On Becoming A Photgrapher – Communicating With Your Subject

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So, you’ve got the shoot planned to perfection, you’re all good to go and the subject walks in the door. But how do you make someone smile, and how do you dig out those genuine expressions? That is what we’re going to be talking about today. Well, what I’m going to be writing about anyway. From the pre-shoot planning and meeting, to how you act on set, and a few stern words on not being a damn creep. So let’s get on with Communicating with your subject

Pre-shoot 1: Understand your goal

On Becoming A Photgrapher - Communicating With Your Subject

The first order of business is to make sure you know the goal for the shoot. There is a vast difference between wanting a somber personal portrait, a high-energy commercial shot, and an eye catching awkward stylized fashion shot. Knowing what image you’re aiming to create beforehand is important, because basically people reflect off one another and that is important, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The point is, you need to make sure you know exactly what you’re looking to get out of the shoot.

Pre-shoot 2: The talk

On Becoming A Photgrapher - Communicating With Your Subject

An important part of any shoot, is the pre-shoot talk. It becomes paramount when dealing with portraits of people that aren’t used to being photographed, and somewhat less important when you’re working with professional models since they know how to act in front of a camera no matter the mood on set.

What you basically want to accomplish during this talk is to make sure you’re in sync with your subject about what you’re trying to accomplish, make your subject feel comfortable around you, alleviate any awkwardness or anxiety you might have around your subject (for those of us with an awkward introverted streak this is super important), and generally create a good mood before the shooting starts. I have sort of a check-list in my head that I run through in my pre-shoot talk, and you might find it useful too!

  • Set aside some time to say hi, chit-chat about the day, ask about your clients interests, what they do, who they are etc.
  • Talk over exactly which images you’re looking to create, if it is a portrait shoot this is more about making sure you understand your client’s needs. On a commercial shoot it is about making sure your models understand you and your client’s needs.
  • Go over the plan of the shoot, something like “We’ll start out spending an hour doing headshots and warming up, then we’ll do some shots over by that wall which makes for a great backdrop, take five minutes and share any ideas we might have gotten and finish up just playing around with different images for a while, does that sound good to you?” In general people feel much safer when they know whats going to happen
  • Make sure all releases and such boring paperwork is signed and out of the way. Some prefer doing this after the shoot, but I generally make sure to get it done before the shoot as to not have it on my mind when shooting. If you don’t have a somewhat established reputation as a honest and fair person, some models will want to sign after the shoot as to not risk you doing compromising stuff, pushing them further than they’d like to etc. I’d let them decide. I imagine this is especially true if you’re a glamour/sexystuff/boudoir/beauty photographer, I’m not, so I have no experience with that specific situation.

During the shoot: Put into it, what you want out of it

On Becoming A Photgrapher - Communicating With Your Subject

So, remember how we talked about making sure you know what you want out of a given shoot? well this is where it comes into play.

Generally people are very good at mirroring each other, it comes down to a lot of psychobabble that I won’t even pretend to understand, but you know it from your everyday life. If you’re around people who’re super mellow and laid back, you feel more laid back and mellow, and act as such. If you’re around an extremely high-strung person on a hair trigger, you yourself get wound up. This is also true of the people you’re photographing, so make sure you’re pouring the energy you want out of the shoot, into the shoot. If I want those awesome high-energy explosive images I make damn sure that I’m all over the place pouring all the energy I have into the subject, I speak louder, I laugh more, I am more excited, I jump around and sometimes even make up games, make people jump around etc.

Now, it is important to understand that I don’t pretend to be excited and happy, that will just make everyone awkward. You have to really dig into yourself and find the emotions you want out of the shoot, and express them, so that your subject can mirror you. You’re the one in control, and you’re in a natural position of authority, so you’re the one who has to lead the way here. And this is one of those things that you can’t fake till you make it. Figure out what gets you in the right mood, and use it. If you need inspiration talk to someone you know who is an actor, good actors know how to dig into their own emotions to be able to express them on stage or on set, they’ll be able to give you some pointers.

I’ve compiled a list of stuff that works for me, but you should really try and figure out what your best way of expressing these moods and emotions are, because it has to be you, not pretend-you. I always end up doing mix and match, since very few images fit perfectly into a single category.

