Photography can be a sort of introvert’s hobby. It’s just so easy to hide behind that giant DSLR, isn't it? And what could be more soul-searching than traveling the wilderness with your camera in hand, taking photos of wild places and enjoying the solitude?
How about taking photos of people? I know, it’s not the same thing. At all. There’s not really anything soul-searching about photographing a person who would clearly rather be doing just about anything except having his photo taken.
Portrait photography is often the domain of the extrovert - but would you believe me if I said that it doesn't have to be? While there is definitely some skill involved in getting your subjects to relax in front of the camera, and while there are definitely some people who were born with a knack for it, it can be a learned skill. All it really takes is a couple of tried and true techniques, and some practice.
If you’re still thinking you’d rather wander the wilderness alone, you probably don’t have any of those tried and true techniques at the ready, so I’m going to give you a list of some things to try. Some of them will work for you, and some won’t. Choose the ones that are a fit for your personality—no need to try them all. You just need a good handful of techniques that work.
Talk to Them
OK, this is easier said than done. Small talk is something not everyone is good at, and small talk is not even the best way to get your subjects to relax. No one relaxes just because a person started talking about the weather. To get your subject to relax, you really need to skip the small talk and go straight to the sort of things that you typically talk about with your friends. In other words, you can’t be a stranger to your subject, because most people are naturally wary in the presence of strangers.
So what should you do? First of all, don’t wait until you’ve got your camera out to start getting to know the person you’re taking photographs of. Do that before you start shooting. Have a cup of coffee with her and be a good listener. It’s OK to ask basic questions like, “What do you do for a living?” But make sure you follow up with some questions that make it obvious that you really care about the answer. For example, if your subject tells you she works as a lifeguard, you can respond with an enthusiastic, “Wow, what’s that like?” And then follow up with some specifics—“How often do you have to go in the water after someone?” “Do you have any good stories about that?”
Once you’ve established a connection with that person, it’s time to take some photos. But don’t end the conversation just because you’ve replaced that cup of coffee with your camera. You need to keep talking—nothing can be more disconcerting than trying to act natural in front of a silent and morose human being with a camera. Keep your subject engaged during the shoot, too.
Once your camera is out, humor is one of the best ways to make your subject relax. It’s almost impossible not to like someone who’s funny, and when you like someone you don’t tend to feel tense or awkward in his presence. I do know that humor can be a tall order, especially if you’re pretty introverted. But it’s OK to have a go-to list of funny things to say and do, especially if you’re going to be photographing different people all the time (this works less well with your friends and family, who are going to roll their eyes because you just told that same joke again.) Remember to use different tacks for different subjects—kids are easier because all you really need to do is say “poop” or some variation thereof, and they’re cracking up. Asking any subject to make funny faces or to make the most-serious-face-ever is another tactic that can work well (remember what you’re going for is the moment after the funny face or ultra-serious face, because that’s when the genuine smile will happen).
When all else fails, self-deprecating humor can be priceless. A person who can make fun of himself is almost immediately completely non-threatening, and therefore really easy to relax around. Have a few good jokes to use against yourself, too. If it’s taking you a few extra moments to adjust your settings, for example, you could say something like, “Sorry, as it turns out you have to actually be smarter than the camera.”
Don’t expect too much, too soon
Everyone has to warm up before they can do anything well, whether you’re a musician, a photographer, or a photographer’s subject. Never schedule a 15 minute photo shoot because it’s probably going to take your subject at least 15 minutes just to finally start to feel comfortable in front of the camera. If you can just accept that that first 10 or 15 minutes is not going to be very productive, then you’ll actually be relaxed through most of it—which is something that will rub off on your subject. Instead of expecting that you’ll get good photos in the early part of a session, expect that you will establish some groundwork for the good photos that will come later. Have your subject try on some poses, and keep asking him questions and getting him to open up. Think of the time as warm-up exercises. If you do it right, your subject may not even realize that he’s crossed that line between feeling awkward and tense and being in that magical place where the photos come easily.
Flatter, flatter, flatter … but don’t be fake
Everyone loves to be flattered, but no one loves to be fake-flattered. Look at it this way—your goal is to get the best possible photo of your subject, whether your subject is a 19-year-old college student or a 91-year-old woman. So find the most sincere way to compliment your subject and don’t be afraid to say it out loud. Chances are, it’s the quality you’re going to be focusing on in your photo anyway, so you won’t have to fake-flatter. For example, that 91-year-old woman is going to know you’re full of it if you tell her she looks like a 22-year-old. But if you tell her that her hat makes her look elegant, she’s probably going to react positively to that. And if you get a great shot, say so. Make sure your subjects know that what they’re doing is successful—if you’re giving them positive feedback, they’re going to react by doing more of the things that prompted the feedback. You can even break for a moment or two to show them some of the best shots on your LCD.
Back up a little
You’ve probably heard that the best focal lengths to use for photographing the human face are somewhere in the 50 to 100mm range. It’s OK to stretch that a little, if you have to. Sometimes the only thing left that’s causing the tension to persist is that lens on your DSLR, which is just way too close to your subject. It’s really hard to relax when there’s a camera very close to you, so don’t be afraid to hang back a little and shoot with some zoom. Remember that longer focal lengths do create some distortion in the face (your subjects’ faces may look a little wider and flatter), but the difference isn’t going to be stark until you get to very long focal lengths. If you have to use a little extra zoom in order to get your subject to relax, that’s a perfectly reasonable compromise. You can always move in closer again as the session continues, once your subject becomes less wary of the camera.
JULIO by Flickr user olympicoandres
Where to start
First, find your subjects among your friends and family. They know you, so photographing them isn’t going to be anywhere near as awkward as it would be for you to photograph strangers or acquaintances. You need practice doing this stuff, so for those first sessions make sure you tell your familiar subjects that you’re going to behave as if they were completely unfamiliar. You’d be amazed at how easy it is to get kids to go along with this, especially older kids who love to roll-play. Try out the ideas above and of course add some ideas of your own. In fact, you may even want to ask your subjects for ideas and suggestions. Make sure you make note of everything that works and everything that flopped. Remember that some people clash with certain types of humor, so don’t take it personally if you can’t pull off a particular joke or suggestion. Just move on to something else.
Like your knowledge about shutter speed, aperture and ISO, you need to commit these ideas and early experiences to memory, so that they become second nature. And like everything else in life and photography, that takes practice. After you’ve done this enough times with your friends and family, consider inviting people you don’t know very well out for a free photo session. Practice, practice, practice. Getting the hang of this stuff won’t turn an introvert into an extrovert, but it may actually convert you from a wilderness-solitude kind of photographer to a successful portrait photographer.
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