As someone who’s spent his whole life behind the camera, I can tell you that is not an accident. Like many people, I do not enjoy having my portrait made. I have a face built for radio – which is why I am good at podcasting!
While many of the new portrait photographers I work with are concerned with lighting, pose and lens choice (all good things to think about) the hardest part of portraiture has nothing to do with all those things. Getting your portrait subjects to relax is probably the hardest thing to learn how to do and accomplish.
Why is this important? Because the old saying is 110% true. Expression over perfection! Translated that means, that when you make a portrait – particularly as a professional photographer, the better job you do of capturing the subject’s face wearing a natural or real expression, the better chance you have of selling the work.
Portrait clients are typically not like us. They don’t spend their time scouring camera forums, or attending photography meetups, or going on photo walks. They just live normal lives – yes I am saying we are not normal :)
In any event, they don’t generally care whether you blew out the highlights, or got the loop shadow on the nose just right or held detail in the shadow or missed the exposure by 1/3 of a stop. They don’t care what f/stop you used or what shutter speed you selected. They care how they look – period.
So, if you can get them relaxed, and to be themselves, they will generally like your work better than if you cannot.
Now that I have convinced you that you need to be concerned about this, how do you go about accomplishing it?
Here are some tips.
1. Make contact – real contact. Shake their hand. Say their name over and over. Really talk to them and REALLY listen to what they have to say. If you know your craft you should already have an idea of what you’re going to do. Your camera and lights and background should all be ready. Spending time with a human being AS a human being, not as a photographer – that’s the first step.
2. Get out from behind the camera. If you are hiding behind the camera during the entire session, it’s hard to connect with the subject. Come out from behind the camera often. I like to work with a remote once I am set up so I can shoot without being behind the camera.
3. Get on common ground. Find out what your subject is interested in. This is why I like to suggest that photographers become voracious readers. Read and learn about many things so that you can talk intelligently about many things. Be up to speed on current events. Be interesting as a person and find out what your subject likes to talk about. Then talk about it. This takes their mind off the process of being photographed.
4. Employ conversation starters. Ask your subject what’s on their bucket list. Ask them what their dream car or job would be. Ask them about their favorite food or music. Find out what their goals are. These conversation starters are all I usually need to get a person relaxed and being themselves.
5. Tell some bad jokes. Okay tell some good jokes. Humor works. Not everyone thinks everything is funny, but ANYTHING you can do to take your subject’s mind off their session and onto something else will help. I like to make jokes about smiles. I’ll say something like, “Give me just a hint of a smile.” Then no matter what they do I’ll say, “Aw that’s fake – give me a real one.” And usually they do. Or if they are a bit sour I’ll say something like “Come on – you don’t know me well enough to hate me yet.” Okay, so my jokes are corny. You’re probably funnier than me so prove it. Get the subject laughing and then start shooting.