What makes a great portrait? Is it the light on the subject? The composition? The pose or expression? Or what about the connection from the subject to the viewer? Well, the answer isn’t simple, it’s all of those things and much more. And one of the most important but often overlooked aspects of portraiture is probably the connection between the photographer and the subject. How you go about engaging with your subject is one of those things that will make or break a photoshoot.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re photographing a model, a builder on a construction site, or your 3-year-old, you still have to interact with the subject in some manner in order to get the best out of them. In this video photographer, Daniel Norton addresses this and has some helpful tips for connecting better with your subjects.
Daniel says he never poses people in an unnatural way. Instead, he approaches the shoot as a conversation. “You want to interact with your client,” he says, “and if they are a jokey person they’ll make jokes, if someone is a stern person you’ll see that, they’ll be quieter.”
Daniel does say that picking up on people’s innate personalities through chatting to them does take time and experience. He says that if you’re already a portrait photographer then you probably already have the skills you need because you like being around and interacting with people.
He also recommends doing a little research first. finding out about the job that they do, and of course, what sort of photographs they are wanting does help to know which direction to go in with portraits. A serious business person will need different images from an actor who will need different images from a children’s entertainer. This research as Daniel says also gives you more things to talk about with them. I think it also inspires a sense of confidence in both you and the client. You, because as the photographer you understand who this person is a little before you meet them, and the client because they feel seen. Ultimately as humans, we all want to be seen and heard.
You also need to be ready for the moment a little later on in the shoot when the subject is feeling more relaxed and comfortable. this is probably when you’ll get most of your good images because their guard is down. You need to be ready for that moment and run with it.
Even if you only have a 5-minute slot to shoot a CEO or celebrity, you still have 5 minutes to interact with them. And in this case, it matters even more because of the time crunch. Again, the research you do in advance is invaluable here.
The other good point that Daniel makes is that the interactions don’t begin when you raise the camera and start photographing them. They begin at the door when you take their coat when you offer them coffee. It all counts towards getting them comfortable. Explain what you’re doing with the set-up, get them as relaxed as possible before even taking any shots.
The other great tip is to be yourself because if you are behaving authentically and relaxed it transfers that energy to your subject. Now for those people out there who are on the more introverted end of the scale, conversing and making small talk doesn’t come easily. I get it, it’s actually something I had to learn. If small talk feels lame then ditch it and go deep. Your subject is probably feeling a little vulnerable anyway and I find they are often able to let go and open up with a little effort on your part. Generally, I end up making a fool of myself in some small way and that invariable helps break the ice. If all else fails I find that falling over backwards tends to help relax your subject (true story, I actually did this!). Actually don’t do that, just talk and interact normally with them instead!