I remember, way back when I first started trying my hand at portrait photography, the cold realization that I didn't really know how to direct a shoot. I wasn't horrible at it, but I lacked confidence due to a lack of experience and I made a mental note to work on it. It's now years later and I'm still working on it and I will keep working on it until I stop picking up a camera. If you haven't already, you will quickly realize that how you act during a shoot is of the same importance as your technical ability.
In 2013 I wrote an article called "Don't Forget the Model" and my opening paragraph is poignant here:
So you’ve dreamed up an elaborate photoshoot and you’re practically vibrating at the thought of the final product. Now, there’s a lot of advice about forgetting things when you’re out photographing. Don’t forget to charge your batteries and have back ups — we’ve all done that. Don’t forget to free up space on your memory card and don’t forget to put your memory card in the camera again — I have definitely done that. Don’t forget about composition or lighting by obsessing about the other. Oh, and don’t forget the model. To clarify, I don’t mean don’t forget to collect him or her; if that’s a concern of yours I advise you seek medical attention. I mean more in the ‘don’t forget your composition’ capacity. Us photographers are invariably an excitable bunch and important elements of a shoot like putting the model at ease and ensuring they enjoy the shoot can fall by the wayside.
There were a number of factors that led me to writing that article. The first was a blog post from model Jen Brook where she discussed off-putting traits of photographers. The second was a shoot in which my favorite image to come out of it was after we'd finished and were messing around with ideas (something that I now make a point of doing). The third was in the same vein as the first and in the form of the video below:
Three years later the notion of building rapport returned to me. I shoot with people far more frequently; from experienced models to camera shy couples. I picked up a number of techniques that work for me, but in the interest of the maximum amount of information I wanted to include another video. The below video by SLR Lounge not only prompted me to write this updated version of my article, but also reminded me the importance of this topic in general.
It is worth noting that this particular advice video is geared towards wedding and engagement photography and aren't applicable elsewhere uniformly. That said, the advice is useful and there are three tips I particularly endorse. The first is using positive words to describe changes. As a portrait photographer you can become so used to seeing simple posing mistakes that you aren't bothered by them happening; you can just have them adjust. The problem can lie in how familiar you are with the problem and how that affects the way in which you articulate the change needed. For someone shy in front of the camera, being told by a professional that they're doing something wrong can shatter any confidence they did have. Instead, point out what you do like and explain what might improve the image and why. The "why" is the second piece of advice I would like to echo.
Educating your subject may not always be a wise choice, particularly if you're working with an experienced model. However, if you're working with a subject or subjects who aren't au fait with every facet of portraiture, explain what you're doing and why. For my headshots I always use a technique called turtling to bring out the subject's jaw line and to push their shoulders slightly further out of focus. If you've never tried it yourself, it feels weird and uncomfortable but the camera doesn't show that. I started explaining to my subjects why I ask them to do this and what purpose it serves and it certainly develops more trust than merely asking them to do something that is frankly rather odd.
The third piece of advice I live by across every area of my photography is the over-delivering point in the video. I make sure that every promise I make is achievable, whether it be a timeframe, a style, or a certain number of images, but I make the decision with the goal to over-deliver in terms of results. That is, I aim to turn the images around quicker, deliver more images than I said I would, or generally work harder than the client expects. Too many people in every business sector will promise the earth and fail to deliver and if you make decent promises and then exceed them, you'll be remembered.
Finally, I'd like to give five more tips that I have picked up from personal on-shoot experiences. They may not work for everyone, but they've certainly made me more effective. I've read a lot on body language, influencing, and NLP, and have done my best to utilize the techniques for reasons a little off-track for the purpose in which they are intended.
- Ask questions: This is simply a well known tip for connecting with another human being, but it's worth noting that even outside of the dating world it has value. If you get your subjects to talk to you and to open up about their lives they are going to: (a) forget — even if only very partially — that they have a camera in their face, and (b) feel less on the spot and under pressure and thus more relaxed.
- Do the most awkward shot first: This is something I tried once on a couple shoot and now I stick to it. When shooting a couple (for instance) for the first time, you will often be somewhere public and they will often be a little shy about that. I always thought that easing them in to the shoot would work and it does to an extent, but a slightly riskier but often more effective alternative is to make them do the most embarrassing pose first. They'll laugh, they'll be shy, and they may not get it right, but everything after that will feel easier and you can always return to this concept later.
- Reference images: This is a staple of pretty much every shoot but it seems to be less popular with wedding and couple shoots. I like to keep a range of images of poses and styles on my phone and if we're stuck for ideas or they are completely new to being photographed I can refer to them and even laugh a little about the more bizarre ones. Speaking of which...
- Humor: This is tough advice and I realize that. If you can be lighthearted, perhaps a little self-deprecating and are able to employ some humor, it will do wonders to relax the subject. Sometimes — although I offer this advice with a big caution sign attached — I even mock the couple playfully. Nothing insulting (!) but rather just letting them know that staring lovingly in to each other's eyes in the middle of a freezing cold forest with dog walkers watching you isn't an ideal Sunday morning (for most people!). The couple laughing can also make even the most awkward poses into great photos.
- Be confident: I'm sorry, this is a too close to a life coach's advice (*shudder*) for my liking, but it's important. No matter what job somebody is doing for you, whether it's a surgeon or a painter and decorator, if that person is confident in their abilities without being arrogant, you trust them more.
Share your tips in the comments for building rapport with your subjects. You never know how much of a positive impact it could have on a fellow photographer.