By James Maher
Portrait photography is an incredibly complex subject to master. You have to worry about a variety of technical matters, including your lighting, location, time with subject, color temperatures, and your composition. In many situations you will be moving around an environment quickly and changing your lighting on the fly. It is a lot to pay attention to, and coordinate at the same time.
On top of all of this, you must figure out how to make, and keep, your subject comfortable throughout the entire session. No matter how much is going right or wrong, or what is going through your head, your primary attention must always be on your subject.
Keeping the subject comfortable and natural is an art form in itself. Obviously, it’s not always possible. Some subjects will be impossible to get through to no matter what, but most of them will rise to the occasion if you can foster the right environment. There are many different ways that portrait sessions can vary, but here is how I like to approach photographing my portrait subjects.
1. Assess the subject’s personality
Each subject will have a different relationship with the camera. Some will have done this before, and will be all business. Some will be extroverted and will love the attention. Some will be uncomfortable at first, but will open up easily after a little time together.
The toughest group are subjects that come in incredibly uncomfortable and stiff, to them you are worse than the dentist. Seriously, there are many people that would much rather go to the dentist than to be photographed by you. These subjects will be the toughest to work with because they, “know I look terrible in front of the camera.” They know this because they know how uncomfortable they get, but they only get uncomfortable because they know they photograph badly. This is a catch 22 that you will have to scratch and claw your way out of, so to speak.
Is your subject extroverted or introverted? Do they like to joke and talk, or are they more reserved. Are they in the middle of a busy day, or do they seem more relaxed. Do they give you a stiff smile? These are all cues that you can pick up on, to help you figure out the best way to get through to them. The better you can understand your subjects, the better you will be able to get them to enjoy working with you, and to eventually feel comfortable with you and the camera.
2. Talk with your subject before the session
Whenever possible, when you first meet your subject, introduce yourself first. Ask them how their day is going to get them talking, then tell them about what you will be doing together. Many subjects will have no idea what to do, or what is about to happen, and will become stiff, nervous, and awkward.
Explain how the session will go, and what you would like them to do. Maybe tell them that you are looking for natural images, casual smiles, and comfortable poses. Let them know that you will tell them what to do over the course of the session, but also mention that if they have ideas that they should bring them up. Is there a way that they feel comfortable standing? Tell them to speak up. Do they want to try something? Tell them to speak up. The best shoots are ones that turn into a collaboration between the photographer and the subject.
3. Help them pose, then change it often
Tell the subject that you will do some posing but that you also want them to stand in a way that is comfortable for them. You can have your subjects play a part in the posing (a few will be bad at this, but most will be good). Ask them, “How would you naturally stand or lean here?” Give them a couple suggestions of what to do by demonstrating a pose. If necessary, put a few example images on your phone or tablet to show them. Keep them moving. Ask them to slightly change their pose every few shots. This will keep them fluid and comfortable, instead of stiff and standing still.
The hands are just as important as the body pose, if not more so. If the subject’s hands feel comfortable, there is a good chance the rest of them will fall into place. Some subjects can get very stiff with the hands if you don’t give them direction. Do you want the hands in front of them, in their pockets, or crossed arms? I usually start by giving these suggestions, and asking them to place their hands in a way that they would normally stand. This often yields a very comfortable pose. Then when I have exhausted that, I will ask them to cross their arms to break them into another comfortable pose, then go from there.
Changing the pose at the right times is a very important tool. The second your subject starts to look uncomfortable, get them to do something different. Change their hands or their stance. Move them to another location. Every time you break the stiffness is another chance for them to reset themselves into a comfortable pose.
4. Tell them what they are doing right
If your subject is doing something right, tell them! Give them positive reinforcement. Never tell them they look awkward, or they will freeze up even more. I constantly say some variation of, “This looks great” or a more specific compliment. The positivity just keeps things flowing and going in the right direction.
If you like someone’s smile, let them know that. They will instantly feel good, and it will help them recreate that look when you need it. For a few people, when you say something like that, it will kill their natural smile. Pay attention for these people, and obviously stop saying that to them, but for many this will help them recreate that look constantly as you need it. You can say, “Give me that smile from before.” Then if they have trouble doing it, plead and beg them for it in a funny way so they feel comfortable again.
You can tell subjects not to do specific things, but be careful with how you do that as it can kill your momentum. Instead of saying, “Your hands don’t look right,” say, “I think your hands might be a little better this way.” Even your constructive comments can be made in a positive way.
