When I talk to photography students about the things they’d like to learn in a portrait class, a large percentage of them are primarily interested in learning how to interact with the people they’re photographing. Eventually, after years of working with strangers during portrait sessions, this process won’t seem difficult or stressful. But until that comfort level is reached, it’s one of the biggest challenges of portrait photography. How do you put portrait subjects at ease? And equally as important, how do you get comfortable with the portrait process yourself?
Preparation And Confidence
The first thing you need for a portrait session is confidence. But how do you get confidence when you haven’t done it before? It’s a catch-22, so you’ll have to work to overcome the initial difficulty.
As the photographer, it’s your responsibility to lead the subject through the shoot. If they’re going to have any chance of relaxing and looking good, they’re going to need to believe they’re in good hands and being photographed by someone who really knows what she’s doing. That’s why confidence is one of the most important tools a photographer can have.
But what if you don’t feel especially confident in your photography skills? What if you don’t really feel like you know what you’re doing? In that case, you’ve got to fake it until you make it. It’s okay to be nervous, you just don’t really want to act like you’re nervous. This is where the importance of preparation comes in.
In order to feel more relaxed and confident, you’ll want to have as much of your photo shoot ready prior to the time your subject arrives on set. If that means getting there an hour early to set up, do that. Choose the ideal framing and set up the camera and lighting, getting everything as dialed in as possible so that when the subject arrives you can calmly focus the majority of your attention on them rather than panicking to finish setting up while they’re waiting. Not only does this give you less to worry about while you’re interacting with the subject, but it actually can boost your confidence. If you know what lens you’ll be using, what exposure, what framing and where the subject will be, you’ll naturally feel like you’ve got things under control—because you do! Start by being well prepared and you’ll boost your confidence. Then, keep doing this at shoot after shoot and that feeling of confidence will quickly grow.
Ways To Put Portrait Subjects At Ease
Most people are nervous, even just a bit, to have their portrait made. I find that starting with a natural compliment helps to put people at ease and reassure them that their efforts to prepare for this picture have really paid off. Things like “I love your hair!” or “You look great” are easy to say, and in many cases, your subject will provide a natural opportunity to say them. If they’re at all concerned about a new hairstyle, for instance, or the color of their jacket, they’ll mention it. This offers the perfect opportunity to provide a simple, natural compliment to help give them the confidence to succeed. Because after all, you aren’t going to make this portrait succeed on your own. You’re going to need their help.
The compliment is a good place to start, but from there I believe that a natural conversation does more to put a subject at ease than practically anything else I can do as a photographer. I’m naturally inquisitive and enjoy meeting and talking to new people. If that’s you too, great! You’re halfway there. But if that doesn’t come naturally, you’ll want to work on your conversational skills and ability to make small talk. This has the dual effect of taking your subject’s mind off of whatever may be making them nervous and it also allows you to form a connection—even a fleeting one—with the person you’re going to be working with.
A subject sitting in silence tends to get nervous and look less relaxed on camera—both physically and in their expression. The vast majority of people respond well to small talk: what plans do you have for the upcoming holiday, for instance, or tell me about your job. What brought you to this town, perhaps, or are you binge-watching any great shows on TV? The art of small talk is really essential for portrait photography, and it doesn’t take much to get good. It starts with an honest and sincere interest in the lives of the people you’re meeting.
For photographers to whom this doesn’t come naturally, practice by striking up small conversations with the people you interact with in your daily life. Ask the grocery store clerk how her shift is going or ask the Uber driver about his day. Asking is actually essential for starting a conversation. Not only are you then getting the other person talking—and their mind off their nerves about being photographed—but you also are learning a valuable interpersonal skill. People like other people who are interested in them.
Every once in a while you might find someone who just doesn’t want to talk. These folks may be having a bad day or maybe they’re just painfully shy. They’re few and far between, but I do encounter them. In these cases, the onus is on the photographer to do the talking in hopes that you’ll eventually trigger something of interest that makes them want to join in. I also find that I work faster when the subject provides one-word answers to my questions. It’s natural, after all, so don’t be surprised if you feel the same way. Some people just don’t want to talk, so you’ve got to get on with it. It’s not you, it’s them.
Take It To The Next Level
Once you’ve got the basics covered, you can proceed beyond the same old line of questioning—“Where are you from? What do you do? Do you have kids?”—and get into the types of conversations that actually have a bit of meaning. This isn’t necessary for the average portrait situation, of course, but I’ve found from interviewing world-class photographers for many years that the best portrait photographers really work to get beneath the surface that everyone naturally projects to the world. In this way, they’re able to really understand something specific about their subjects and more accurately represent them in pictures. For that, you’ve got to take your conversation up from meaningless chitchat to something a bit more engaging.
Admittedly, your subjects might find you a bit strange if you ask them, “Who’s your favorite superhero and why?” But when you find those who are open and interested, you’d be amazed at the fun and interesting places such a conversation can lead. Importantly, this often translates directly to a posture and expression of comfort, confidence and fun that shows in the pictures, so you’re doing your subject a service when you make them smile or laugh sincerely. But you can also forge a slightly more meaningful connection this way too. Questions like, “What’s the best thing that’s happened to you this year?” can really open up an opportunity to discuss what’s really important to them, what makes them tick. This isn’t chitchat 101; this is a master class in connecting.
So, once you’ve found yourself comfortable enough with small talk, consider investing in the training to take that conversation to the next level. The Toastmasters organization is a worldwide group that helps build confidence and skill with public speaking, but that also translates directly to many one-on-one interactions. Or, consider reading experts on the topic of interpersonal communications, such as Dale Carnegie’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” This and many other great books can truly make a lasting impact on how and why we interact with the many people we encounter as portrait photographers.