The Unscripted Portrait

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.”

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