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Working effectively with your subject to produce a powerful portrait

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  • Working effectively with your subject to produce a powerful portrait

    In some of my other discussions I alluded to the importance of mastering the non-technical aspects of portrait photography as a critical component of creating powerful portraits full of impact and personality - and that all elusive quality, Life.

    How do we, as portrait photographers capture life and spirit in a 2D image that resides on a 'flat piece of paper'? How do we make the eyes 'twinkle with humour' for example? Or the subject exude a deep sensuality? Or, how do we capture the strong and loving bonds of a tight knit family?

    How do we do all this? And how can we do all this with consistency and not trust it to blind luck to produce the desired results?

    The answer? We need to be masters of two critical components of portrait photography: Lighting and subject communication.

    Lighting equates to the 'logic', the tangible skills needed. We all know that photography is about lighting. 'Photography' means 'painting with light'.

    The camera, the lens, the flash, the reflector etc are all just tools to allow us to capture, shape, meld ambient and produced light to our needs. And in portrait photography, our need is to light the subject/s in the best possible way so that the light 'speaks for us' in terms of our creative vision and what we are trying to achieve with that particular capture. In essence, the more you know your camera, lens and flash the more you are able to confidently use and shape light to your needs. Mastering lighting is essential.

    Subject communication equates to the 'psychological', the intangible skills needed.

    Unfortunately, this key skill (the other half of the successful portrait equation if you like) is either entirely forgotten or given only a passing acknowledgment by many portrait photographers. I find this sad (and frustrating). Even in the genre of glamour photography, do you ever notice that the images of those pretty, sensually glad women/men that really stand out and grab you are the ones that are both technically accomplished and emotionally arresting?

    Mastering both lighting and subject communication should be seen by all portrait photographers as a continuous journey of self improvement. There is never an end point because there is always more to learn, more to discover and more to add to your arsenal of skills and tools. Do not rest on your laurels.... always strive to discover more.

    The experience and 'principles' I will be discussing relate to all types of portraiture but I will be discussing them in relation to specific scenarios to give you a clearer understanding of how they are put into practice.

    And remember, there are multiple ways to get the same results... find ways that are comfortable with you and how you work.

    Subject communication - I think it is all about creating an impact on your sitter where he/she will
    a) totally trust you to photograph them 'in their best light' and
    b) respect and relate to you as a fellow human being, and not as 'the photographer'.

    It is funny actually... so many of the 'tips' I will outline in this discussion I have learnt myself through experience and just 'doing it'... and then I read the same advice from world class pros.... I think it just goes to show that many of these 'tips' are actually pretty much common sense and universal human nature...

    Anyway, here goes...

    Scenario 1 - Working with people who do not like a camera being shoved in their face, but they are being 'forced' to have their photo taken...

    A photographer asked me this question: "Could you let us know a little bit about how you approach a sitter (subject) who is nervous or cranky about being photographed? What was your process for engaging them so quickly? What kind of questions did you ask them initially, to get them to relax?"

    My answer:

    - Take control right from the second you meet the sitter.
    Remember: trust, respect, warm and friendly, in control.

    - If you are tired and stressed (which you probably will be), don't show it.
    Big relaxed smile and a genuine warmth and interest to meet your sitter.

    - Always exude confidence.
    Never let your sitter see you look worried, challenged or generally unsure of what to do. Again, if you are unsure about anything - fake your confidence. I'm serious. When you advertise the fact that you are unsure, your sitter will pick up on that and he/she will get worried and trust you less to make them 'look good in the photo'. For example, if I am still unsure of my lighting setup and the sitter is already there, I do not show it. Instead I keep chatting to the sitter, asking 'normal' questions (what do you do? Oh wow, that must be interesting... tell me more about it. Are you married? kids? Oh, what a great ages.. my kids are...). All this while I either give instructions to my assistant to tweak the lights or I do it myself. Remember though, when you are chatting to be genuine about wanting to know things from them.

    - All the while you are doing this keep eye contact as much as you can.
    Do not immerse yourself in the back of your camera too much etc. Keep flicking your eyes back to them and acknowledge what they are telling you etc. There is nothing worse for a person to know that you are not really interested in them and that you are 'just going through the motions'...They become an object, not a human being. Never do that.

    - Ask for their opinions.
    In other words, empower them in some way. Get them involved in the creation of their own portrait. For example, a really simple (and deceptively powerful) way is to let them choose how they want to sit.... "Here is the chair, my camera is right there, all I ask is that you sit with your face facing my camera. You can turn the chair right around to straddle it so that you have the back of the chair to rest your arms. You can turn the chair to the side so that you can lean into it and rest one of your arms on the back. The choice is all yours! I'm here if you need to bounce ideas off me."

    - If you find the sitter is having difficulty relaxing in front of the camera, put a scenario in their head for them to play out.
    For example, "If the chair you are sitting on right now was in your lounge room, and the TV was on with your favourite show... show me how you would sit on that chair to watch your show...". And you progress from there. At the very least, you will elicit a few giggles/cracks about sitting in front of the telly naked etc etc... great relaxing technique.

