Tips for Overcoming Shyness as a Photographer
“If you are a silent sniper with a telephoto, when they do notice you they will feel like you’ve taken something from them.”
As photographers, we often measure our moments in hundredths of seconds. As a result, we are regularly faced with the undeniable truth that missed moments are gone forever. It’s one thing to miss a moment due to technical issues or circumstances beyond your control, but how many times has an opportunity– business, artistic, or personal– been lost because you’ve been too shy to capture it?
Unfortunately, these situations can come up on a daily basis. As artists, many of us tend to be a bit introverted. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a shy artist, if you are relying on your photography to keep a roof over your family’s head, you have to engage with new people and deal with new situations in order to grow your business. You have to sell yourself. The shy photographer can find this to be a daunting, if not terrifying, proposition.
How successfully you overcome whatever degree of shyness or lack of confidence you experience can have a profound impact, not only on your business relationships, but on your subject matter as well.
Understanding the Problem
Don’t worry. I’m not about to get all medical or psychological on you. It’s also not my intention to make light of what can be a pretty serious problem for some people. But as someone who used to be shy and overcame it, I think I have something to bring to the conversation. At its most basic, shyness is that awkward, nervous, unsettled feeling you get around other people. Some may even call it fear. It can take root in different ways, but the most common seems to arise when we become too preoccupied with how we come off to other people. We spend so much time checking ourselves that we become convinced that everyone else is monitoring our every move as well. This is by no means a conscious decision on our part. If you are a shy adult, chances are you’ve been dealing with this for a long time. You probably don’t even remember how it started, or what your triggers are.
What pulls you back inside yourself? Meeting new people? Public speaking? Selling yourself? Walking up to a total stranger on the street and asking to take their portrait? Your shyness and mine aren’t going to be the same. Identifying where yours’ comes from is way more than half the battle. With me, it was meeting new people. I had no trouble if someone introduced me to someone new. But if the sun coming up the next morning was dependent on me walking up to a stranger and striking up a conversation, then I’d learn to love the darkness.
Overcoming this is not always easy, and I don’t want to sound like all I’m saying is, “Get over it,” because I’m not. But if you take the time to think about how this stuff all shakes out– with you getting the short end of the stick– you should be able to find the motivation to push through it. I’m not saying you’ll be seeking the spotlight, but you’ll certainly miss fewer and fewer of those moments we were talking about earlier.
Think Like a Client
Imagine yourself on the other side of the camera for a minute. Do you want to see a photographer who is unsure of themselves, constantly fiddling with their equipment, and unable to engage? Of course not. You’d want someone who is confident and knows what they are doing. The same thing applies before you even get to the photo shoot. What kind of person would you want to meet with to discuss your wedding day? To whom would you entrust the photo shoot for your next ad campaign? You have to remember that we’re not just talking about your confidence. Clients can read the signals. If they don’t see your confidence they aren’t going to show you theirs’.
“Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.”
Legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi nailed it with that quote. Being a confident photographer creates confident clients. Creating confident clients means more business. More business means…you get the idea.
Tips for the Shoot
Everything you know about confidence comes into play while overcoming your shyness on a shoot. Knowing your gear– what it can and can’t do. Having a firm grasp of the fundamentals– how you’re going to get the image from your head to your camera. Talk to your subject. Preparing a list of questions in your head can keep conversation going, which can help keep them at ease. Remember that they may be just as shy– if not more– than you are. Unless they are professional models, posing and taking direction might be like learning a foreign language. Give them feedback. Remember that confidence is contagious and you’ll both benefit from each other feeling good about your collaboration.
Tips for the Meeting (The Advantages of Shyness)
Make sure the client meeting is somewhere you feel comfortable. If you have an office or studio, let the client come to you. Being in control of the environment goes a long way to being in control of your nerves. Meet on your own turf whenever possible. Be prepared. Have notes, an outline, or even a checklist on hand to help keep you on track. Rehearse if necessary. Over time you’ll notice the scales tipping in favor of confidence over shyness.
Something to keep in mind, though, is that your shyness is part of who you are. Nobody is asking you to eliminate that part of your personality. When controlled, though, it does have its advantages. Shy people often make better listeners. Letting someone else do the talking shows them that you care. It says you are interested and that they are important to you. Most importantly, it helps you identify what your clients want. By making it more about the client than yourself, you stand a much better chance of giving them what they want. And happy clients do a lot of your marketing work for you.
Tips for the Street
Like I said– for me it was talking to strangers. Thankfully, I had a friend a lifetime or two ago who unknowingly got me past it. This guy would have talked to a chair if there was even the slightest chance of the chair answering him. Watching the way he interacted with people in all kinds of situations went a long way to conquering my shyness. Nowhere has this had more of a professional impact than on my street photography.
When you’re into street photography, you have two choices. Shoot from a distance with a long lens like the 70-200, or interact with your subject and get up close. The difference between the two is like night and day. The telephoto lens destroys whatever emotion or intimacy you hope to capture. It’s the difference between a snapshot and a portrait. And that means figuring out how you’re going to approach a total stranger and ask them if you can take their photo.
In the example below, the image on the left is nothing all that special. It’s an average, wide-angle street scene. It wasn’t until we started talking, though, that it became something more. A five-minute conversation was all it took to make it a portrait– something that told a story.
“Strangers” vs. “New People”
When our parents warned us about never talking to strangers, it was for our own protection at a time in our lives when we needed it. “Never” didn’t necessarily mean “Forever.” Stop thinking about people as strangers, and start thinking of them as people you haven’t met yet. It may not seem like much of a distinction, but it’s one that speaks volumes about our attitudes towards people, as well as overcoming our shyness in approaching them.
There are two schools of thought on the question of whether you should ask someone if it’s okay to take their photo. One opinion is that you spoil the organic nature of the scene by asking. While there may be something to that– and certainly makes it easier for the shy amongst us– making a connection and capturing true emotion requires the question, and hopefully even a conversation. They may say no. You have to be prepared for that possibility and honor it. But if you handle it correctly and with respect, you’ll almost always get a yes.
Keep it simple. Keep it honest. “Hi. My name is Jeff Guyer. I’m a photographer and was wondering if I could take your picture.” It gets the ball rolling. Tell them why. Tell them what it’s for. You’re looking for common ground. The idea of a conversation like this might scare the hell out of a shy photographer, but just think about how much better the photography can be with a connection.
The woman in this set got defensive and pretty pissed off when she first saw my camera. She relaxed and opened up when we started talking about music. Again, just looking for some common ground– having a conversation– took it from scowl to smile.
Here’s something else to think about. If you are a silent sniper with a telephoto, when they do notice you they will feel like you’ve taken something from them. What could have been a meaningful exchange is reduced to little more than a violation. And if you’re taking photos of children with that long lens and no permission, you can fully expect someone with a badge to show up wanting to know why. Don’t let the rest of the world confuse shy for creepy…or worse.
Introduce. Ask. Chat. Shoot. Thank. I know I’m making it sound simpler than it is, but that’s only because it can be with some practice.
A lack of confidence and shyness are two different things, but learning to overcome one is a great first step to overcoming the other. If you can do that, you’ll see your number of missed moments get smaller and smaller.
Thanks to my friend Carina Thornton of Fuzzypants Photography for the shot of me at work.
Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class three years ago, where rumor has it he learns more from the kids than they learn from him.