3 Critical People Skills Portrait Photographers Need

3 Critical People Skills Portrait Photographers Need

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Photo by: Greg Gelsinger

How do you ensure failure as a portrait photographer? That’s easy; treat your subjects or clients poorly. From start to finish, make the entire experience unforgettably miserable for them!

So, what does it take for an amateur or professional photographer to create a wonderful experience for their subject? Three things: generosity, empathy, and assertiveness.

Let me show you how these three qualities, combined with your photography skills, create a wonderful experience for your subjects and clients.

Treat your subjects and clients as you would your friends.

1. Begin With Generosity

When you bring a generous spirit to your work, your clients are delighted with the experience. You may be one of the few people who has treated them well. You can show your generosity with:

  • your time
  • gifts
  • yourself

When I photographed college and university students for their graduation portraits, I often gave up my lunch breaks to spend extra time with them. Maybe they were self-conscious, and I had to work extra hard to capture portraits they would love. Perhaps I wanted to take extra time to work out some creative ideas.

Don’t treat time as if it’s your you own, treat your time as if it’s theirs.

I wouldn’t normally travel so far, but this couple told me they had a really unique place for their photo session. From the highway to back roads to small trail roads, it took an hour and a half to get there. But the scenery was much different than I could have found close to home.

What does generosity look like for street photographers? Think about carrying a small printer with you so that you can print a portrait when you photograph somebody. Perhaps offer to send them one digitally.

Wedding photographers can show up a little bit early or stay a little later to capture candid photos. When I photograph weddings, couples are always so thankful that I didn’t rush to leave – especially when they are behind schedule.

You’ll take many photos as a travel photographer and discover unique places in small towns and villages. Share the love by promoting those places through Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Personality, friendship and time are among the most valuable things you can share with a person.

Over the years, some of my closest friendships began as photography clients.

Will people take advantage of your generosity? Absolutely! However, you tend to fear the worst case scenario. There aren’t very many people who take advantage of your generosity. When they do, you won’t care – because you’re generous!

For photographers in business, being generous doesn’t mean that you give everything away for free. It just means that you build generosity into your business model.

2. Empathy

Empathy is a superpower.

It is a superpower because it allows you to understand your subject or client. Empathy allows you to care for them deeply, see it their way, and serve them as a unique person instead of a fast food process.

Empathy provokes understanding and opens people up. They’ll discover something new about themselves, and you’ll discover something new about yourself.

Also, empathy means not treating people on streets as if they are mannequins on display. Ask permission to photograph people and understand when they say “no.” If you aren’t willing to spend a few minutes with them as a person, why photograph them at all?

Their ultrasound appointment revealed that they would be having a baby boy. But the doctor kept it a secret, allowing their friend to create a paint war between the couple! Once they started squirting the paint, they found out they were having a boy.

Having empathy helps you understand the exhausted parents of newborns. It helps you to understand the toddler who is tired of posing for your photos. Empathy helps you to understand the middle-aged headshot client who is self-conscious about wrinkles and their double chin. You may even have compassion toward bridezillas!

Moreover, empathy leads you to ask, “how would I want to be treated if I was getting photographed?”

When generosity is the foundation of your workflow, it is easy to be empathetic.

3. Be Assertive, But Not Bossy

Assertiveness is a critical skill for portrait photographers. Most people have no idea what to do in front of the camera (photographers included). You have to tell them!

They haven’t just come to you for a photo, they’ve come to you to get guided through the process.

You’ve tuned into your subject with empathy, so you already know they feel awkward in front of the camera. Assertiveness allows you to give your subjects direction so that they can relax and lose their self-consciousness. The first thing people used to say to me was, “tell me what to do.” They don’t ask me that anymore because I guide them from the start.

Of course, it’s possible to be overly assertive. You’ve gone too far when you’re impolite and bossy. Nobody enjoys getting photographed by a photographer who is rude.

If you’re a kind and assertive photographer, you’ll enjoy directing your subjects through your creative vision. Moreover, your subject could love you for it too.

Strength and Weakness

There is a pretty good chance that you’re stronger in one of these three and weaker in another.

Maybe you’re very empathetic but not very assertive. Alternatively, quite assertive and not very generous.

Determine where your strong points and play on those strengths. However, also observe where you are weak and work toward improving it. I can tell you from experience that even timid people can become assertive with practice.

You know how to handle a camera and work the light. When you’re equally good with people, your photography life is rewarding and fulfilling.

“If the photographer is interested in the people in front of his lens, and if he is compassionate, it’s already a lot. The instrument is not the camera but the photographer.” — Eve Arnold

If you have any other tips or experiences, please share with us in the comments below.

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Mat Coker is a family photographer from Ontario, Canada. He teaches photography to parents and families, showing them how to document their life and adventures. You can get his free photography ebook, and learn more about taking creative photos.

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