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Confidence in Front of the Camera: Tips from 5 Portrait Photographers

Whether you’re photographing a high-profile celebrity in a big-budget shoot or you stop someone interesting on the street, everyone wants to look...

Whether you’re photographing a high-profile celebrity in a big-budget shoot or you stop someone interesting on the street, everyone wants to look good in a photograph. Experienced portrait photographers always have a few tips up their sleeve for helping their subjects feel more at ease in front of the camera — it’s one of the most important skills beyond lighting expertise and creativity. So, we asked 5 portrait photographers from The List about their tried and true tips — check out what they had to say.

Feature photo by Corey Nickols

Drew Gurian

Primary location: New York, New York
Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

“I’m a New York City based portrait and lifestyle photographer. I have worked extensively on projects ranging from ad and marketing campaigns to celebrity portraits for brands and editorial clients alike. I’ve photographed a variety of personalities like Kendrick Lamar, the cast of The Hunger Games, and President Barack Obama in the White House. I even have a selfie with Bo, the first dog. After finishing my undergrad, I traveled the world assisting a very well-known photographer for five years. During that time, I learned more about production, lighting and running a business that I ever could have imagined at that point in my career. Since then, I’ve moved to NYC and have spent the last four years building up a business of my own, where I’ve learned how to manage lots of celebrity personalities on-set, and do a lot with a little. I’ve refined my look, and built up a book that I’m really happy with at this point, but I’m constantly striving to make it to the next level. For me right now this means shooting more editorial feature work, and moving more into the advertising world. A good chunk of my time is spent working on various marketing efforts, and I’m always seeking out ways to streamline this process, so I can spend more time behind the camera.”

What do you do to help people feel more comfortable in front of the camera?
Do your homework! At the very least, scroll through the Instagram of whoever you’re photographing. In the case of a celebrity (like David Byrne, pictured below), I watched a documentary, several interviews, and saved a folder of images shot of him that I enjoyed for various reasons.

This helped inform me of his personality, how much I could push the envelope, as well as what would be flattering and what wouldn’t. Referring to some older classic images also gave me some solid talking points and helped me to break the ice really easily.

David Byrne, Photo by Drew Gurian
Yves Mathieu, Photo by Drew Gurian

Chris Parkes

Primary location: London, England
Instagram | Twitter

“I was born in Essex, UK, but I was raised in South Africa until my mid-teens when I returned to the UK. I went to five different schools and had lived in 14 different houses with my family by that time. In my teens, I discovered photography through National Geographic Magazine and photography books, and I’m still on a 20-year journey from consuming photography to creating it for a living.

I can’t photograph something I don’t feel connected to, so I always try to understand what I am photographing deeply. I’m motivated to tell stories about people from all walks of life, to try and understand the world deeply, and to communicate that back to the world through images.”

What do you do to help people feel more comfortable in front of the camera?
“The thing I love to do for people when they are in front of the camera is to create a space where they can tell the story of their humanity with their own agency.”

Satyam and his uncle, Photo by Chris Parkes
Emma Suma, Photo by Chris Parkes

Melanie Dunea

Primary location: New York, New York
Instagram | Twitter

“Melanie Dunea travels the world on assignment, reporting and photographing the most powerful people in the public eye.  In addition to her magazine clients, she has worked with some of the most influential advertising, entertainment, corporate, and music companies around the world. Melanie is the author and photographer of five books, and her work has led to appearances on Mind of a Chef, Top ChefThe Today Show, The Chew, NPR Weekend Edition and The Splendid Table.”

What do you do to help people feel more comfortable in front of the camera?
I have a few things I remind myself each time I take a portrait. 
1. Look and listen closely.  
2. Be prepared to be flexible and completely throw away your original idea or concept. Once you meet your subject, they might be totally different than what you had expected.
3. You are there to transfer and share information about this person. This is not about you. 
4. Being photographed can be alarming, be kind and sensitive to that. 
5. Do not stand for your subject comparing the photo session to a visit to their dentist. Kidding. 

Chef Marta Ortiz, Photo by Melanie Dunea
Melissa Clark, Photo by Melanie Dunea

Jeff Vespa

Primary location: Los Angeles, California
Instagram | Twitter | Facebook

“For the last 20 years Jeff Vespa has been one of the top celebrity portrait photographers in Los Angeles. He has shot pretty much anyone you can think of as far as actors and people in the film world. He is also the CEO and Founder of Verge, a new digital magazine which focuses on new and emerging talent, and one of the Co-Founders of WireImage, the largest entertainment photo agency in the world. His photography has been featured in numerous publications including Vanity Fair, New York Times, Vogue, Wall Street Journal, Elle, InStyle and People magazine.

What do you do to help people feel more comfortable in front of the camera?
This is really the key question for portrait photography, because you can’t get a great portrait if the subject isn’t comfortable. As a portrait photographer I have always thought that the best way for me to stand out was to capture people in a way that other people couldn’t. It all comes down to relationships. Getting people to trust you and like you. Over the past twenty years I have built many relationships with celebrities and I think that gives me the edge to get them to share something with me that they don’t normally share with other photographers. I use that familiarity as a base to work from, so if I don’t know someone that I am shooting, I kind of do this trick where I treat them like I already know them. I don’t mean I pretend to know them, I just act like I would if I knew them by being comfortable and relaxed. This seems to work and make people I photograph very open.

Jessica Chastain, Photo by Jeff Vespa
Tom Hiddleston, Photo by Jeff Vespa

Corey Nickols

Primary location: Los Angeles, California

“Born and raised beside a pasture of corn and cows, Corey Nickols grew up playing in rivers and running through fields. He filled his days building rockets, discovering music and increasing his boy like wonder for life and people. At the age of 8 he created his first photo album made up of a loving family with adventures involving a station wagon, campsites and a trailer with beer cans for hubcaps. As Corey continued to grow, so did his curiosity for photography. Though Corey continues to age, he has never stopped his boy like wonder and imagination for life and all the farcical things he can think of.”

John Lithgow, Photo by Corey Nickols
Tony Hale, Photo by Corey Nickols


Check out our Instagram for more beautiful shots from these photographers and the blog for more highlights from other members of The List.


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