    - Fuss over them - even if you do not need to.
    Go up to the sitter after he/she has sat down. Tell your sitter you are going to check for stray hairs, wrinkled clothes, etc etc.... spend 10 seconds or so doing this - and even if there is nothing to fix, pretend to fix it anyway... this will sub-consciously communicate to your sitter that you really care about photographing him/her in the best possible way.

    - Be yourself.
    For example, if you are a quiet personality, do not force yourself the other way. Use your personality to get the job done.

    There it is in a nutshell.

    Common sense stuff, really. The goal for you as a portrait photographer is to be a 'people person'. To be a photographer who is genuinely passionate about his/her craft and exudes that passion and sincerity to the sitter.

    Ideally, the sitter's reaction to you as the photographer is, 'I trust this person to make me the best damn photo of myself - and I'm having such a good experience doing it!"

    Scenario 2 - Working with models
    (experienced and inexperienced)...

    Once again I stress, not enough photographers pay attention to the psychology of a shoot. It is all about mindset:

    a) The mindset of the photographer: In most shoots where the photographer is essentially the director and the person at which the buck stops, it is essential for the photographer to maintain within him/herself the drive, passion and commitment (and the responsibility) to ensure that the shoot is a success, no matter what curveballs and challenges are presented. Does a shoot always end in success? No. But, I think your chance of success is made much higher if your mindset is geared towards staying positive, passionate and willing to take risks.

    b) The mindset of the model: In my experience, most models (and other shoot members) turn up at a shoot either really tired after a long day at work, or tired from lack of sleep the night before (and why did they stay up late knowing they had a early morning shoot? Where is the professionalism?). And/or, they arrive in a fluster/late because they got lost or was running late for a number of valid reasons. And/or it was not their fault at all for running really late - the MUA turned up late so everyone is in a fluster thinking of the timeline etc.

    You can see where I am going with this... this kind of pressured and destructive environment is not conducive at all to getting the kind of 'emotionally connecting' imagery of which I am so fond.

    After the makeup is applied, the attire is on, the lights set up, everything is in place ready there is one last critical job you, as the photographer and 'director' will have to do: encourage the model into a mindset that is conducive to producing great imagery.

    By the time the model gets in front of the camera and the shoot begins, the model is usually so internally disconnected from the shoot itself that they will just 'go through the motions' halfheartedly. You can detect this immediately when you look at the photos. The photos lack 'life', that all important 'spark' that connects the viewer to the image.

    How do we address this internal disconnect within the model? As an aside, I learn more about how to encourage the right response from models the more and more shoots I do. Once again, it comes back down to the fundamental cornerstone of doing ANYTHING well: Practice constantly.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record, capturing some sort emotion is very, very important to my craft. To me, photography is nothing if it is not imbued with emotion or imbued with an almost physical connection between the viewer and the image. How this is done is almost limitless, I think.

    Probably one of the best ways to do this is via the eyes and body expression of the model: the model has to 'be' whatever I ask of her (I will use 'her' to apply to both genders from here on). She has to 'live' the vision I give her. To be immersed into whatever world or scenario I paint for her. This is a critical for all models and a 'skill' which you, as the photographer can nurture in the model.

    How do I achieve this mindset with my models? I use the same approach on inexperienced as well as experienced models I have worked with, as essentially it is not a skill as such that can be learnt by the model, but more of a 'place' all models can be in once they have been given the right tools/encouragement to find that place.

    My approach is this:

    1. Once again, it ALL starts with your own mindset. What do I mean by this? I mean you as the director have to have the correct mindset on the shoot itself or else how can you expect to convey the required 'vibes' to your model? Before I get out of my car to attend a shoot I always spend a few moments to be 'still' and to re-affirm within myself that I am a talented artist, an artist who is capable of great work, a photographer who is capable of getting the best out of his subjects, and a photographer who is never flustered and who can think on his feet. Sounds wanky? Probably is... but it works for me. You should give it a try.

    2. Once I am out of the car and walk into the session to meet up with the model/s and team, I am all positive energy and smiles and friendliness as well as all business in my head. I am focused towards getting quality work out of the session. I am also focused on observing the team members and model to see how their energy levels are and if I can detect any issues that might be brewing under the surface. If I do, I try to dispel those tensions - usually by giving a short 'speech' saying how exciting the shoot is (which it is) and how important it is for all team members to forget their 'real world' troubles and to focus on the shoot (which it is). This usually is enough to snap focus back onto the shoot.

    3. Your friendliness, your obvious passion for your craft and your enthusiasm for the shoot is the MAIN means of relaxing your model initially. I mean it. I'm not talking about over the top 'oh my god, oh my god, I'm soooooo excited to be here!!!!' kind of enthusiasm... I'm talking about that genuine 'in your bones' enthusiasm that just shines through no matter what your personality type. How often have you felt immediately more comfortable and relaxed when you meet a person who is genuinely warm, friendly and 'in control'? Same deal applies on shoots.

