said, make it sort of like a new friendship or relationship–except that you’re doing this for an artistic collaboration of some sort. In fact, GET THAT THROUGH YOUR HEAD. This is an artistic collaboration. Start off a bit more conservative and as you both gain trust in one another, you can work towards more ideas.

“I trust you.” is the absolute best thing that a photographer can hear.

Curating a Moodboard

Now that you’re creating images vs capturing them, you’ll need to gain some sort of inspiration. Lots of photographers draw inspiration from a number of key sources including:

  • Paintings: charcoal drawings are what I’m going after these days personally. But other photographers love drawing influence from great painters.
  • Movies: Spielberg movies, Lynch, Tarantino, and many others can give influence to photographs.
  • Other photographers: Come on, why would you not try to mimic the looks Avedon did?

Once you’ve got ideas, it’s very smart of you to organize them in one place to show off to your subject. These are often called a moodboard. For convenience, I typically put this stuff on Pinterest. Many photographers don’t understand why you’d want to create a moodboard when you’ve got the idea in your head, but think about it this way. If you’re cooking a meal, you’d want to have all the ingredients ready up front. If you don’t have them, then you need to stop what you’re doing when cooking to get more of them. Similarly, you’d need to stop what you’re doing to explore more ideas in the middle of a shoot. That wastes both of your times.

Having the ideas, feels, and moods altogether and ready means things go smoother. It’s prep-work sort of like having all the props of a set ready beforehand.

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.”
— Edward Steichen

The Sit Down Chat and Plan

When I used to shoot headshots, I often did a sit down chat with someone. Sometimes it involved a bit of alcohol to loosen the subject up and other times it involved coffee or tea. I asked them a number of questions so that I can formulate an idea. Here are some of those questions:

  • What’s your intention for this shoot?
  • What are you looking for out of the images?
  • What are the uses?
  • Where will you be showcasing them?
  • Define who you are in a one minute dialogue.
  • What are you thinking about wardrobe wise for this?

Sometimes it’s a great idea to have all this figured out beforehand.

Listening to Your Subject

While you’re doing the sit down chat and plan, you’re listening to your subject and formulating ideas. Essentially, put together connections of some sort. For example, if you’re at Comic Con shooting studio style with a backdrop then you can ask someone about who they’re cosplaying as, get their character to come out for the camera, and photograph that. But it takes listening. Otherwise, you can figure out quite a bit based on what they’re telling you about said character.

Going Through Their Wardrobe With Them

Go through a subject’s wardrobe with them. Hopefully, they’ve brought a few outfit variations to work with or you’re doing to convenient thing of bringing a portable studio to their place. Some folks have a favorite t-shirt while other people want to be photographed to look as professional as possible. All of this ties into exactly what we talked about earlier on: what are the uses, who are they, and what are they thinking wardrobe wise.

Be sure to work with contrasting colors. For example, a light skinned subject wearing red and being photographed against a red wall means that essentially the entire image will blend into one another tonality-wise. It’s tough to get away with that even in black and white. When you’re working with studio lights and flashes, gels can help with this a bit by creating some different tones in the scene.

Starting Off the Shoot and Progression

You’ve probably realized at this point in the article that we’re only now getting to the shoot. Indeed, shooting is perhaps the shortest part of the entire process of collaboration with or photographing a subject of some sort.

Now that your subject is in front of you, consult your Pinterest moodboard and figure out how you want to proceed. Then work on posing your subject. To do this, use hand signals and cues. Don’t touch your subject unless you’ve got permission from them to do so. A good idea is to work with your portrait subject by having a starting pose. When the flash goes off, have them reshuffle the pose just a bit. And be specific about that: say just a bit.

Sometimes, this idea doesn’t work.

Pro Tip: For harder light, make the light source smaller than the area of the subject that you’re photographing. This was shot with an 18 inch beauty dish. A six foot umbrella would have given off much softer light because it covers a larger area of the scene.

Talking to them and getting them to tell a story

The idea of having someone switch up their poses sometimes doesn’t always work simply because some folks aren’t very aware of how their body looks on camera. Additionally, constant posing and instructing can sometimes throw off the mood and flow of a shoot. So the other alternative or approach is to sit someone down in an interesting chair of some sort. It can be a bar stool, a kitchen table chair, etc. Then have them sit in an unconventional way.

After all that, just start talking to them and interviewing them. Come up with questions that will get them thinking and tell them to ignore the camera. If you’re trying to get smiles out of them, ask them something that will get them excited. It will make genuine emotions and feelings come out. Start capturing certain genuine emotions.

Now, go out there and shoot.