Most people don't like their photograph taken. So if, as a photographer, you've taken an image of someone and they don't like it, is it your fault?
We're funny creatures. So many of us — myself included — don't relish having our photograph taken. We aren't comfortable seeing ourselves depicted for a multitude of reasons, and it's as strange as it is prevalent. When somebody snaps a photo of you as you betray your self-consciousness on a drunken night out and dance fervently, there isn't much debate to be had. But what about when a photographer takes the time to craft a portrait, and then, the subject doesn't like it? Can it be chalked up to taste? Is it just the result of a shy subject? Or should the photographer simply have done better? Well, if neither the photographer nor the subject like the image, that's cut and dry, but when the photographer likes the image and the subject doesn't, things get more complicated.
I have created thousands of portraits, both commercially and recreationally, and it's happened in both. So, what's going on and who is to blame?
The Role of the Subject
There's no getting away from it: the subject has a role to play in this disagreement. But the extent to which they are to blame varies significantly. I have worked with subjects who had such an incredible distaste for their own appearance that they, in essence, wanted a one in a thousand shot that misled the viewer enough to line up with the subject's self-image. They might refer to themselves as perfectionists, but realistically, they've just self-conscious to the point of it being borderline debilitating. It's exceedingly rare that this is the case, but it does happen.
Strangely, there isn't always a correlation between the subject being conventionally attractive or photogenic and this phenomenon occurring less often. I have worked with subjects who are staggeringly attractive — irritatingly so — but their self-consciousness rages stronger than most. One particular model I worked with I once described as "so attractive, it's as if they were designed by hand." However, this model was also a valuable lesson to me, as when we both looked at the same image, we would sometimes see completely different things. Mostly, we were aligned, but on occasion, I would look at an image with glee and share it with the model, only to have the model recoil and point out something I wouldn't have noticed even if I'd written a PhD on the photo. They immediately honed in on an almost imperceptible flaw of their face and could see little else.
This is the lesson I learned: no one is more strongly familiar with their image than the person themselves. As a result, every inconsequential flaw or quirk has been scrutinized and thought about for hours and hours of their life. The more thought that goes in to it, the more of an issue it becomes. I often wonder whether most people (again, myself included) have some degree of body dysmorphia and when they say "my nose is too big" for instance, they actually do see a large nose in photographs of themselves, even if it's perfectly proportionate. These issues are primarily unknowable for the photographer. But we're far from absolved in this matter.
The Role of the Photographer
While photographers might have the express interest of creating a beautiful image of a person, their end goal is weighted differently to that of the subject, whether they're a model or (more likely) not. When we look at images, we see composition, exposure, color theory, bokeh, distractions, form, and innumerable indescribable nuances that give those rare photos "soul" or some other equally fluffy word, whereas the subject's eyes go straight to their own person for a scathing critique. One thing I have learned to do is study the subject (even if just for five seconds) at the start of the shoot. I will do this through the viewfinder while I take a few test shots and decipher what could be emphasized and what could be softened. Please do not tell them this is what you're doing. People don't like it when you start live-reviewing their face.
For example, on an older person, common lighting techniques like butterfly lighting will bring out any lines on their face. That might be intended, but if it isn't, consider adding some up-light to negate those shadows. If a person's nose is large enough that there's a chance they might be aware of it, only shoot portraits where the subject's nose has parts of the face as a background (and never profile.) This list of tips goes on and on and warrants an article in itself, but the salient point is to not treat everyone equally; save that for everything else in life.
I have shot hundreds of headshots on a strict week-long schedule, and I have had just 20 minutes to grab striking portraits of celebrities in less-than-ideal locations. These sorts of scenarios are rife with opportunities to get stuck in your own head and not pay attention to each subject carefully, resulting in an image the subject doesn't like. This can end up siphoning more of your time or worse.
Not everyone will like every portrait you take of them, even if you do. It's unavoidable, and in some cases, you just have to differ on that opinion. But generally speaking, that isn't the best approach. While it isn't always the photographer's fault if a subject doesn't like the portrait you've created for them, it's best if you act as if it is. Do everything you can to accommodate insecurities — we all have them — and draw the line when it's excessive. Finally, if you wholeheartedly believe you've created a strong image, don't take the subject's negative review personally. They aren't calling you a poor photographer; they just see the image differently than you. Instead, if you're having doubts (we're creatives; most of us have doubts as frequently as breakfast), find someone objective that you trust to give constructive criticism and feedback on your work.
What do you think? With the right time and experience, can the photographer always create a portrait the subject will like? Should self-conscious subjects be pandered to? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.