2019_04_05 Engaging with Portrait Subjects

Three months into the refocusing of my work towards portraiture and it’s been a thrill a minute plane ride. I’ve completed 17 shoot days (January was slow trying as I got up to speed) and had 44 people volunteer to step in front of my camera. I’ve had new models, experienced models, local business owners, friends and actors in. The quickest portrait session was less than 45minutes and the longest close to 3hours. So what have I learned? Is there a best way to get the most out of people? What’s the magic formula to a good portrait?


Well, my starting point is that I treat everyone the same. Be it a cleaning lady, a general, a CEO or a barman. In my opinion, everyone deserves equal respect. However I know, especially amongst senior ranks and staff, that not all people expect the same treatment. While hindsight is perfect in educating how best to treat a subject, my worst experiences have been when I have acted contrary to my instincts, listened to ‘advice’ and essentially pandered to people’s egos. A notable shoot included the phrase, ‘Don’t say no to this person.’ As such the photography requests that day were impossible to achieve and the photography poor, for which I copped the blame, not the impossible requests. I should have trusted my instincts and said, ‘No’. Today I believe I am hired as a subject matter expert and that my opinion is valid. I will do my best to achieve your vision, but I will be honest with you. As a former boss used to say, ‘I won’t stab you in the back. I reserve the right to stab you in the chest.’


More confidence in front of the camera over the course of the shoot

My experience this year has shown me that the pose, facial expression and ultimately how the image comes out originates from the subject. While I do my best to draw out personality to influence a portrait, the end result comes down to how much the subject wants the image, how honest they are with themselves and what they want to project. Also what someone is thinking makes a tremendous impact on a shot and people often carry the issues from their lives over into a photograph, both positive and negative. Recent examples of this include the following;


Friend A: who admitted at the start of the session they were a trained clown. As such the images, at least to me, reminded me of a clown. They then began to talk about their recent purchase of an expensive computer tablet which they didn’t like. The result? A crying clown.


Friend B: who had recently started running as a means of keeping fit. When they saw the shots they said they looked like they wanted to cry. That’s how much they hated running.


Local Business C: looked sad when asked to think about someone they cared about. They looked much happier when thinking about their cat.


Actor/ Dancer D: looked stressed throughout the shoot and admitted they thought they were a sad person with a sad life. When asked why they were looking angry and what they were thinking said, ‘I’m thinking I’m a Game of Thrones character about to go into combat.’

*Hindsight being 20/20 I should have kept these ‘sad’ images I have detailed. Unfortunately they were deleted.


Of the tricks I have read which have worked for other people, few have worked for me. Close your eyes and think about something you’re passionate about? I’ve found that only works if that passion is something truly important to them; such as the model thinking of driving their dream car down the no speed limit German Autobahn, or scoring that match winning goal in overtime. If there’s a different priority occurring in their lives, that will take over.


Thinking about driving down the German Autobahn

The best results have, perhaps unsurprisingly, come from the people who are either most comfortable in front of the camera, such as the actor turned dancer turned model, or the subjects I’ve spent the most time with. I always start a session with a cup of coffee or tea, which allows me time to build a rapport and note facial expressions and structure such as eyes, hair, nose etc… It also gives me breathing space to assess how comfortable a subject is. If someone is clearly ill at ease, I keep the session short. While stress, and potentially, surprise can make for an interesting shot, those images are often unflattering. As such I see little benefit in keeping someone under obvious discomfort in front of the camera. I’ve found in the instances where subjects can afford the time, the shots show improvement the longer a session continues as the trust grows between the subject and myself. Of course there is the argument that the longer a session is, the more shots are taken, the higher the chances of a ‘winner’.  I’ve found the longer a shoot goes, the more willing subjects are to be open and honest in front of the camera and with me.


I appreciate you can’t spend this level of time with everyone and sometimes you may only have a very time frame to take someone’s portrait. However as I develop my style, both interacting with people and in regards to my photography, speed is something I’ve tried my best to move away from. I’ve consciously made an effort to slow down my shoot rate and be more deliberate with my lighting, my composition and engagement with a subject as I’ve found it hard to truly show a personality when you’ve got such limited time. And rightly or wrongly, I do expect more from an actor or model than from a layperson. I expect someone with more experience in front of the camera to be more comfortable in front of it and to be able to bring more expression and variety to a shoot. Generally speaking, a layperson requires more direction, not only in their pose, but also in their facial expressions. In the odd case I’ve had honest discussions about why people don’t like having their photograph taken and why they’re nervous in front of a camera, in order to help break down their fears.

Increased trust with the photographer as the shoot progressed


Which brings me to;


Portrait E: who arrived late and flustered due to a financial issue. Normally a positive soul, they chose not to hide from their anger, rather they embraced it and insisted I took a shot of them looking annoyed.


Embracing the inner Hulk


To conclude, time and the confidence and rapport that brings is key. However there is no magic bullet and there is no one size fits all. We’re all individuals and every interaction we have is unique. It’s up to me, as a photographer, to keep trying my best to make my subjects feel at ease and get the most out of them, but I recognise I can’t win every situation. There will be instances where something will overpower all the positivity and energy I try and conjure and other times when a subject isn’t willing or able to open up in front of a camera. It’s a learning experience as I refine the direction and advice I give to portrait subjects; not bad for someone who was tongue tied at the start of their career and wouldn’t say boo to a ghost.



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