The Importance Of Talking With Your Subject :: Digital Photo Secrets

The Importance Of Talking With Your Subject

by David Peterson 2 comments

I’m not one to avoid asking sometimes inappropriate questions. When I was getting my hair cut one day, I thought, why not? I asked the stylist what makes her give someone a bad haircut. I figured people aren’t perfect. Stylists probably mess up on occasion just like everyone else, and I’ve been the recipient of a few of those bad haircuts. I figured if I could get an answer to the question, I might be able to get better haircuts from then on. Her answer kind of surprised me.

She told me she gives people their “worst” haircuts when she’s under the impression that they aren’t comfortable with what she’s doing. Wow. That says a mouthful, and it makes a lot of sense for us photographers who, just like her, have clients that we want to please. From then on, I became way more talkative with the people who cut my hair. I figure by keeping the lines of communication open, they’re more at ease with what they’re doing. Not all silence is awkward, but silence tends to be pretty awkward when you barely know somebody. And guess what? The same holds true when you’re photographing clients or even friends and family. Just keep talking. It makes everyone more at ease.

Shape the Feeling

Aside from making everyone feel more comfortable and natural, you can use your words to shape the feeling of a photograph. When I talk to my subjects, I like to paint a mental picture for them. If they aren’t smiling very strongly, I like to say things to boost their confidence. Even if it’s fake, it doesn’t matter. Merely mentioning someone’s name in conjunction with some kind of success makes them act that way. The pictures are the proof.

A totally un-posed family being themselves.
Nothing fake about this shot at all.

For any number of emotions you want to create, there is something you can say to bring those emotions out. Loneliness, excitement, anger, love, apathy, and the list goes on. When I talk to my subjects, I tell stories involving each of these. And it doesn't have to be true, of course. Movies aren’t “real” either, but someone inevitably leaves the theater in tears.

Subjects To Avoid

It’s just like getting a haircut. If we take the advice of my stylist and use it when photographing our clients, it comes down to this. Don’t give too many instructions or your client will feel like you aren’t comfortable with what’s going on. When you aren’t comfortable, they aren’t comfortable, and thus the downward spiral begins.

I’m not denying how important it is to give your subjects some kind of instruction. It’s just that once it gets a point where you’re positioning their arms and foreheads, you’ve lost any sense of natural emotion and feeling. Ideally, your photography should allow your subjects to reveal who they truly are. You shouldn’t be using it to try and mold your subjects into something you want them to be. There’s a big distinction between the two.

Besides, nobody likes a big bossy person anyway. They get enough of that in their lives. When you’re taking someone’s picture, it’s really their moment. Talk to them like you’d talk to a friend, and try to capture them when they’re least expecting it. That’s when the real emotion comes out.

Fashion photographers would be nowhere without comfortable subjects. Communication is key.

With communication comes comfort. It doesn’t have to be meaningful communication. It just needs to be present. Sometimes I talk about really important stuff with my subjects. Sometimes I talk about some dumb T.V. show I like. In the end, it doesn’t matter. As long as we’re communicating something, I know that when there’s a certain level of comfort, my subjects look their best!

So keep talking to your friends, your family, and your photography clients. It’s the one thing you should be doing more of.

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  1. Dub says:

    This is great advice that so many of us fail to use regularly to our advantage. We incorrectly assume that knowledge of our expertise will put our clients at ease, when too often that rather creates distance rather than promotes intimacy. Remembering to chat can go a long way toward creating a context for people to be themselves. Thanks for reminding me of this.

  2. Cathy says:

    This is great advice, David. Especially the part about too many instructions causing a loss of confidence and a downward spiral!

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