So Relax – my tips for portrait photography

fashion equine Montar Sammy relax

Sammy looking relaxed


One of the biggest challenges for any photographer is to get their subjects to relax during a photo shoot. Most people aren’t used to encountering a professional photographer unless it’s at a wedding.

A regular client of mine is a retailer of equine clothing and accessories called Equiemporium.

Rather than use professional models, they like to use actual riders for photo shoots and, during a recent shoot, they used top professional show jumper, Sammy Borthwick, who is one of their sponsored riders. My photo of her is at the start of this post, modelling the new range of House of Montar clothing.

Sammy rider tweed coast

Early shot of Sammy – not looking relaxed

When I first photographed Sammy, a few years ago, she was quite nervous as she had never modelled before. Whilst she looked much happier as the shoot progressed, it made me realise that not everyone is comfortable when they are being photographed. Other than professional models, most people aren’t used to being photographed.

One part of the shoot was Sammy riding Heiki, a Dutch horse that had been trained to rear up to order. Sammy was wearing a £700 coat in this photo. It is one of my all-time favourites and appears in an earlier post. If you haven’t seen the photograph before, click on the link – it’s spectacular.

If the person who you are photographing isn’t feeling relaxed it will show in the photographs. There will be a certain stiffness in their pose and perhaps a forced smile.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a fashion shoot or business or family portraits, if the person you are photographing does not feel relaxed, you are not going to get good photographs.

Over the years, I have learned how to make people feel relaxed, so that they enjoy the photo shoot and I am able to make them look their best.

So here are a few tips:

Allow enough time for the shoot

I take a lot of business portraits and I’ve forgotten the number of times I’ve heard the phrase “Right, we’ve got ten minutes for this” which invariably is said by the business owner / Chairman / CEO who doesn’t really “get” the importance of business portraits.

Rush a photoshoot and nobody is going to look relaxed and natural. Your subjects will most likely end up looking a little shifty.

Switch the mobile phone off (including your own.) Your subjects will be able to return any missed calls soon enough.

Meet your subjects without a camera

Everything about my camera kit is big. The camera bodies, the lenses, the flashguns – they are all big. If a person is only used to being snapped by someone using a smartphone or the family holiday camera, they might well find my kit rather intimidating.

Ideally, I would like to meet the person(s) I’m photographing in advance of the shoot, if that is at all possible, when I’ve not got a camera in my hands. Even a few minutes spent with a person or a group really helps.

If I’m doing business portraits, I always ask whoever has booked me to tell me if there are any people who are nervous about being photographed. If there are any nervous people in the group, I will turn up early and spend some time chatting to them before I get the camera kit out of my bag.

If anyone is feeling nervous, I get them to breathe deeply in and out of their nose for a minute or two without speaking. This is also a good idea if you are about to make a speech; it will help you to relax.

Respect personal space

Everyone has a personal space that they feel comfortable in and don’t want to share with anyone else. We’ve all been in situations where someone stands right next to you while they are talking. It’s not comfortable, is it?

For portraits and fashion shoots, I like to use an 85 mm lens, which means I will be standing about 12 feet away from my subject. It means I’m not invading their space.

The 85 mm lens I use cost me a stupid amount of money but it produces the most amazing results. I used it for the first photo in my second post about business portraits and I used it for the first photo in this post. You never regret buying quality and I think that my clients deserve the best.

Don’t touch

I have attended some classes run by top Dutch fashion photographer Frank Doorhof, who I consider one of the best tutors I have ever known and who is an all round good guy. Aspiring photographers who are reading this post should follow my link to his website. He is very generous with his free advice.

It was in one of these classes that I first heard Frank explain why a photographer should never touch the person they are photographing – male or female. Not even to remove a loose thread off their clothing.

It’s okay for another person, like a stylist or make up artist to touch your subject but not the photographer. You are breaking the sense of trust that you and your subject started off with. If you are doing a shoot with no-one else present, tell your subject what you want them to change for themselves. A hand mirror will come in useful.

Keep talking to make your subject relax

Whether it is a professional model, someone who is there for a business portrait, or a personal portrait, you need to do a running commentary on the photographs you are taking.

As well as giving them instruction in the next pose you want them to adopt: “raise your chin a little”, “turn towards the camera”, “give me a little smile” etc. you need to reassure them as to how well the shoot is going.

Digital cameras typically display an image on the rear LCD screen for a couple of seconds and it is worth checking your photographs in between shots. Not only will this tell you if you have some exposure or focus problems, it will also convince your subject that you mean what you say when you say “this is great”.

The more you reassure your subject, the better they perform. They relax. They show a natural smile. They engage with your camera. They begin to trust you. They will give you the photo you wanted from the very beginning because they are now enjoying the process.

You have travelled a journey together and, if you are going to do a shoot together in the future, it will be so much easier for you both.


In the photograph at the beginning of this post, I got Sammy to sit on a garden bench. The sun was coming from behind her, which gives a nice “rim lit” effect to her hair. I then used a silver and gold reflector to bounce the sun back on her face and clothing. It’s a piece of equipment I always use for outdoor photography of people. A similar effect can be achieved if you have someone to your side holding up a piece of flipchart paper.

House of Montar, who make the jacket, had that day’s photographs on their Facebook page the same day that Equiemporium released my photos on their Facebook page. A good result all round.

This is the third photo that appears on the landing page of our website.

Taken with a Canon Eos 1Dx and a Canon 85 mm f1.2L II lens. Exposure 1/200 second at f5.0. ISO 200.

Posted in Behind the Scenes, Commercial, People, Portraits, Sports | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

One Response to So Relax – my tips for portrait photography

  1. Zoe Dawes says:

    Really useful tips here Angus, very helpful for photographers of all kinds. I often take photos of people on my travels and it can be quite a challenge at times, especially when you don’t know the person very well. The ‘keep talking’ tip is especially helpful as I have a tendency to go quiet when getting ready to take a pic.