Sometimes the most difficult challenges facing novice photographers are related not to matters of cameras and lighting but rather the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills required to produce great photographs. Namely, new photographers aren’t typically confident in their skills, becoming increasingly uncomfortable when it comes to photographing other people. Perhaps not surprisingly, these skills are essential in order to excel, particularly in those photographic pursuits that involve interaction with other humans. To that end, we present three techniques to help photographers build confidence in their own abilities and to achieve a level of comfort when working with others.
Lacking Confidence? Try Photographing Strangers On The Street
Under normal circumstances, the simplest and most effective way to build confidence as a photographer involves heading out onto a crowded public street and photographing strangers. But given all the pandemic-related precautions impacting every city in the western world, approaching strangers on the street is not as practical as it used to be.
In lieu of camping out on a crowded Manhattan corner amid teeming throngs of bodies, instead try a safer, more socially distanced approach. Rather than a crowded place, take your camera to a wide-open area where you’re likely to encounter people at a slower pace. A public park, for instance, should offer an opportunity to photograph people without surrounding yourself with them and their germs.
Think of the camera as an entrée to discussion: “Excuse me, do you mind if I take your picture?” If they say no, you simply say, “Okay, thank you anyway” and walk away. If they say “What for?” you can reply with something along the lines of, “I’m studying photography and practicing making portraits of strangers.” You don’t have to lie, or worry, or fret too much at all. The worst thing that can happen is they say no and you smile and walk away. If they say yes, you practice your portraiture along with the interaction, building those skills and confidence as well. It really is the kind of thing that gets easier with practice, and after a few successes—or even failures—you’ll feel it get easier while your confidence begins to grow. Even if the people you approach say no, it’s still a win. You’re gaining experience even in the act of approaching another person and interacting with them.
One caveat for the above is safety. Not only is it essential in a COVID world to preserve social distancing and other best practices to prevent the spread of the insidious virus, safety is also a consideration any time we’re interacting with people we don’t know. Don’t put your personal safety at risk. Working alone on late nights in dark alleys is probably not the ideal time and place to go looking for human interaction. Instead, stick to public parks and places where the public offers some semblance of protection, and do it during daylight hours.
In general, this practice works because like so many things it gets easier the more you do it. It’s like building a muscle by lifting weights, but in this case, the muscle is confidence and the exercise is pointing a camera at strangers.
Nervous You’ll Make A Scene? Relax. Your Camera Has A Superpower
Did you ever notice a professional photographer at a wedding, sporting event or concert? Did you give that photographer more than a glance and a moment’s thought? Chances are good that even if you noticed one of these pros putting themselves front and center to capture the action, you probably didn’t give them a second thought. Yet the first time you walk to the front of the church, or along the goal line, or at the foot of a stage, you feel like everyone in the audience is focused on you.
The reality is, people may wonder for a split second what that person is doing, but once they realize it’s a photographer, their attention is back on the main event. This is because the camera has a superpower: it makes you all but invisible.
This hesitation—the desire not to make a scene—it comes from a very good place, but it causes outsize problems for photographers. Because getting close to where the action is happening is key to making great photographs. So, if you resist stepping up for fear of drawing attention to yourself, you’re going to miss out on a lot of great shots.
To practice this technique, start thinking of the camera for its superpower of making you invisible. Make trial runs by stepping up to make a quick photograph in places that might draw looks. Then start taking your time to pay attention to the fact that nobody is likely giving you a second look. Your camera’s superpower can be used to your benefit.
Worried Your Subjects Are Worried? Success Starts With Confidence In Yourself!
As is so often the case in life, it’s imperative that you act like you know what you’re doing as a photographer. Better still, show others that you really do know what you’re doing by taking charge of your photoshoot. When I was a brand-new commercial photographer, a client once hired me to take some PR photos of a group of five people at a check presentation. This kind of shot isn’t going to win any awards nor appear in my portfolio, but it’s very commercially useful and it’s the kind of thing photographers get as a regular request.
I was photographing a small group of people outdoors on a warm, sunny day and I knew, even as a young photographer, that I should stand the group with their backs to the sun in order to prevent them from squinting. I’d then add an off-camera flash as the key light to fill their faces with beautiful illumination. My client, though, assumed the folks in the picture should face the sun. After all, for decades we’ve been taught to photograph with the sun at our backs to illuminate the subject. And here’s where I messed up. If I’d had more confidence in explaining that I knew what I was doing, my client would have been pleased and my day would have gone well. But instead, I just shrugged and said, “Okay,” thinking something along the lines of “It’s your nickel.” I’ll stand the people wherever she wants and she’ll think I’m a team player. But instead of finding me flexible and helpful, however, my client secretly called my boss to inquire if this young photographer had any idea what he was doing. This led to a lack of repeat business.
Instead of caving, I should have stood my ground and explained my plans calmly and clearly: “Actually, this will look great. This way, they won’t squint and I’m using a flash to light their faces.” Had I done so, my client likely would have agreed, then seen the great work I produced and said, sure enough, this photographer knows his stuff. But instead, I didn’t have the confidence to stand behind the technique and composition I knew to be right. I never heard from that client again.
So the next time you have an opportunity to convince someone you know what you’re doing—whether that’s a paying client or a concerned family member—don’t be shy about letting them know you’ve got it covered. Your confidence will grow, and so will their confidence in you and your abilities.