Why Shy Photographers Can Actually Make the Best Portraits

by
Kevin Landwer-Johan

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” – Edward Steichen

Shy people are uncomfortable in front of the camera. They do not like being photographed. They don’t like seeing their portrait.

When we’re uncomfortable it shows in our face. This is the reason you will not like your portrait if you are shy. Because while the picture was being taken you were uneasy. The tension is revealed in your face and evident when you see the photo.

If you are a shy photographer, you can actually make the best portraits. Because you understand how to use your shyness empathetically. You know how it feels to be uncomfortable being photographed. You can use your experience to encourage your subjects to relax. You can show them how to enjoy the process of having their portrait made. This way you will be more successful. They will love the wonderful portraits you make for them.

Young Man Wearing Glasses Why Shy Photographers Can Actually Make the Best Portraits
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f4, 1/100 sec, ISO 100

How Not To Avoid Photographing People

These are thoughts shared from many years of personal experience. Here I’m sharing a few encouraging ideas. I am currently editing my book “How Not To Avoid Photographing People.” In it, I expand on these thoughts and others in much greater depth.

I was very shy as a teenager. There are not very many photos of me from that time. After buying my first camera I came to realize I should photograph people. At the start, I didn’t. I couldn’t. It was too difficult.

Now I’m primarily a people photographer. And I probably don’t take enough candid people photos. I like to engage with the people I am photographing. I’ve written this book, and this article, to encourage you why it’s best to connect with the people you are photographing. I know this is not easy for most people, so I will share with you what I have learned.

Ice Cream Addict Why Shy Photographers Can Actually Make the Best Portraits
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f9, 1/200 sec, ISO 100

Light, Camera, Communication

Without light or a camera, you cannot take a photo. Without good communication, you are never going to make the best portraits.

Connecting well with your subject and helping them to be an integral part of the process is essential. This is one of the most common problems I see in portraits. That the photographer has not made a meaningful connection with their subject.

You know those photos when the person is looking back at the camera with a blank, bored look on their face. Or looking rather confused. This is a good sign the photographer is fiddling around with their camera.

Engaging your subject in conversation, holding their attention produces far better results. Giving all your attention to your camera does not make for great portraits.

Be prepared so you aren’t focused only on your camera. Have the settings ready. Understand the lighting and where the best background will be. Having confidence in using your camera will give you the freedom to communicate well with your subject.

When you’re taking someone’s photo you don’t want to leave them looking at the top of your head as you peer down at your camera. With your camera ready you will be able to look at them and talk together. This will prepare your subject. They are more likely to relax and be confident in what you are doing.

Why Shy Photographers Can Actually Make the Best Portraits Blonde Dreadlocks
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f9, 1/200 sec, ISO 100

Choose Who To Photograph

The easiest people to photograph are the ones who enjoy it. For some people, it’s not difficult to relax in front of a camera. For others, it’s very challenging.

When you’re starting out as a photographer you’ll find more success taking photos of people who like it. You’ll have less work to do and this will build your confidence. Both you and your subject will be happier with the results.

Find someone who wants to be photographed. Plan to take their picture on many different occasions. Getting together with them a few times will help build your skills at communicating.

Picking people who are uncomfortable with having their portrait made means you have a lot more to do. You must communicate with them in such a way that they will relax. But this is not easy. Learning this skill took me many years and I still am not consistent 100% of the time.

Kevin Landwer-Johan and model with ice cream Why Shy Photographers Can Actually Make the Best Portraits
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 105mm, Settings: f9, 1/200 sec, ISO 400

The Candid Option

Candid photos of people can be superb. However, you must choose your situations. Taking candid photos only because you are too shy to engage with someone is rarely the best option.

Candid photos work best when the person is busy doing something. If you disturb them they might change their focus from what they are engaged in. This usually results in them focusing more on you and not what they are doing.

Timing is important for candid photos. You must watch and choose the best moment to take your photographs. Look at the person and see what’s happening. Try not to catch them at an awkward moment.

Making a few candid photos is a good lead up to taking photos where you connect with the person and have them more posed. Once you’ve taken a few good candid images you can show the person their photo. Often they will love what you have done and will be more relaxed when you engage with them. This is the right time to take some more photos when they are aware of you.

Candid photos do not have to be made with a long lens from a distance. There are some great ways to get close to people and still take photos when they are not paying attention to you. I share some of these techniques in my new book, “How Not To Avoid Photographing People.”

Using a long lens works well, but there’s rarely a sense of connection with this type of photo. The further you are from someone the more detached the photos will look.

Robert Capa, a famous photojournalist, said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” This can be taken to mean two different things. If you are not physically close enough, or if you are not relationally close enough.

Spinning Dancer Why Shy Photographers Can Actually Make the Best Portraits
Camera: Nikon D700, Lens: 110mm, Settings: f3.2, 1/8 sec, ISO 800

Building Your Confidence to Photograph People

For shy people, the prospect of photographing someone else can be daunting. Our lives are made more special by the people in them. How we relate to each other enriches our lives. So it makes good sense to want to take pictures of people. Right?

Start slowly. Start easily. Before you’re ready to begin setting up posed photos, make candid photos of people.

Begin where you are comfortable. If you are relaxed and not worried about imposing on the people you will be more creative. You will take better photos.

Attaching a long lens to your camera and remaining at some distance from your subject you will feel better.

How the Zone System Can Help You Expose Your Photos Better Black and White Butcher Portrait
Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: 35mm, Settings: f2.5, 1/100 sec, ISO 400

Don’t Just Take Their Picture

Paul Caponigro is a photographer known for his still life and landscape photography. He had this insight into photographing people. “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.”

Be intent on capturing who they are. This will make a portrait far more interesting and unique. Take your time to observe who you are photographing. What is it about them that you want to photograph? Why do you want to take their picture? Try to express this and you will produce compelling portraits.

Shy people find this difficult. I know this from my own experience. This is why I have written a book on the topic. I had to learn the hard way.

My photography career started as an office assistant in the photojournalism section of a daily newspaper. I learned that if I wanted to progress through the ranks, I would need to learn to connect with people. Strangers, not people who I already knew and was comfortable being around.

Most photographers will not have this pressure to help them learn. I’ve written down my thoughts on how I developed my love of photographing people. It’s my hope they will encourage many shy people to learn to love it too.

If you can relate to the fear of not wanting to impose on people, or have other reasons you don’t, this book is for you. Sign up here and receive my newsletter and free course on learning to use your camera. You’ll be notified in my newsletter when I publish my new book.

Further Reading

If you’ve enjoyed reading this post you will also enjoy “Learning How to Photograph People [Book Excerpt]”

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