Creating a remarkable portrait remains one of the most satisfying goals of any photographer. To see the faces of your clients glow when you show them the results of your efforts, to know your photographs are adorning the walls of their homes and will remain as family heirlooms for generations to come is the highest compliment anyone can pay to you as a photographic artist. How to make your efforts stand the test of time is the real trick when approaching your subjects. The real question is how to consistently get to that high level of achievement: what goes into making the one image your clients will cherish?
Photographers often fall into the trap of thinking they have to be technical experts, and while it is true you need to have command of your craft, technique is the least important part of making great photographs, especially when it comes to photographing people. So if not technique, then what?
It works for doctors and it can work for you. When someone visits a doctor, they’re looking for answers and the years of preparation and schooling are never readily apparent when you walk into a doctor’s office. The same is true of you as a photographer. Your clients never see the hard work it took for you to arrive at the moment, they never see all the preparation and dedication. All they get to see is the final result. And the final result depends entirely on your “bedside manner.”
Most photographers assume the portrait session begins when the client is in front of the camera. In reality, the session actually begins the day they walk in the door or the moment you pick up the phone and say hello to them. The vast majority of people have no idea how to behave in front of a camera short of putting their arm around them and mugging for the camera. It happens in a moment and it’s over quickly, disposable and not taken very seriously. When they come to you for a photograph, the intention takes it to a higher level, a much more serious level, and it is there where your client needs your expertise and experience to guide them through the process so they can be comfortable every step along the way. In some respects, the making of the picture is the least important part of the process, because when they come to you, a dialogue begins at the first hello that will determine whether you get to push the shutter or someone else does.
The only way to get to know someone is by asking questions. While they are answering the question, you not only get to hear the answer, but you also get to see how they respond physically: how they sit, how they turn their head, use their hands and the observations you make prior to the actual portrait session will go a long way to making them comfortable and giving you the insights you need to make a truly memorable photograph. The object of your interaction with your client is to make them so comfortable the photo session becomes nothing more than the continuation of a relationship that began a day, a week, or even a month earlier, and in fact the making of the pictures themselves is almost an afterthought, because the dialogue you started never really ends.
It may take fifteen minutes, it may take an hour. The time frame is seldom important. What is important is that you continue the dialogue while you move them around looking for the right arrangement. In one respect, a portrait is a still life with a moving object. This is especially true when there is more than one person involved in the photo. Having a number of chairs or boxes of different heights is always good to have on hand. If you’re photographing one person at a time, a stool or a swivel chair will allow for a great deal of movement and having the arm of a chair or a posing table will give them something to lean on or hold onto. Moving people around initially will distract them enough so they essentially forget they’re being photographed. The distraction of movement will keep your subject active enough so that the “dance” you do together becomes part of the process. Eventually, you’ll all settle into the right and comfortable place, keeping in mind that it is the dialogue taking place that will yield the most superior results.
One last thing to consider: by sitting in front of your camera, your clients are taking a considerable risk. They are trusting you and their end of the bargain is they are taking a chance to exposing some part of their heart and soul to you, no matter how insignificant it may seem to you. You do this so often that it no longer has any real novelty, but to your clients, it is a big deal. They are taking a risk to be seen by you and their reflection will go out into the world. In taking a risk with you, you must also take a risk by meeting them where they are emotionally, meaning that you must take a risk to open yourself up to them. Don’t hide behind your camera. As part of your relationship with your clients, you must engage your heart fully to the process of discovery in the short time you have together. Without some level of emotional commitment on either part, the effort will not be as successful. The more you give, the more you get.