    4. To build upon the initial relaxation of your model, you then need to talk to her (throughout the entire shoot) - as an equal, as an artist to artist, as a partner, as a collaborator. Exactly the same approach for inexperienced as well as experienced models. There should be no 'I am God Photographer' Syndrome here.... please, give that rubbish a rest.

    5. Your aim is to empower your model: to give power and control to her so that she feels in total control of her actions and her situation....

    Setting the 'mindset' before the actual session is critical in my opinion. Each person will approach this differently. But, I just wanted to share with you how I go about it.

    Here is an email I sent to all members of a Makeup Portfolio shoot for a pro makeup artist just to give you an idea of how I 'prep' other team members if I have never met them before the shoot. For info, there was more than one model:

    Start email
    Hello everybody... pleased to ‘meet’ you all. I don’t think I have worked with any of you before (except the lovely xx), so this is a little of what to expect from me as your photographer:

    - Everything you might have learnt about how to model, or how you should model.... well, throw it out the window. Come to the session prepared and excited to try new things, to stretch your horizons, to challenge your skills.

    - I believe in filling an image with emotion – as much emotion as you can give me. I’m not talking about screaming and yelling kind of emotions (but they are cool too), but the kind of inner emotion that is deep within each of you... the kind that shines out through your eyes and your facial and body expression. The kind that proudly projects to the world, “Here I am, a woman who is proud, strong, dignified, sensual, confident in who I am and loving whatever I am wearing and portraying”.

    - I want your eyes, face and body to reveal your personalities and who you are. I do not want plastic dolls with makeup on.... blank looks, characterless masks... no emotion. I can buy that from the mannequin store. There is a soul within your beautiful exteriors... show it.

    - You need to get as much rest and sleep as you can before the session. As I have mention above, your eyes and face tell the viewer everything... so, if you are tired, your eyes will be tired (no matter how much makeup or post work is applied). Tiredness is a fact of life, unfortunately. What I am trying to ask of you is to arrive at the session as rested as you can possibly be.

    - Leave your day-to-day sh*t at the door when you arrive. No negativity, no worries, certainly no “I don’t want to be here” attitude. See this session as a holiday away from the troubles of the world. A chance to relax, have fun and enjoy being creative artists and producing some high quality work for all our folios. Lets help each other show the world what we are each capable of producing.

    - During the session, I expect you to give me your honest thoughts about everything. You are part of a creative team and I expect creative teams to chip in with their respective thoughts. So, if I show you your photo at the back of the camera and you do not like something about it.... tell us! We, as a team, will talk about it, discuss it, brainstorm it and fix it so that the next photo we take is that much better. At the end of the day, we are there to create great imagery for all our folios... we have to be honest with each other during the session to achieve this goal... otherwise it would have been a waste of our time. I’m sure you have been on shoots where this was the case.

    - I am a firm believer of the mantra “Less is more”. I do not believe in giving you 10 photos of the same look. To me, that is a waste of time for me (to process all 10 photos) and an overkill for you. At the end of the day, you are not going to put those 10 photos in your folio... you only need the one killer photo out of those 10. A few days after the session, I will send you a proof sheet of the unedited photos and you each choose one or two images from each look for me to then fully process for you. You will get the hi res photo as soon as I have processed it – which unfortunately because of my schedule can take many weeks.

    - Anybody have any questions now, just ‘reply all’ to this email and ask me.

    - Having said all this, I’m an easy going guy...

    - I like coffee... but you don’t need to know that... just felt like saying it.


    End email

    Obviously, there was further email exchanges after this, but you get the gist of it.

    The above is for team members I have never met before the shoot. If given the chance, I would ALWAYS choose to meet them before the shoot and talk to them face to face. I would essentially say the same things, but it is always better to say them when you can see (and judge) the other person right in from of you.

    Here are some of the results from the above makeup gig (you might have seen these before):

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    So, you want to shoot models? You want to do it well? Then don't just be a 'pixel peeper' and a 'equipment junkie'.

    Mindset, baby.... and sheer hard work.

    Model photography is not easy to do well. It takes a lot of effort and responsibility on your part to ensure you get the result you AND the model wants (if no money is changing hands).

    Many of you will think my methods waaaaay over the top and possibly silly. Hey, that is totally cool. I respect that. But, these are techniques and approaches that have worked for me. Maybe a few of them will work for you too...

    Now, go have some fun!

    Last edited by emPhoto; 17-03-2012, 09:38 PM.

  • #2
    LO L: did you have nothing to do over the weekend

    I will have to come back to this later with a fresh mind.
    Cheers for now, IanB.
    Photos by Ian Browne on Facebook


    • #3
      Great writeup em. Very informative...wish in had read it a couple of weeks back before the Melbourne portrait meet up



      • #4
        Cheers for the write up Em. As someone who would like to venture into model/glamour photography, this is a nice insight.


        • #5


          • #6
            This was awesome - thanks!
            Life is short, smile while you still have teeth .....


            • #7
              You are all most welcome.

              ps... how the hell did I miss the responses to this thread?