5. Have conversational topics and jokes prepared
Ask lots of questions of the subjects that do not seem to be in a rush. For the ones that need to run out of there, you can only do so much. Even for these people, I will ask a couple simple questions at the beginning, such as, “Are you from New York” or “How has your day been.” Just these alone will give them a chance to talk, and you can go from there. For most people who are not in a rush, I will go a lot further and try to hone in on a topic that of of interested to them. I find that a good conversation over the course of a session, can make the whole session much more comfortable. The more you get them talking, the more they can break out of their shell. At the very least, they will like you.
You do not need to write knock-knock jokes, but think of some funny things ahead of time to talk about, or to use in situations where you are desperate. When a subject begins a session by telling me how much they hate being photographed, I try to say something like, “Well you’re going to hate me then.” A dentist joke will work as well. I then comfortably tell them that they are in good hands, and not to worry. A quick and funny comeback for something like this will make them feel like you are prepared.
Sometimes when I need a smile, I will tell a subject to give me their most uncomfortable smile. This is only in certain moments though. I will never, ever tell the subject directly that they look uncomfortable. That is a road you do not want to go down, but I will make a joke about a stiff smile before they start trying to smile to make a point, and to make it a little humorous.
Have them smile with their whole body. Show them the difference between a smile just with their mouth, and then one with their entire face and body. There’s a big difference between the two, and framing it in this way can explain to them what they should be doing. The shutter click is such a finite moment that it helps if they think of the session as one long video where they are moving into their smiles, and not just turning them on suddenly.
Often you will have to make slight tweaks to the way a subject is posing. Having a subject put their chin up slightly can be a very good way of getting rid of a double chin, but it also ruins the spontaneity of the moment. The same thing goes when posing people in a chair. Sometimes, the most flattering way to sit is the most awkward. When I have to do any of this, after I will say something like, “Now look natural.” Just the idea of how stiff they are once you do these poses, mixed with that comment, has the frequent effect of relaxing them and bringing out a smile, even with their chin up.
Besides that, I will have conversational topics that I try to bring up on the fly when needed, such as current events, sports, or random stories that I can think of.
6. Use the strengths of your personality to your advantage
Are you an extrovert that can charm and joke with anyone? Then you should have an easier time getting your subjects to laugh and open up, but at the same time you will need to be careful not to overdo it. By talking too much, and commanding the attention in the session, you risk stopping the subject from having their own personality show through. All your images can end up looking the same, as they are the expressions of your subjects laughing at your jokes or comments. If this is naturally you, make yourself ask questions, and stop and listen a little bit more. Making them laugh is fantastic, but it is also different from creating an environment where they feel comfortable enough to open up to you.
Are you an introvert who gets uncomfortable trying to joke and talk with subjects that you have just met for the first time? This can actually be an advantage when you play your cards right, but this is a situation where gaining experience working with people is necessary. In this case, your advantage is your ability to listen and react. Ask your subjects questions, then play off what they say. Pay more attention to their emotions. Get them talking about interesting things that they are passionate about; have them open up that way.
Still be confident and explain what you are doing, but play a more reactive role. Watch videos of other portrait photographers, both the talkative and the quieter ones, and pay attention to what they say to help you improve. Work on funny things to say that you will have in your pocket when you need them, as this will be your initial disadvantage. You will need to work more at first to be good at all of this, but after enough experience, the advantages can swing back in your favor due to your adept listening ability.
7. Don’t show them the images while you are shooting
Sometimes subjects will insist on seeing the images, and you will have no choice, but I always try to get out of having to show the subject the images until the end. I will often say that we can look at the images after, as a way to put them off. Having the subject look at a photo of themselves, especially if they seem self-conscious, can ruin their ability to feel comfortable later on in the session. In addition, two out of 10 shots are usually good anyway and the other eight will never see the light of day. But if they are looking at the back of that camera they will sure as heck see those eight!
For the most uncomfortable subjects, often there is no chance that the photos at the very beginning will be that good. You are just going through the motions as you are trying to make them comfortable over the course of the session. There are not that many situations where the subject seeing the photo is better, unless the subject seems very comfortable from the start.
8. Know that you can’t win them all
You will probably lose a few. You can only do the best with what your subject gives you. Portrait photography can be stressful so always keep that in mind. You can only work with what the subject is able to give you. Do your best for all your subjecs and push and spend more time with the ones that are having trouble, but let’s be frank, some subjects are just better that others.
If you want to learn more about portrait posing and working with people, pick up one of the dPS ebooks by Gina Milicia Portraits: Striking the Pose (left) or her brand new one called: Fast Flash for Portrait Perfection (right).
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