If you are having trouble making compelling portraits, the problem might be as simple as you don’t know what you are doing. Okay – that’s a play on words. What I really mean is you aren’t connecting (emotionally) with your subject.
Too often, the practice of photography is a sterile, non-personal pursuit. The subject of the portrait stands at one end of the studio, emotionally naked and exposed, while the photographer stands at the other, often hiding behind the camera.
Here are some ideas that might help you get more connected to your portrait subjects.
1. Take time to stop everything you are doing when the client walks in and greet them by name. Shake their hand. Say their name at least once and look them in the eye. This is not the time to be checking your email or your text messages. Turn off the damn smart phone for 40 minutes and wrap yourself up in the experience of actually being in the presence of another human. Go ahead try it. I promise you will live.
2. Have your gear, your basic light set up, your backgrounds, all sorted out BEFORE your subject arrives. Fiddling with all the gear while your subject settles in makes for a negative experience for the subject. Remember, just because we are all familiar with this gear, doesn’t mean that the subject is. Imagine a young child going into a doctor’s office for the first time. Many of my portrait subjects have confided in me that they had the same feelings entering a photo studio.
3. Make an effort to tidy the place up. Clean up your shooting space. Make it as neat and clean as you can. This makes it less of a destruction and allows you a larger chance of connecting. Make sure to add some human touches like fresh flowers and music.
4. Come out from behind the camera. Really. Do NOT just hide back there with that big black thing between you and your subject. It’s intimidating to them. If you need to stay behind the camera for whatever reason, at least try to duck your head out from behind after every shot to make eye contact. Making and maintaining eye contact is a big help to making the subject relax.
5. Get on common ground. Once you are out from behind the camera, spend some time actually getting to know the subject. Find out what their interests are. If there is some interest you both share, talk about that. Deflecting their attention away from the lights, stands, reflectors and cameras is sure to help improve the connection between you.
Remember the camera looks both ways. If you aren’t happy when your clients arrive chances are it will show in the pictures. Relax, remember photography is supposed to be fun, and don’t ignore the human factor.
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