Happy / laughing / smiling images

  • Tell stupid and silly stories from your own life, ask the subject about theirs, the whole “sharing silly stuff” is a good space to be in for these images.
  • Ask questions that dig into positive feelings like love, great experiences etc. and surprises the subject and makes them think of these things, like “So, when did you last kiss your girlfriend?”. You obviously have to feel out how far you can push these things without being annoying, but it works like a charm if done right.
  • Be laid back, silly and cheeky, keep the conversation flowing and upbeat.
  • Play word games, and other “childish” stuff. Not in a creepy way, in a fun way.
  • Put on some nice easy-to-listen-to happy music that suits your subject. Brenda Lee and Belle & Sebastian are usual suspects for me. Don’t be afraid to crank it up a bit.

Somber / thoughtful / serious images

  • Ask complicated, philosofical, deep questions, force them to pause and think about what they want to answer.
  • Dig into politics, ethics, religion and those subjects. Make the subject think and care about your topic.
  • Be serious, curious and intense when you ask about serious and personal stuff, and participate in the conversation about the hard subjects. But let go of your need to “be right” or “get your own point of view” out.
  • Keep the shoot physically calm, don’t run around etc.
  • Keep reinforcing the fact that you’re taking care of the photography, they just need to participate in the talk.
  • Use appropriate music, I usually go for stuff like William Fitzsimmons or Air. And don’t play it too loud.

High energy images

  • Get your game face on for this one, you need to be an energy source for everyone.
  • Keep it physically active, make up all sorts of physical games, play catch, simon says etc.
  • Make yourself excited and elated and make sure you share that excitement around. Let everyone know how awesome this is.
  • Point out all the hilarious stuff that happens on a set, laugh together and make fun of yourself.You need to get the “we’re just having a blast and laughing at ourselves” vibe going.
  • Be as cheeky and silly as you can, push it.
  • Put on loud high energy music and crank it up, I tend to go for some edIt, Hendrix, LMFAO or even Blümchen if I’m feeling it.

Artsy / Off / Weird moods

  • Be completely straight forward with your subject about what you need them to do
  • Make more direct manual adjustments of poses etc. than usually. There is no “weird mood” so you have to build it, and take control of building it.
  • Have sketches of poses to show your subject.
  • Don’t be funny, joke around etc. Don’t make people laugh, be serious and to the point.
  • Music wise I go for The Knife, mixed post-rock and stuff like that.

Tidbits, small tips and all that stuff

On Becoming A Photgrapher - Communicating With Your Subject

  • If you ask your subject a question, listen to their answer, and ask questions you actually find interesting. Most people are actually super interesting if you get them to open up, and no one likes to feel like they’re answering a cardboard cutout that couldn’t give a flying fuck what they’re saying.
  • Realize that you’re in a position of authority, and your subjects expects you to be in control of the shoot. No matter how much you feel like “just letting it happen” and “working together”, both of which are good things, you still need to take the lead and guide the shoot. It’ll make your subject much more comfortable and avoid them being insecure or becoming too self aware.
  • Don’t be a creep, ever. As a photographer you deal with all sorts of people, and you’re bound to run into people of the gender you’re attracted to that you find attractive, and you’ll probably also deal with nudity and such, but really, don’t be a creep. Your subject is there to work, not to be subjected to your sexuality. On top of being an ass to your subject and abusing your position of authority, you’re also messing up the rest of photographers’ reputation, so just don’t. If you’re deadly smitten with someone ask them out for coffee some days after the shoot.
  • Learn to love meeting people, getting to know them and talking to them. If you really hate this part, consider working more with professional models, and doing less portraiture.
  • Take your time and don’t let any introverted awkwardness you might feel (Trust me, I know how this feels, I’m just lucky enough to be somewhat over it) get in the way of getting good pictures.

As always, criticism, praise, ideas and all other sorts of feedback is very appreciated, and so is sharing the stuff around the web. If you think it merits sharing that is.

About The Author

Andreas Bergmann is a commercial photographer based in Copenhagen, Denmark. You can follow his work on his blog or his Facebook. This post was originally published here.

  • Andreas_Bergmann

    If anyone has comments, questions, feedback or anything I figured I’d post that I’ll obviously be hanging about here to reply if it is needed at all :) And big up to DIYP for reposting it, it is an honor being on here.

    • chubbs

      This is all very useful and thank you for it!

      • Andreas_Bergmann

        My pleasure chubba. The whole journey towards becoming a photographer is such a huge undertaking, and since most blogs focus on the technical part of it, I imagine there’d be use for someone sharing all the “soft” parts of it. And since I have learned a lot of them the hard way, why not share :P

  • http://www.lenslocker.co.uk/ martin

    A very useful article, I’ve found that your either a natural or it takes work, I’m in the later category so need all the help I can get.

    Thanks