Whether the portrait subject is a celebrity who’s sick and tired of talking about themselves or a quiet student who simply doesn’t want to talk, it’s the photographer’s responsibility to forge a connection with the subject, put them at ease and maybe just for a moment to take their mind off of the task at hand. If you can make a subject comfortable enough, you’re going to make a better portrait.
Make Small Talk. It may seem incidental, but the ability to chat, or even entertain with patter, while you’re setting up your camera and testing your lights is extremely important. It’s at this time that the subject will start getting nervous if they’re able to just focus on the fact that they’re about to get their picture made. But if they’re busy thinking about something else—what they’re doing this weekend, what movie they watched last night—they’re likely to look more relaxed and end up happier with their portrait in the end.
Tell A Joke. It may sound corny, but that’s okay. You don’t have to tell a long, elaborate, thought-provoking joke. But if you have something corny that’s likely to make most folks smile—maybe even because they think the joke is so terrible—you darn sure better employ it. I’ve been telling the same cheesy, inoffensive joke for nearly 20 years. And it works every single time. Even if you don’t want to tell one-liners, the ability to spin an amusing anecdote will work wonders for your portrait session. It will put the subject at ease, get their mind off the task at hand and maybe even make them smile.
Bring A Helper. If you’re not naturally outgoing, I have good news: Take enough portraits and you’re going to learn to be, because you’re going to have to be. But until then, come up with a stopgap measure (otherwise known as “fake it ’til you make it”) by bringing along someone with a little more personality to help put the subject at ease. This could be an assistant of yours or a helper who’s a natural conversationalist, or it could be someone the subject brought with them. You can let this other person do the heavy lifting of the small talk, get your shot, and study how they do it so that eventually you, too, can speak comfortably with your subjects.
Prepare Beforehand. Instead of grilling a subject as I often do—Where are you from? Where do you live? Where’d you go to high school?—you can try to do a little homework and learn about them before they arrive. Granted, this is much easier if you’re shooting celebrities or notable corporate clients, but it works in all sorts of situations. Ask mutual friends for insights on the subject. Or simply learn as much as you can about the subject by reading up on their social media profiles. This way, you won’t have to interrogate a skeptical subject, but at the same time you can find common ground and something to discuss. I did this recently when I photographed the CEO of a large corporation. I Googled him ahead of time, and when the time was right, I asked about his love for snow skiing. It broke the ice and gave us something to talk about. In the end, not only did the shoot go well, but he also was happy I had taken the time to learn about him. Hopefully, that will make him more likely to call me in again next year!
Develop Patter. Magicians use patter. While you’re talking about one thing, they’re paying attention to what you’re saying rather than what your hands are doing with that other thing. This same technique works in photography. If you’re working from a sort of script you’ve developed after repeating your patter enough, you’ll find what works and what doesn’t and what to go to in most cases to start putting the subject at ease, even if you return to the same old patter that works each time. What’s the problem? It’s working every time! Don’t hesitate to write down cues to your favorite lines of questioning or discussion. Refer to them, as needed.