I’ve nurtured a photographic love affair for most of my life but committed to a more serious relationship with it a little over four years ago when, after eight years of dabbling, I chose to make it my career.
From the beginning, I had a deep-seated desire for the intimate portraits I created to feel alive and relaxed, while also evoking a tangible sense of depth and warmth. It was also extremely important to me to celebrate women not simply in form, but in spirit as well. I wanted to help guide women to the reality that, by the standard of its sheer existence, their body is perfect and to give them the means by which they could reflect on that truth. Creating images this way has since become the cornerstone aesthetic of the boudoir portion of my business and the very platform on which I was able to build a steady stream of income.
So how does one pose their photography subjects to yield a specifically candid and natural look that doesn’t seem contrived?
I learned very quickly that our strongest tool as photographers in capturing compelling and real images is simply complete and utter presence. All of the images I’ve created that I’d consider to be the strongest have come from observing my subject, feeling into and anticipating their next move (this is key, key, key), and arranging myself accordingly.
Beyond presence, I think it’s equally important to remain sensitive to the fact that generally speaking, your subject probably has a fear of getting their photo taken, much less in the nude, so being mindful of this has helped me to create a safe environment for my subjects’ natural proclivities to emerge.
The number one lesson I’ve learned in shooting intimate portraits is to avoid giving any instruction that’s tied to the subject producing a specific “look,” as this generally leads to awkward, tense facial expressions and static energy, not unlike a deer in the headlights.
So far, there are two things that have helped me accomplish concise, natural posing in two or three minutes—versus shooting for two hours and wistfully hoping that a strong pose or image would present itself. The first is to specifically address what you admire about your subject’s position (“I love the way your head is tilted,” or “Oh man, the way your hands are draped right now is stunning!”) and work with it. The second is to ask subjects to engage in and act out tasks.
Here are the different ways that I’ve used these specific techniques to get more natural-looking images.
This shot happened in a very quiet moment. Only my subject and I are in her home, taking some intimate shots for her to put in a book for her fiancé. I had asked her to just hang out for a second while I set my exposure. That is half true, and also a little trick I like to use to catch people completely relaxed and off-guard. She quietly grabbed her finger like so. I loved it, let her know that I loved it and grabbed the shot.
After getting my subject in the general position I had envisioned, I needed to add some energy to the photo to make it come alive. I asked her to play with a piece of hair, and when she did so, I asked her to look at the ground to add an extra touch of demure femininity to the image.
In my intimate sessions, I ask my clients to breathe—a lot. Not only do I do this because they forget to do so themselves sometimes (because of nerves), but this simple instruction instantly relaxes their entire presence, which translates extremely well in photographs. In this image, I had asked my subject to tilt her head back, gently shut her eyes and take some deep breaths. I snapped the shots as she breathed out, as that is when the releasing of the tension is at its peak.
I personally think women shine brightest when they laugh, and I find that the simplest way to get one is to just ask. The awkwardness of laughing “on command” quickly evolves into real laughter and produces a vibrant energy that I adore.
Most of the time, I find that how people arrange their bodies in life is usually better and more natural than anything I could contrive. In this image, I simply asked her to arrange herself on the stool facing the window. I think this more open verbiage is key as it lets her sit comfortably rather than simply saying, “Sit down,” and following that with “in this way.” All of that is to say that I loved the way she had arranged herself on the stool. I let her know this and then asked her to look at me softly for this shot.
Nothing brings more energy to photos than dancing. This shot came after a stream of rapid-fire dancing requests that included spinning, tossing her hair, throwing her hands up in the air like she just don’t care and shaking her bum—which I believe was the clincher that got me this shot.
Jen Fairchild is a family-at-home and intimate-portrait photographer, based in the gorgeous metropolis of Salt Lake City.