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Interaction is the basis of a portrait session, in every single way. In the most obvious ways, for example, you must interact with the client to set up the session, during the session, and when the images are done.
The portrait session is also an interaction with self, both for you the photographer and for your subject. You the photographer, who is creating with integrity, must meet with yourself inside to bring about bold creativity. The subject, likewise, is faced with many insecurities that they may have very little experience with in their day to day lives. They are in a vulnerable position. The portrait session brings about all kinds of internal interactions.
The photos themselves are a form of interaction with the future. The way a portrait portrays someone goes a long way to communicating who they are – or, at least, who they’d like to be seen as, which is important in its own right.
It’s for this reason that developing habits for skillful human interactions is so important. They make everyone more comfortable, but, more so, it means capturing images of someone who is comfortable at the moment the image was taken.
The way someone responds to you is the way they will look in their images. The difference may be imperceptible to a stranger, or when simply viewed at a glance; but a strained smile, or nervous eyebrow might be clear as day to the people who care about them. You as a photographer are not a plumber who can still fix the pipes, even if your subject is having a bad time. Among the most important tools you have is the one that elicits an honest and flattering response from the subject:
The way you interact with people is key
If you who wish to bring about a truth and transparency in your subjects, you can take a clue from the rules of photographing little kids; don’t slow the child down for your shot – you keep up with the kid!
Your goal is to keep your subject engaged and having a good time during their session, so what is true of working with children is also true for adults. It’s important to move at their pace. Adults get bored when you move too slowly and then you have pictures of bored adults trying really hard not to look bored. When you’re moving too fast, adults get anxious. They start having trouble understanding and interpreting your instructions. Then, you have photos of anxious adults trying really hard not to look anxious.
Getting a sense of your subject’s natural pace is all about how you interact with them. You can’t simply bark orders at your subject. You can’t withdraw into a technical and creative cocoon, sticking your lens out just far enough to take their picture. You have to actually engage with them personally. Allow time in between arrangements and locations to chat. Be open with your subject; make yourself vulnerable to them. Remember, that is the challenging posture a portrait session puts the subject in: vulnerability.
Pay attention to the things your client is saying, and the jokes they are making. If they say something like “I’m sorry, I must be terrible to work with” pay attention! They are blaming themselves, but it is likely because you are moving too fast and failing to communicate. The client is likely to blame themselves since they have seen all of your amazing photos and assume that all those people must have been able to keep up. Take this as a personal critique to communicate more openly and slow down.
As you are open and communicating with your subject, remain positive as much as possible. When you have to be honest about something challenging or difficult, do so in positive terms. This takes practice, but it’s beneficial to your own well being as well.
I’m not advocating lies, or even twisting the truth. I’m talking about finding a legitimate perspective in whatever you’re saying, so that some form of positivity is also in view.
For example, say you’re shooting in a local park and the shot you’re working on just isn’t working the way you want. When you know the shot that you wanted is dead, there’s no reason to keep wasting time; you should just move on. If you say “Ugh, this spot just isn’t working out, let’s look somewhere else”, you would be telling the truth, but in a negative way, with the focus on what isn’t working right. That’s not the important part. Instead, if you say “Hmm, this spot isn’t turning out how I’d hoped, I think there might be something even better over in that direction” it sounds more hopeful, positive, and encouraging.
Both of those statements are essentially the same. But in the first, the emphasis is on a problem right then and there. In the second statement the problem is acknowledged, but the emphasis is on something positive “over in that direction”.
Keeping an attitude like this helps your subject remain optimistic about the result, which is important. As your subject’s optimism goes down, they will have to work harder to appear comfortable and relaxed. So even if you’re struggling in the beginning, and your subject might have objectively good reason to become more pessimistic, if you allow that to happen, you’ll be damaging your chances of recovering later.
The situation your subject is stepping into is a vulnerable one. It’s your job to scrutinize how they look in order to present them in their most flattering light. Most of us feel uncomfortable being under the microscope like, especially concerning the way we look. People don’t like their looks being judged poorly and they spend a great deal of time, energy and money to avoid it. In fact, hiring you might itself, be a part of that desire.
So part of your job is to diffuse that feeling. You need to keep your subject comfortable, which typically means obscuring the overt need to scrutinize them and the way they look. An excellent method for this, without having to resort to being deceitful, is to place yourself under their microscope.
If you make a mistake, be open about it and laugh it off. By presenting your own momentary shortcomings, you make yourself vulnerable, and by contrast make them feel less vulnerable. You’re not lying, or manipulating them. You’re just levelling the playing field.
Likewise, if your subject has said or done something embarrassing, you can use humor to turn the embarrassment on yourself. For example, if my subject accidentally steps in a puddle of water and seems embarrassed, I might use the opportunity to tell them about the time I fell in the water during a portrait session. It’s humanizing.
By positively applying humor to your own shortcomings, you’re able to change the tone of the session from one where the subject feels that they must perform for you, into one where they must engage with you.
In many cases, unless your subject has been trained as a model, they’re going to spend a fair amount of their mental energy trying to interpret what you’re telling them to do.
