It’s important to remember that in a portrait session you’re photographing a person. At first, learning how to balance the technical and creative processes along with the person you’re photographing can be difficult.
You have to find your rhythm while you communicate not only visually but verbally. This is a technique that may take time and experience to develop. It’s important to learn about the craft technically and creatively so you will not be overwhelmed with the people part of photography. One key element—or really a requirement—is you must like people. If you don’t like people, it would be better for you to become a product or landscape photographer.
I remember a portrait session with a real estate broker. She needed a headshot for her business card. It should have been a simple session with the lighting, posing, and camera angle, right? Wrong. I thought to myself, “I’m in college studying photography and this will be a no brainer.” There’s a difference between being overconfident and being just plain confident. You should be sure of your abilities and talent, but don’t lose sight of the person in front of you. I was so busy focusing on the technical and creative side that I literally forgot to factor in the person. I spoke very little and she just sat tapping her fingers and looking around bored. Her portrait was strong as far as the lighting and pose, but her expression was weak. Why? She had lost interest and you could read it on her face and see it in her eyes. Sometimes we get so wrapped up in everything else we forget the person is the most important part of the portrait session. After all, isn’t this a portrait of them?
If you want to become strong in your portrait skills, communication with the person you are photographing is essential. As your photography skills and knowledge develop, and you start to feel more comfortable in your own skin. You’ll need to learn how to carry on a conversation with your client. They should feel comfortable and relaxed. The easiest way to start a conversation is to ask a question. You need to know what this portrait is for and how it will be used. Ask them about their family, friends, what they like to do, or tell a joke. Humor can be a very useful tool for relaxing people. It’s important to listen to their responses or what they are communicating and feeling. You have to be sensitive to their needs.
Move smoothly throughout the session. In other words, your clients should never be aware you are thinking technically or creatively. The correct exposure and pose are essential to a strong portrait, but the overall portrait will be a failure if the expression is poor. You can unsuccessfully break the rules, mess up the lighting or pose and to a degree save the shot with a good expression. Remember, portrait photography is more than just the creative and technical aspects. You need to be a people person and develop a relationship with your subject in a short span of time. Hopefully, as you become more experienced in taking portraits, you will move through the session with ease. When people feel comfortable and they like the person taking their portrait, getting a good expression is simple and almost effortless.
My advice is not to get so wrapped up in the craft that you forget you are taking a portrait of a person. Otherwise, not only will the work inevitably suffer, but if you’re trying to build a business it may prove to be disastrous.
Portrait photography is more than just cameras and equipment; it’s about people having a memorable experience and enjoying you as a person. Put yourself in their shoes. Would you want to be photographed by someone with the personality of a rock? Develop a personality as a photographer to complement your photographic style. This is the only photography tool that’s free, and it’s one of the most important. My mom would say, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, because he wants you to listen twice as much as you talk.” That was excellent advice. Talk to your client, but more importantly listen. Fulfill their needs and not only see but hear the difference in your portraits.
About the Author:
Diane Stec (learnphotographyathome dot com) attended University of North Texas in Denton, Texas and has been a professional photographer and instructor for over twenty years. She specializes in high school senior, family, children, and wedding photography. She is a member of PPA, MPP, WPPI and other organizations. She continues to attend photography seminars, receive merits, and she teaches a membership eCourses (digital and film) for the beginner, amateur, hobbyist or semi-pro.
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