I am a firm believer that the very first minutes of interaction between two people is a breaking point for their collaboration. Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, you have an obligation to create a trustworthy bond, even if both of you are meant to know each other for only a couple of hours. This is especially crucial for portrait photography. The easiest way to start is being polite. A welcoming smile will break the ice and let you make a comfortable zone for both you and your subject.
Drink and Talk
When I have a guest at my studio, I always start with a welcoming smile and a compliment. This instantly puts anyone in a proper mood; Who doesn’t love compliments? But be sure to be short, a “by the way” kind of compliment would work. People work, and you will rarely have someone coming to be photographed right from their home. In addition, this might be a stressful first experiment. Offer them something to drink. I have noticed that the ones who easily agree for tea and coffee are the easiest to work with. People who prefer water have bigger expectations. People who say no to everything are dangerous, usually they don’t like themselves and this should be a red alarm. This is not a rule, but I have come to this conclusion during my experience. The ones who share a cup of something with you will also share a piece of themselves. Even if there is nothing particular to talk about, you can talk about coffee or tea preferences. Any interaction makes individuals closer. The closer you get, the better you both will collaborate. Show true interest in your subject and you will be surprised how much more enthusiastic you will be on set.
I usually have music on in my workplace. This creates an encouraging atmosphere. When someone arrives for a shoot they step into some mood rather than a blank space. I try to have neutral music with clients, however there is a trick which works to your advantage. Prior to a shoot I ask the models to bring any music they love. It can be on a mobile phone. I frequently use this Sony Bluetooth mobile speaker indoors and outdoors, and it creates cool sound all around. I put on their own music to make them even more comfortable. There is a disadvantage in this step, you might not like it, but these are rare cases. In the end you want the model to behave at their best. This simple step can totally save your shoot when you have someone standing in front of camera for the first time. Their kind of music will make them behave natural and relaxed.
Whether it is on location or a studio shoot, make sure your model feels comfortable. I don’t talk of some extravagant shoots where extra weird poses are required, but of everyday shoots we usually do. Our studio might seem so comfortable for us, but for the majority it feels awkward standing there in the middle and makes them vulnerable. A chair can make so much difference, but don’t forget to go a little down on angle while shooting a sitting subject. A stool without back and arms, which swivels and has adjustable height, is a better option. As an option you can also add a posing table in front of them. Usually when there is something to hide behind, people feel more confident. Another tip is to make them lean on the wall.
I am sure you have taken so many great shots only to realize there is something really strange with the hands. People usually don’t know what to do with the hands. Give them something to hold and you will have a sparkle in their eyes and a better image. A professional model will give you a great selection of hand poses, but a regular person will be uncomfortable with their hands. To start, I always ask my models to arrive to the shoot with neat nails, even if the hands are not going to be the main focus of the shoot. They don’t have to be manicured, just clean and moisturized hands. This step will prevent your model from hiding their hands all the time, whether it's because the nail polish is not fresh or there is chopped skin, etc. Removing one insecurity adds one more chance to have a better final photo. It would be great to hand your model an object which relates to them, but a regular cup of coffee or a fruit will also work. A Rubik's Cube is an excellent choice as well and I use it all the time. It is something everyone tries to solve or at least rotate, so they forget about the hands. A book, an old camera, a bag, a stylized accessory, a beloved toy for a toddler shoot — it is and endless list. Experiment!
It's great to have people who feel at ease in front of camera and know how to pose. I truly envy the photographers who have this as a daily routine. In the place I live I have to direct the entire process including the posing almost all the time. This might feel a bit confusing, but a little introduction at the beginning will make the process go smooth. Not everyone knows how we get our final photos, the way we set the lighting according to styling and desired mood, or how we adjust it and post-process. For a person standing there in the studio, all this might seem endless, and it is nice to keep them busy while you arrange all. If possible I set the lighting in advance. But we are not talking about a professional model shoot with a big team where you can have someone to set it all and only afterwards call the model on set. I patiently describe the process to every single client of mine. This not only makes them more engaged but also creates trust. The more they know of the process, the more they are at ease and the better images you will get. It is very beneficial to describe to them why you want them to pose certain ways or look to a certain direction. They will start to cooperate with you and the feeling of having that knowledge will motivate them to do their best. They hire you for what you do, so make them do what you want, but in a delicate way. Interaction is everything.
These are just a few steps I use in my everyday workflow. They make life easier, and the work more enjoyable. All people are different and everyone interacts in different levels, use the time given thoughtfully and create the strongest bond you can to produce the strongest photos. Fall in love with your subject for a day!