The Unscripted Portrait

People as photographic subjects are often far too aware of the lens. Point a camera at them, and they will automatically switch to smiling mode, a problem with which event and portrait photographers are all too familiar. Based out of New York, photographer David Kerry Hannan is exceptionally skilled at the “unscripted portrait,” in which portraits or candids seemingly appear as if they were taken off the cuff. The approach is a far more artistic, interpretive and playfully irreverent way to take portraits—less about staid, tried-and-true poses and more about experimentation and improvisation.

The resulting images can be far more intimate captures of people than audiences are used to. “When you capture someone in their natural state,” Hannan says, “it gives a much more authentic and genuine look to a shot. There’s something in the eyes that are relaxed, at peace. When you leave out the obvious look of a posed portrait and take an organic approach to staging and composition, the results are astonishing—you can ‘feel’ the subject, there’s a story. It’s thought-provoking.”

Hannan reveals that his number-one secret to capturing the unscripted portrait and, indeed, one of the toughest parts of his job, is to make his clients feel completely at ease. “There’s such a stark difference in the end results from a nervous subject as opposed to a calm and comfortable one,” he says. “If the subject feels ‘safe’ in your hands, you’re bound to get better results.”

So it helps for photographers who are looking for the unscripted portrait to be really, really good at getting their subjects to feel confident, even when they’re not. During the shoot, Hannan says that showing subjects some of the best preview shots on the camera’s LCD screen will strengthen their confidence at the same time that it will help to show them the unique direction that he’s taking with his images. It also allows them a chance to gauge their own progress as the model so they can make changes to their performance.

Hannan advises that you’ll need to have a lot of patience with models and to let them open up at their own pace. “There’s a shot I took of my nephew on a trampoline where he’s shielding his eyes from the sun,” he says. “That shot consisted of me asking him to jump higher and higher. I shot off about 20 or so pics, then he stopped bouncing and decided to lie on his tummy. It was particularly sunny, and he moved his hands to shield his eyes as he surveyed the back garden—it was then that I snapped this one photograph. I knew when the shutter went off that I had the shot I wanted. It had life in the shot, but it also had human emotion and sensitivity.”

When working with nonprofessional models, there are a number of tricks that can help you to achieve the look you’re going for even when working with inexperienced models or subjects who are used to more standard posing. “Whether I’m shooting ‘getting ready’ photographs with a bride or an intimate boudoir session,” he says, “I have to dissolve into the subject’s periphery on set. If they begin to forget why I’m there, I blend in—only then do I feel I get them at their best.”

Hannan suggests utilizing a certain degree of improvisation on a shoot, as well. “Try something new,” he adds. “Some of the finest movie directors will get a much better shot by giving the actors complete free reign during a take.”

If you have an idea in your head about the image you want, but you’re having a hard time getting the subject to realize the emotions that you’re looking for, you can suggest a range of emotions to try as motivation. If they’re giving you too much energy, tiring them out with a lot of physical work or a longer shoot can help to slow them down for much more natural shots.

On the flip side, getting them truly excited about what you’re doing is a sure way to achieve a natural smile. Use jokes to get them to lighten their mood, or ask them to tell stories while you’re shooting to relax them. Don’t be afraid to stop them in the middle of a story if you see the shot you’re looking for!

Aesthetically, concentrating on a particular detail, prop or physical highlight is often a good tip for coming up with an interesting portrait. “People’s eyes blow me away,” says Hannan, “their colors, textures and their hidden tales. I love clothing, too. Using a subject’s favorite clothing as props in a shoot not only helps them feel comfortable, but they will act like they would on any given day. There was a shoot I did with a friend and she wore a jacket that had an amazing fur-lined hood. It was a cold day, so she pulled it up over her head, and I just started to shoot. Using something as rudimentary as a hood to frame the subject’s face was a simple choice, but an effective one.”

Adding props is a great way to work with your models. It gives them something to concentrate on, which diverts their attention from the camera at the same time that it gives them something to do in the image. When used well, props also can give the photograph vital extra information as to who your subject is.

“I like to play around on set,” says Hannan. “By taking the formality and seriousness out of a shoot, you can peel away the layers to create some semblance of equality by removing the subject and photographer business relationship and instead creating a fun and friendly environment. If the subject feels they can be silly and outgoing, it makes my life 100 times easier.”

In addition to being personable so the model is comfortable with you, successful portraiture requires that you be comfortable with your equipment and technical skills. Slowing down to figure out settings can halt the natural flow of working with a model. Hannan says that learning in the beginning to take the camera off of auto was a “massive eye-opener,” and whether shooting inside or out, he always uses manual settings. “I never shoot on less than a 1?60 shutter speed,” he explains. “It’s almost impossible to shoot handheld with anything slower than that. Also, don’t shoot slower than your focal length; shoot 1?50 or faster with a 50mm, 1?85 or faster with a 85mm lens and so on.”

Adds Hannan, “Bouncing light indoors can produce some really great results, given the light slightly softens when bounced off most walls/ceilings, which can give skin tone a softer feel. I open up the ƒ-stop more inside than I do outside. I don’t like using flash, nor do I enjoy grain, so to shoot indoors with some satisfaction, I’ll open her up to one stop up from fully open to preserve some sharpness. Outdoors, I’ll typically shoot anywhere from ƒ/4 to ƒ/13—too much bokeh can lead to so much depth that it can seem overdone.”

Correct white balance is also extremely important to Hannan. “The color of white looks so different in a variety of settings—warm, blue, stark, washed out, yellow.” He explains about how important it is to reset manual white balance every time he changes a setting. “One of the cheapest and yet most important things I always carry with me on a shoot is my Lastolite EzyBalance 18% foldable gray card. It folds to a little larger than a 7-inch vinyl record—I’m showing my age—and opens up to about 20 inches. Before I start rattling off any shots, I take a few off the gray card to set my own manual white balance.”

annan always works in RAW to maintain the most leverage for working with captures during the editing process. “I’d rather have total control over an uncompressed RAW image,” he explains, “than forfeit that level of control for the sake of a few seconds of importing/exporting a workflow.” He works primarily in Adobe Lightroom, his “playground,” to manage his shoots and to do small edits while browsing to select the best shots.

Image editing is where Hannan adds the professional polish his unscripted portraits are known for, but he says that adding too much processing to the final image can make his images look overdone, but just the right amount and the images will stand out above the crowd of point-and-shoot candids. “I think there’s always room for a little tweaking or retouching,” he adds.

Suggestions and tips aside, Hannan says that his first rule as a photographer when working with unscripted portraits is to avoid convention by stepping as far out of the proverbial box as he can, even in high-pressure situations like a wedding where the natural inclination is to shoot safely and fall back on what you know.

“I’ve found that letting go of what the books tell you is the first step into discovering what you’re really capable of,” he explains. “When I’m shooting what I feel and not just relying on what I see, that’s the beginning of nailing the unscripted feel that I’m aiming for.”

To see more of David Kerry Hannan’s photography, visit

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