In this post New York Photographer James Maher gives some tips on how to deal with a portrait subject that presents like Chandler Bing from the TV Series Friends..
Photographer: “I’m sorry is the seat uncomfortable.”
Chandler: “No, I am.”
We’ve all been there. You meet this wonderful, outgoing person for a photography session. They are gregarious, friendly and up for anything. This is going to be a breeze.
Then it happens, almost in slow motion as you remove your camera from your bag. Eyes widen, breath shortens, one eyebrow rises awkwardly, all of the muscles in the mouth freeze, and the face contorts into a look of sheer panic. And of course this is the day that you thought it would be fun to use your gigantic white 70-200 F2.8 lens. Nothing scary about that!
You realize how, aside from a colonoscopy, this is probably the most uncomfortable thing that this person can ever imagine doing. How every photograph this person has ever taken has had this contorted face and frozen mouth, and has just reaffirmed to them what they already know; they are a bad photo taker.
And then you freeze.
Well this doesn’t have to happen. While there are no magical solutions to this situation, there are many techniques that you can use to try and diffuse the situation.
1. Don’t tell the person they look awkward.
I want to get this one out of the way since it’s so important. Don’t ever acknowledge that you think a person is a bad photo taker. Act confident that you will come up with something good.
Last summer, my fiancé Sara was the maid of honor at a friend’s wedding. There was a lot of chaos going on at the last minute and she was running around and sewing up the pants of the 6 year old ring bearer, all while being photographed. The photographer then said to her, “relax, you look awkward.” You think they got a natural photo of her after that?
The last thing you want to do is to reaffirm what these people already think. And also, try not to show them the photos until after. If they see something that they don’t like then it will be much harder for them to get comfortable.
2. Chat and joke with them during the session.
This one may seem pretty obvious, but there is an art to engaging people during a shoot. It is always good to get to know a person before you begin to photograph them, but if it’s necessary, carrying on a conversation while you are in the process of photographing them can really help. Get them in position, take a few shots, and then lower your camera and strike up a conversation. You want to get them thinking again and acting normal, anything to distract them from the fact that they are being photographed. Don’t just talk; ask them questions. Then you can stop them at points when they look comfortable or are laughing and take some photos.
A couple of years ago I was at a Bar Mitzvah when I saw the most unique and out-of-line use of this idea in the history of all photography. The photographer was a disheveled man in his 60’s, speaking to the 13 year old and his large family, all dressed in their nicest outfits. As he started photographing them he began to make strange baby sounds, “Goo-goo gah gah, aboooboo” (okay, he didn’t actually say abooboo, but lots of goos and gahs). On the day when this 13 year old was turning into a man, the photographer was speaking to him (and his 85 year old grandfather) like a baby! It was both mortifying and hilarious. Everyone was laughing (and looking at each other in shock) and I’m sure the photographs came out great because of this. But I can guarantee you that they didn’t hire him again.
Please don’t go to this extreme, but this is often one of the stories I tell to lighten up a situation.
3. Have them constantly move positions slightly.
My go-to strategy is to ask the person to move slightly every flash (or couple of seconds.) Have them vary their look in a way that feels comfortable to them. This is a great way to relieve the tension of just sitting there with a stoic face and will allow you to get more natural and varied looks out of the subject. And when they come upon a look or expression that you really like, tell them to freeze. They should have no trouble with that!
4. Don’t have them smile.
Sometimes you need a photo with the person smiling and can’t escape it, but in many cases this might not be necessary. Perhaps the person is a more serious individual. Maybe they are more comfortable with a closed mouth or a very slight smirk. You can still get a range of emotions that won’t look angry even if the person isn’t smiling and often they will look much more natural.
5. Ask people to pose themselves.
Sometimes if a person is uncomfortable, contorting them into what you think is the best photographic position might not be the best idea. Instead, have them choose a pose that they are comfortable in (and then tweak it if necessary). Going into a pose that’s easy for them will immediately put them into a comfort zone that should translate into their face.
6. Take a break halfway through and have a drink or some coffee with them.
If you have the time, sometimes it is best to do half a session at first to get a person used to the camera, then take a break and have a drink and chat with them, and then finish up the shoot after. The first half of the session you should work on getting the safe photos, while the second half you can focus on the better and more interesting ones.
7. Remove yourself from behind the lens
I don’t like to use a tripod in portrait sessions unless its necessary, but I have used this technique sparingly. Set the camera on a tripod with a remote shutter and then take photos of them as you are interacting this way. This will take the person’s focus off of the camera itself.
8. Be positive!
The more enthusiastic you are, the better they will feel. People will feed off your energy, so make sure that it is positive, relaxed and confident, even though I’m sure those are the last things you will actually be feeling.
Photographers are not just technical people, with lenses and F-stops in our heads. We are psychologists as well and need to create an environment for the subject to thrive.
Now I’m sure there are more techniques out there so please post them below along with any funny stories you might have of an uncomfortable subject or an over-enthusiastic photographer!