If you say, “tilt your head”, that means a lot more to your subject than that specific thing you want them to do, so for them, it has almost no meaning at all. Instead, you could say “tilt your forehead toward your toes”, or “bring your left ear closer to your left shoulder”. The same goes for the direction they’re facing and movements you need them to make. If you tell them to “step forward” they will often move in whichever direction their feet are facing, or they’ll feel confused about what you want them to do, and shuffle around awkwardly. Instead, you could say, “take a step toward me”.
These are specific instructions which are relative to your subject, rather than your vision. Giving subject-relative instructions also sounds a bit funny to many people at first so it acts as an excellent ice breaker too.
If you master no other subject-relative language, master your subject’s left and right. Instead of saying “step to the left”, say “step to your left”. By giving your subject terms that they do not have to interpret, they can devote more mental energy to the intangible elements of the shoot – like having a good time, or interacting with you.
This is an extension of speaking in subject-relative language, except it takes it one step further. Taking a moment to demonstrate how you’d like your client to pose can have multiple benefits.
First, demonstrating a pose can often act as an icebreaker, since the motions you will ask your subjects to carry out sometimes feel a little silly, even though they look great in a photo! When you demonstrate the pose, the subject has a chance to see you feeling a little silly, or not feeling silly and also not minding.
Second, as with speaking in terms relative to them, demonstrating a pose helps remove a big chunk of the subject’s need to interpret what you want them to do. They can more easily just go for it and try, rather than timidly wondering if they’re “doing it right”.
When I demonstrate a pose for a subject, I tell them what I’d like them to do, as I do it.
So, I may sit down in the spot I’d like my client in and say, “Okay, I’d like you to sit right about here”. Then I’ll sit down and say, “You can cross your legs like this, or something like this, if it feels more natural for you” as I demonstrate a couple of different acceptable positions for their legs. Then I might point over to where I’m planning on shooting from and say “I will be shooting from right over there, so you’ll want to look in that direction”.
By the time the client sits down, they have a kind of template for what to do and can act more confidently in giving it a try. This also has the added benefit of allowing you to help your subject find their way into a pose that is more natural for them, rather than putting them in a position you’d never see them use in real life.
For more on posing check out this dPS eBook – Portraits: Striking the Pose
I’ll say it again; remember what a vulnerable situation your subject is in when they’re in front of your camera. One of the simplest ways to offset that feeling for your subject is to be a constant stream of affirmation.
Of course, you’re walking a line here, because what if your client isn’t doing a “great job” and they are in fact making your job a lot more challenging. Well, get over it. It’s your job as a photographer to work with who your customer is; some people are easier going with pictures, others need more attention, but the images will be yours and so the responsibility is too.
I wouldn’t advise lying if you’re struggling to get something you like while working with your subject. But affirmation is still important. Perhaps even more so. The thing about affirmation in this context is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be affirming anything the subject themselves is doing. Of course, that certainly works best to mitigate the feelings of a subject who is insecure about their appearance, or feels bad at photos. But simply affirming that the shoot is going well and you are excited is often enough to let the subject relax. Keep them coming – seriously, about every 15-20 seconds while you’re behind the camera.
Easing a subject’s sense of vulnerability by making positive exclamations about the shoot makes sense logically too. By helping the subject to realize that they are only a part of what you’re paying attention to will relieve the pressure, and let them relax.
Here’s what I want to leave you with. This advice, I believe, carries with it the heart of everything I’ve said here.
Never laugh at something that shows up on your camera’s screen.
I’m sure you can understand why – your subject’s vulnerability, of course. How might they interpret your laughter? It’s possible that you’ve cultivated an atmosphere of humor. Maybe you have consistently made yourself the butt of many jokes, and your subject might have joined in the fun and so maybe at this point it’s okay to laugh a little, as long as you’re laughing together. But let’s be honest, the average subject is pretty insecure. They’ll probably think you’re laughing at them and they’ll clam up.
But all of that is quite obvious. People don’t like to be laughed at. That’s not what is so important about this though. It’s not that you’re laughing, it’s not even why you’re laughing. It’s why your subject thinks you’re laughing. Truth is not important, your subject is going to respond to what they think, regardless of whether that is true or not.
It’s not that laughing is a problem. It’s that the subject thinks you’re laughing at them in some way. And it’s not just about laughing.
Let’s say you’re having some annoying problem with your camera for some reason. As you’re trying to work it out, you become visibly frustrated. Your subject probably doesn’t know what camera problems look like and their sense of vulnerability is causing them to take on a lot of blame. It’s not that you’re frustrated, it’s that you’re subject thinks you’re frustrated because of them.
Subjects place themselves in a position of vulnerability with photographers to a degree few other professions have access. Doctors and lawyers are a good example example. Doctors need access to the skin and the stuff underneath. Patients have to reveal their bodies to doctors – a vulnerable feeling indeed. Defence lawyers need access to the minute and truthful details of a defendant’s life. You as a photographer need access to their spirit – people must be who they really are with you.
You must take great care not to trample the spirit of your subjects. You must do mental, emotional, and creative gymnastics to avoid crushing the delicate structure of trust and assured respect. That allows their spirit to be reveal itself in honest smiles, cracked jokes, and a temperament of self-confidence standing in front of the camera.
Without your subject’s spirit, there is little reason for the photo.
Do you have any other tips for working with people and taking better portraits? Please share them and any stories you have in the comments below.
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