Guest Post & Photo by Stephan Bollinger – Circle Stephan on Google+

From an early age, I’ve been on stage, acting, singing, having fun. Over the years, I got used to perform in front of larger and larger audiences, the initial pub gigs turned into musical theatre, eventually TV. With every new production, we went through the usual advertising photo shoots, the sponsor performances, the press events. I preferred to perform in front of a live audience, but giving my all in front of a still camera was fine too, well – until I had to do a “private” photo shoot. No costume, no makeup, no role to play, just me. I never felt more naked in my entire life.

This day has changed the way I see people photography. I was an experienced, self confident and successful performer, and I still had no idea how to stand, what to do with my hands, or where to look. My self confidence was gone, and sorry to say: I felt like shit. The photographer that day, a half motivated “pay by the hour” guy from a local newspaper said nothing, he fiddled with his camera, his on-camera flash popped a few times, that was it. And the photograph in the paper next morning looked exactly like I felt that day: shit.

Back then, I haven’t heard of Alfred Eisenstaedt yet, but later down the track, I read Eisenstaedt’s famous quote: “It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter”, and from personal experience, it made perfect sense to me. The photographer that day clicked the shutter, nothing more.

Later that year, I was sent to yet another photo shoot. With low expectations, I walked into a little studio in Berlin Kreuzberg. A guy was shouting out from a tiny kitchen in the back: “How do you like it… the coffee, I mean“… in a typical Berliner tone, cheeky and with a big grin on his face. Meet Tom, a fashion and lifestyle photographer. We sat down, had coffee, talked, it was comfortable. After a while, he said “shall we?“. The photo shoot went well, and until this day, I have never looked better in a photograph.

Fast forward 20 years, I’m now the guy behind the camera, my stage days are long gone. My personal experiences however stay with me, and they are constant reminder of how someone might feel in front of my camera. Sure, nowadays people are much more used to being photographed, they make their “Facebook face”, peace sign, hug friends in snapshots. They put on an act. The moment they walk into a studio however, they feel just as uncomfortable as ever. Of course, some are well experienced, the CEOs of international organisations, the fashion models and the sport superstars, but this story is about the other 99% of people.

TALK, TALK, TALK!

It is our job as photographers to set the mood, break the ice, inject confidence, and the one (and only) way is to Talk. From the moment we meet our subject, to the moment he (or she) drives away, we are the entertainer, the clown, the poser, the director. Every great photographer has it’s own and unique way to fill these roles, many new and upcoming photographers however, while understanding the importance and concept, don’t quite know how to do it. So this article might give a few hints where to start.

FORGET ABOUT YOUR GEAR.

Before even considering working 1-on-1 with people, it is essential to know your cameras and lights inside-out. Set them up, do all your testing long before the subject arrives, lock it in, and from the first “hello”, your entire focus is with your subject. Over the course of a shoot, you will have to adjust settings, lights, angles, but since you know your gear, it will be quick. And even if you have to change a light bulb, you still keep talking. The moment you let the energy slip, you might as well pack up.

ONE TEAM, ONE GOAL.

The one thing every client has to understand: We both play on the same team, and we have the same goal: To create the best photograph possible. And we do this together. I never expect a subject to dance if I’m not happy to dance first, and I have absolutely no problems with looking like a complete idiot, if it helps to get the shot.

LET THE CLIENT TALK. FIRST.

Male and female subjects are different, but the principals are the same. Female subjects sit in Makeup for a while, and I use this time to connect. Male subjects sit in makeup for a shorter time, so I sit down with them before, and chat. I want to learn what the person is all about, what music they like, what magazines they read, what work they do, what they believe in. I keep my questions short, and give them time to talk. I establish trust. Their life story not only changes the way I see them, but often also the way I photograph them. I also make sure I time it right, giving them enough time alone with the Makeup Artist, to switch off from their busy day so far, calm down, and get ready for our shoot.

I let them talk first, because once we start, I talk!

MAKE UP STORIES.

As soon as we shoot, I talk. Only when my camera is down (or I have to change settings or lights), I engage them in a chat, to keep them interested and the energy up. The moment I shoot, I want them to listen. This is the only way to guide their expression, pose and mood. Once we shoot, it’s story time.

I want honest, interesting and real expressions. I will only get them if my subject forgets about the lights and camera. So, I make up stories. These stories are different every day, just like the people in front of me. Whatever works for them.

Do you remember the Bacardi TV ads, with that perfect beach? Imagine, 10 in the morning, a super comfy chair in the shade, a little table with an ice cold beer next to you, the book you always wanted to read, and no cellphone reception.” Every stressed out business manager will, at least for a short while, relax, and give you a chance to take a brilliant portrait. Throw in “... and when the book gets boring, you can always watch those hot twins, who try to figure out how to surf“. You’ll get a smile, I promise.

New York, Fifth Avenue, Tiffany’s on the left, Prada across the street, lets walk down the pleasure of shopping“… (you fill in the blanks). A great start for a woman’s story. “Imagine, a world made of chocolate…“, it works with children too.

The moral of the story: From the first conversation with our subject, we have learned what they like, what they believe in, how they talk. Let this be your guide for the stories you make up, help them feel and look great. And the next time you watch a “behind the scenes” video on youtube, forget about the gear and focus on the photographers body language, what stories he tells, how he (or she) interacts with his subjects. Also watch workshops of photographers like Zack Arias or Peter Hurley, and (beside all the great technical information you gather) look out for the ways they direct. They all have found their very personal, funny and entertaining ways to get brilliant results. Not because they use the best gear in the world, but because they click with people.


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  1. [...] I saw this quote over on the Photofocus blog I immediate thought of the exchanges with my classmates. I complete agree with the premise that as [...]

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About scottbourne

Founder of Photofocus.com. Retired traveling and unhooking from the Internet.

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