How to Take Extraordinary Portraits of People Who Aren’t Models

How to Take Extraordinary Portraits of People Who Aren't Models

Try these tips and set yourself up to capture extraordinary portraits of people who aren’t professional models.

Photographing people who aren’t used to being in front of the camera can bring up various challenges. This happens when you’re photographing a friend, capturing family portraits, or shooting a wedding or event. The most authentic portraits happen in those relaxed, yet candid, moments that you have the ability to create.

Connecting with your subject allows you the opportunity to bring out their best features in a photo. The power lies in you, the photographer, to foster an ideal environment so your subject can feel at ease.

You can be an incredible technical photographer, but photographing someone who isn’t a model takes a certain kind of leadership and patience. Most of the work is done by connecting with the person beforehand so you can get on the same page to direct them in a clear and positive manner.

With a little bit of patience and practice, you can easily capture extraordinary portraits of people who aren’t professional models.

Get to Know Your Subject

Multi-Generational Portrait Get to know your models so you can direct them in a clear and positive manner. Image via Pixel-Shot.

Getting to know your non-model subject is the first step to cultivating a comfortable environment. Do this in the weeks, days, or hours before the shoot.

Whenever it may be, make sure you set aside time to get to know your subject. Be genuinely interested in their life and what makes them the person they are. Not only will this let some of their barriers come down, you can get to know them in a way that allows you to capture them authentically.

If the person is shy or nervous about the shoot, do your best to make them feel at ease and get them in the creative space with you. It could also be helpful if they bring a friend to get them more open to having fun so you can get those candid shots, too.

Photographing people can be an intimate experience, especially for someone who may not be used to it. It’s best to spend this time getting to know them so they can trust that you’ll capture them in the best light.

Practice First

Asian Couple Begin by taking pictures just for fun—to help them feel relaxed. Image via Tirachard Kumtanom.

Once you’ve taken the time to know the person or people you’re photographing, ease into the shoot slowly. It might feel awkward for them if they’ve never been professionally photographed before. You can set the tone for the day and tell them you’ll begin by practicing.

Start out by giving a lot of direction as they may have no idea what to do. You can actually take photos during this short practice session, but by declaring it “just for fun” so you can take some of that initial pressure off of them.

Posing Your Subject

Female Photographer Guide your subject(s) to reflect the best version of themselves. Image via

When it comes to posing, it’s all about directing your non-model subject in natural ways that make them look their best. Sometimes making even the smallest move or head tilt can completely level up a photo. The ultimate goal is to pose your subject in a way that has them reflecting the most confident and comfortable version of themselves possible. Here’s how to get started with this:


The most effective direction you can give your non-model subject is by mirroring. This is when you simply show them the pose or position you want them in and they copy your moves. There’s much more that can be communicated this way and in less time. You don’t even need to speak the same language.

Since you’re the leader here, it’s beneficial that you gain a good sense of what poses look good on camera beforehand. Look at photos you like and also practice in the mirror yourself. This way you can show up to your shoot ready to direct by mirroring natural, beautiful poses.

Facial Expressions

Girl Laughing In order to let their guard down, get your model to laugh. Image via volobotti.

All of our emotions are displayed in our facial expressions. This is something professional models perfect over years and years of experience. It can also be challenging to direct someone in regards to their expression, so it’s your job to get them to relax. If your subject is anxious, it’ll almost always come out in their face.

One of the best tricks is to get them to take a breath, then release it slowly while taking the photo. Not only does this further promote a calm state, but it relaxes their facial muscles to look more natural and less tense.

Or, tell your non-model subject to think of a fond memory or something they want to envision in themselves. This will always be translated through their expression. Lastly, getting them to laugh and let their guard down creates stunning, candid shots, as well.

Elongate Your Subject

Not only is elongating your subject flattering, it also creates interesting lines and composition. This can be done with both up-close and further away shots. Think about this when you’re directing your non-model subject so you can remind them to point their toes, stretch out their legs, or position themselves in a way that elongates their features and gives them a confident posture.

Props and Accessories

Friends Drinking Coffee Give your subject something to do with their hands. Image via guruXOX.

Props and accessories are a perfect addition to your shoot, especially in the beginning of the day when you’re warming up to each other. Most people feel awkward and not sure what to do with their hands. So, interacting with a prop like a mug, book, or whatever else you can find can ease up the tension.

Feedback and Communication

When it comes to feedback and communication, it’s effective to give clear direction and positive feedback. Remember, it’s all about making your subject comfortable, and positive reinforcement is the way to go.

Instead of telling them what isn’t working, tell them when they’re doing it right. Boost them up with compliments along the way and keep it going throughout the shoot. It may feel repetitive, but if they aren’t used to modeling, your subject can feel a bit lost at every move they make. It’s your job to provide clear and helpful feedback while boosting their confidence.

Camera Angles

Camera Angles Find the most flattering angle to shoot from. Image via khuncho24.

Another way to get your non-model subject looking their best is finding their most flattering angles. You can experiment to see what works for your specific model, but there are some easy rules to stick by.

It’s best to shoot from either eye-level or below when shooting a full body shot or group photos. This will avoid lens distortion that tends to make things bigger than they actually are.

When shooting a portrait close-up, try to shoot from eye level. This way everything stays in proportion and the composition remains balanced. Keep in mind that shooting too close can also distort the face, depending on your lens.

If you’re a beginner, try experimenting and take a few shots with various angles to see what works best. Camera angles and composition can be subjective, so it’s helpful to move around and get as many shots as you can.

Take Care of Your Subject

If you’re a photographer, you know that working both in front of and behind the camera can be tiring. Posing for hours with lights shining in your face can drain your model’s energy.

As the day goes on, that exhaustion will become apparent in your images. So, it’s best to take care of them by providing snacks, taking breaks, or whatever else they need. Not only will it make the day more enjoyable for both of you, you’ll see it in the finished results.

Show Them Their Photos

Wedding Photo Everyone wants to see the finished product. So, show them! Image via meatbull.

It’s no secret that professional modeling is a skill. They spend years understanding how to pose in specific ways that best translate on camera. For the average person, this can take time to understand. This is why it makes sense to show your non-model subject their photos to get feedback in real time.

If they do something that works, show them and explain why. Try to focus the majority of your feedback on what is working to boost their confidence, instead of what you want them to avoid. Although, it’s helpful to share what to avoid in small doses. Direct them with clear examples instead of providing only verbal feedback.

All of these skills can take practice along with some trial and error to get the best out of your shoot time. Most importantly, extraordinary portraits take place when the photographer creates a fun, relaxed environment. Not only will it be enjoyable, as a result, you’ll get phenomenal results.

For more portrait tips, tricks, and advice, check out these articles:

Incorporating Fresh Flowers into Portrait PhotographyHow to Retouch Portraits with These Photoshop ToolsHow to Create Iconic Fashion Portraits: Lessons from Arthur ElgortIain Campell’s Inspiring and Inclusive Video PortraitsFrom Documentary-Style to Conceptual: A Fresh Approach to the Selfie

Cover image via khuncho24.

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