One thing that has stood out to me over the years is the importance of having people skills in order to make great portraits. In my experience, learning how to use the camera has been the easy part. It’s the people skills that can often make or break a portrait session.
Below is a story from the field that taught me that lesson while shooting a small company’s headshots at their office.
“Gary tends to look like a serial killer in photos. Good luck.”
As soon as I arrived at the office that Monday morning for a small company’s employee headshots, the secretary pounced on me at the door and said in a hushed tone, “I hear you’re shooting Gary today. That’ll be interesting.”
Something in his tone made me pause. Before I could reply, he flashed a smile before dropping this fact bomb: “In every set of company photos, he tends to look like a serial killer.” My bewildered expression made him smile. “Good luck with that,” he added.
Before I could ask him to clarify that ominous statement, he melted into the shadows and left me standing by myself in the entryway. With a deep breath, I took a firmer hold of my equipment and continued my trek to the small conference room that had been pre-designated as my “shooting room.” The marketing department had coordinated with the employees to set up time slots that morning for their professional headshots, which would later be used on their website, brochures, and local billboards.
However, past experience had taught me that it was generally NOT at the top of any employee’s bucket list to be ordered by the marketing department to drop their precious work and get their mugshots taken. As a result, I never knew what type of personality or mood was waiting for me, with the gamut ranging from delightfully friendly to silently brooding.
Within a half hour I was set up and ready to go. The first two headshots were young women and went quickly. Maybe it’s a function of the social media age, but I often find that (at least in my experience) women under the age of 40 tend to relax more quickly in front of a camera, perhaps because they’re accustomed to posing for the endless barrage of phone selfies. They positively reacted to my gentle coaching and were more than happy to cooperate.
And then Gary entered.
Attempting to cracking a tough exterior
Dressed in a smart navy suite and tie, it was immediately apparent from the smirk on Gary’s face that he felt he had better things to do. After getting him settled into the cushy leather stool I always brought to portrait sessions, I began asking him questions about his job in order to get him more relaxed. When I asked him to give me a smile and began snapping away, the corner of his lip crinkled into more of a snarl than a grin.
Having anticipated this, I asked, “Tell me about your lovely wife, Gary.” My eyes glanced at his prominent wedding band. “How long have you two been married?”
Usually getting your subject to talk about a topic they are passionate about gets them to loosen up and forget about the camera. However, long wavy lines immediately appeared on Gary’s forehead as he quickly retorted, “I don’t want to talk about her. She pisses me off.”
Firmly locking a delighted smile on my face, I next asked him to tell me about his kids, if he had any.
Somehow, the creases in his tanned forehead managed to carve themselves deeper, which would take forever to Photoshop those out. “They piss me off more. I thought you wanted a smile for this headshot.”
Behind me, one of his coworkers had wandered in to watch the massacre. I heard them stifle a laugh.
Getting that warm expression
After a moment’s pause, I decided the situation called for a different approach. “Alright Gary,” I said, my dry tone matching his, “We’ve just got a few more minutes together, and then you’re a free man. I know this is your absolute favorite thing to do on Monday morning.”
Gary’s grim mask relaxed a bit as his eyes flicked to his watch.
“What I need you to do now, Gary,” I said as I adjusted my angle, “is to look away from me. In fact, I don’t want you to look at me at all.”
His expression went from bewildered to amused as he slowly turned his head about 45 degrees to the side, looking out the nearby window. At seeing the bright blue sky and summer Michigan trees, his expression further relaxed.
“Very good.” I encouraged, my finger snapping away. “I want you to completely ignore me. I’m not even here with an obnoxious camera in your face interrupting your important work. Imagine you’re outside doing something you actually like to do.”
At my apparent empathy for his current predicament, he unexpectedly chuckled. In that moment a softer, gentler man began to emerge. “I do like to golf,” he offered.
When I asked him how long he’d been golfing, he actually flashed a warm, appreciative look in my direction. All the while I was quick with the shutter button, capturing this rare side of him before it disappeared altogether. “I’ve been golfing for decades,” he replied, and launched into an explanation of his thorough passion for the sport.
Unlike the first 5 minutes that had ticked painfully by, the next five glorious minutes literally flew as we chatted golf and I documented a handful of warm, non-serial killer expressions from the infamous Gary. As he waxed long about the mechanics of a solid golf swing, some of his looks became downright jolly.
When I announced his time was up, he stood and exhaled. Inviting him over to the viewfinder of my camera, I showed him his portraits to get his feedback.
He gasped, “I didn’t know I could look like that. I like that.”
I learned an important lesson from that portrait session: don’t be afraid to empathize with your client. Also, don’t be afraid to embrace their personality differences. To assume everyone is the same would be a grave mistake Instead, understand that getting your portrait client relaxed enough give you genuine expressions can take some time.
Even the tough cases will eventually crack if you are patient and persistent enough.