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Capturing Authenticity: How to Take Portraits of Non-Models
Photo by Tachina Lee

Capturing Authenticity: How to Take Portraits of Non-Models

Published on June 2, 2022
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Despite becoming a bit of a buzzword these days, authenticity remains, for photographers, a surefire way to capture something really great. The magic that happens in those spontaneous, candid moments just makes any attempt at recreation fall on the side of staged. But what happens when the people making those photos great are friends, family members, or strangers on the subway? How can you aim to achieve model portraits of people who are not models? 

Photo by Ramu Aladdin

Get to Know Your Subject and Get Your Subject to Know You

Contrary to what you like to believe, the majority of people who are not models experience certain unease when placed in front of a lens. It’s not even necessarily about being or not being blessed with a superior genetic pool—people, for the most part, have reservations about having their photos taken. 

Therefore, the power here lies in you, the photographer. You should aim your best to foster an ideal environment for your subject to feel at ease. And what better way to do that than to connect with them on a deeper level? Photography is by nature an intimate art, it’s about showcasing sides of someone that shine in a way that’s uniquely them; even if it means selling prints of that photo later. So, in case of working with someone that is not a professional model, try and get to know them, and let them, in turn, get to know you.

Just as you would becoming friends with someone, establishing a relationship with your subject is going to involve time, laughter, and conversations about mutual interests. Who knows, you might even become actual friends. Point is, that the environment in which your future photoshoot takes place should be mutually comfortable— that’s when you capture the gold. 

Photo by Richard Jaimes 

Practice as Warmup

Assuming your subject has not been photographed professionally before, propping them up in front of the camera as soon as they walk through the door might not be the best strategy. It’s all about easing into it, and walking into a photoshoot firsthand is likely going to have the opposite effect. Here’s what you can do instead:

Start by sharing what you had in mind for the photoshoot with your subject. Get their input, and see if they are comfortable with your idea. They might even throw around a couple of ideas of their own that might prove useful; remember, authenticity is key here, and if your subject says they feel more relaxed being photographed in one pose over another, listen to them.

Then comes practice. Give some initial direction to your subject and see what they do. You can even take photos during this session by declaring they’re “just for fun” to take the pressure off.

Photo by César Rincón

How to Pose Your Subject

One of the things non-models dread is the concept of posing; you’re going to want to change that. People usually have preconceived notions of what posing implies—they think of a professional photo shoot where models know exactly what they’re doing. Your job is to alter this perception. 

Start by giving direction to your subject and observe how that translates on camera; do not expect it to be perfect. Instead, look for simple and natural ways to make the end result pop. For instance, a simple head tilt can really change the story you’re trying to convey, but it must come naturally to your subject. If they tilt their head in a way they don’t usually, that’s going to translate. Always aim for authenticity, with room to get creative. 

Here are a few tips on how to pose your subject:

Photo by Rachel McDermott 

Apply the Mirroring Technique

If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you’ve likely heard of the mirroring technique—one person, as the name suggests, mirrors what the other is doing. This technique is quite effective when applied to a photoshoot with a non-model subject, and this doesn’t just go for portraits, but different types of photography.

The mirroring technique essentially communicates a key part of your vision (the direction) in very little time. Technically, you don’t even have to speak the same language as your subject. And as you’re the leader in this exercise, think carefully about the poses you want your subject to copy—practice them beforehand and get a good sense of which ones look good on camera. You don’t want to overwhelm your subject.

Slo-Mo Expressions 

Facial expressions take on a whole new meaning with photography, despite how innately they come to us. When you see an expression of happiness, melancholy, or anger on a professionally taken photograph, chances are the model featured has mastered this expression through countless attempts of trial and error. When working with a non-model subject, you’re not necessarily going to have that, but there’s still a way to achieve a great level of authenticity.

One of the best ways to do that is to instruct your subject to take a large breath and release it slowly, landing at the end near your desired emotion. Not only does this calm your subject, but it also helps their facial muscles to relax and be photo-ready.

Photo by Pawel Janiak

Props

The addition of props or accessories can help relieve the possible awkwardness your subject might feel standing in front of the camera. People’s anxieties manifest in different ways, with some slouching, and others not knowing what to do with their hands. Adding props, especially to a shoot that tells a particular story, is a gamechanger in terms of the natural shots you’re going to receive.

Experiment with Angles

In working with non-model subjects, you’ll often find that many people have their favorite angle—be open to this kind of input, but also get creative. Maybe take the angle your subject already prefers and add a little flair to it.

It’s usually best to shoot from either eye-level or below for full body shots or group photos. Do this in order to avoid lens distortion that tends to make things appear bigger than they actually are. However, when shooting a portrait, try and zero in on eye level. You’ll notice that by doing this everything will fall into proportion and the composition will remain nicely balanced.

Photo by Emiliano Vittoriosi

Poses You Can Try

While you’ll find that some of your subjects are willing to experiment and get creative with you, others are going to need a bit of an outline. Here are a few poses you can try with your non-model subject and potentially sell photos online.

The Author: Have your subject overlap their hands slightly in front of them and loosely hold one or several of their fingers. The key in this pose is to have relaxed wrists.

Mid-Walk: Have your subject pace back and forth in the same spot or have them start out of frame and walk completely through the frame.

Hair Talk: If your subject has great hair, have them play with it and ask them to lift it up as if they're trying to add more volume to their roots.

The Thinker: Like the iconic sculpture, your subject should place one elbow on a knee and sit forward a bit to support their chin with that same hand. A closed fist means stern and open means more casual with this pose.

Shy: With an elbow balanced on a knee or a ledge if you have it, get your subject to place their hand over their mouth and cheek. This pose works great if they have a smile on and are looking directly into the camera.

Sit and Slouch: If you have any aesthetic-looking chairs, couches, or stairwells, they're going to help you a lot with this pose. Have your model sit at the front edge of their seat and open their legs shoulder-width apart. Bend one leg inward and stretch the other while pointing your toe; aim for asymmetry.