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When I was 8 (could have easily been 12, but let’s go with 8), I got a pair of pajamas for Christmas that had a polar bear outline repeated on the flannel long sleeve top and pants. My Grandmother, a woman well before her time and crazy in all the best of ways, took one look at them, got a Sharpie, and proceeded to draw a smile on every single one of their expressionless faces.
This is likely where my love for anything with a “good expression” originated. It’s also where I learned the many uses for a Sharpie. A good expression isn’t always happy or cute or sweet, but it IS always honest. And authentic expressions happen when you connect with your subject.
I was once asked by a photographer who was shooting my family to “just pretend to be having a really fun time!”. You know what’s better? To actually be having a really fun time. This doesn’t mean that you have to force laughter or make constant jokes. Sometimes one of the most important things you can do for someone is to just be present. The pictures you generate will show it as it was, be that fake or fun. Show up, be yourself, and have fun.
This is one of the few cases where we can truly say that Lil’ Jon said it best. Tops of heads are glorious, but no one needs a bunch of pictures of them. Photographing is a bit like hanging pictures—people often do it too high. Get as low as your shortest subject. Then get lower.
I’ve spent a lot more of my career rolling around in the grass than I ever planned on. By being on the same level as young kids, I’m often seen as much less intimidating and invited into their world easily and quickly. Even if you are not photographing children, there is no need to hover above everyone. If you sit them down, you get down too. “Let me see ya get low.”-Lil’ Jon.
Photographing someone is a great honor. No matter if you are doing it for free or as a professional receiving payment or somewhere in the middle, to be invited to document a moment is a big deal and should be treated as such. People are naturally self-conscience and are highly aware that you are likely to catch some odd moments. Earn their trust and they will likely be themselves quicker.
Really work to connect with them and you might even have amazing and unexpected opportunities because of it. I shot this at the airport when a dear client was bringing home her son from Ethiopia. This is the first moment she saw her daughter in weeks and the first time the siblings were met. I was one of a small group of people invited to attend this homecoming because I had been photographing the family for years and this image afforded me publication in several national magazines.
How many times has your doctor walking into the exam room and just started poking and prodding at you with no explanation or conversation first? I hope your answer is zero. But if it’s not, let’s pretend it is and let’s also look into finding a new doctor. Too often we forget to explain because to us it’s obvious: I have a camera in my hand and you asked me to be here today so…..let’s get on with it. Before the shoot even happens, I give my clients an idea of what to expect for the timeline and the location and a give them access to a “what to wear” guide in case they need help. Anything that maybe makes this less stressful for them.
At the shoot I always chat with them for a bit like I would a friend. If it’s a child, I always tell them they can smile if they want to and if they don’t want to, they don’t have to, and at the end I’ll get them a prize. I’m constantly amazed how far candy gets me. I own stock in lollipop factories. The adults get a little more detail and a little less sing-song, but in general I still give them a lollipop if they’re good.
When I was asked to take some fun shots of two little boys eating ice cream I had all of these fantastic colorful ideas in my head of smiley children and sprinkles! There would be sprinkles everywhere! Laughter and mess! Colors! It was going to be the best ice cream photo ever! And then I showed up and this kiddo wasn’t super into my whole Laughter! Sprinkles! Mess! idea. I keep at it until I realized that forcing it wasn’t going to get me anywhere. And once I let it go, I got this– a shot both my client and I adore. Plus, I came home that day relatively clean and didn’t have sprinkles in my camera. Bonus.
Adults are tough. We have all these hang-ups and worries; just going with it isn’t our strong suit. One day I realized how when I shoot kids, I’m constantly telling them how great they are doing, how silly they are, and how cute they look and when I photographed adults I said a whole lot of…….nothin’. Adults need encouragement. And feedback. And compliments. And to know they are doing it “right” whatever that means.
If you aren’t getting the shot you want, it’s you, not them. No offense. Either you didn’t explain it well enough or you are asking for something they can’t do. Come out from the comfy side of the camera and figure out what is happening on the other side. You may have seen it one way, but try their way and you’ll likely end up with a better image.
No one has to know it wasn’t your idea to begin with.