“A portrait, no matter how objective we try to be, is a photograph of the encounter between the photographer and the subject. An awkward encounter will likely result in awkward photographs, while an encounter that puts the subject at ease will increase the chance of creating portraits that reveal something genuine about the subject.” –David DuChemin
One of the skills rarely talked about in photography is people skills.
Your ability to relate to your subjects can make or break your photos. And just as David DuChemin mentions, if the photos are awkward, it is because the encounter between the photographer and the subject is awkward. People are not inherently “un-photogenic”. But too often the actual encounter with the photographer is stiff enough to bring out the stiffness in the people.
My absolute worst experience being photographed
Last year I won a major contest that granted me a free all expense paid trip for two that included a makeover, shopping spree, and a photo shoot. Sounds dreamy huh?! It really was the chance of a lifetime. I invited my sister to be my guest and we giddily anticipated our new “looks”.
The two day experience was so enriching. I loved my new hair, my makeup, and my new clothes. Every member of the team was inspiring and loving. I felt confident and stunning, having just been professionally styled and pampered by experts for two days. The excitement and energy had me floating and eager to preserve just how amazing everything felt.
The photo shoot was the culmination of our makeover and the anticipated climax of our trip. My sister and I eagerly awaited our cover girl moment in an empty room with a full set. The photographer walked in. We watched her check the lights, check her camera settings, and then with no acknowledgement to the two of us, we watched her walk right out.
Shortly afterwards she returned, led by one of the amazing image consultants we had grown to love. It was the consultant, not the photographer, who invited me on set, and did her very best to try and pose me. The photographer continued to silently take shots, occasionally muttering a direction to look or stand somewhere different. As talented as the consultant was in creating a look for someone, she had no training in photography or posing.
I stood there awkwardly, my confidence escaping like sand in an hourglass until it was all but gone.
It no longer mattered that I looked great. I no longer felt great.
Instead, I felt like a 5’9” body of mass that had no light within me. I was being prompted into unnatural poses that were old fashioned and unflattering by a well meaning but untrained assistant and socially inept photographer. I know the secrets of posing well enough to pose myself, but this moment wasn’t supposed to be about that. I wanted desperately to have the photographer guide me according to what she was seeing through the lens. I wanted the experience of feeling beautiful not just on the outside, but inside as well.
I’ve never been good at faking emotions. What you see is what you get. My throat burned trying to hold back tears from disappointment.
“Are you okay?” the consultant asked gently.
I politely nodded my head while trying to stifle my embarrassment. Horribly awkward photos flashed through my imagination. Not only did I no longer have confidence in myself, I had no confidence in the photographer.
Weeks later I was emailed the photos, and just as I suspected, they were truly horrible. Of course I’m biased…I know what a good photograph of me looks like (I can take a selfie that looks better than those did), but aside from me looking completely awkward, instantly I was brought back to the painful emotional experience of being photographed—tainting my view even more.
The emotional experience you create with those you photograph is the most important thing you can do for great pictures.
While technical skill is still important, the way you make people feel trumps all.
Creating an experience that relaxes people, makes them feel comfortable—even to the point of behaving like they do with their family and friends whom they trust enough to let their guard down—is where the power lies. The remembrance of that emotional experience colors their opinion of the images more than anything else. If they felt stressed and awkward, it will come back to them when they see those shots, just like familiar sounds and smells can transport you back to another place in time. If they felt trust, confidence, comfortable, and delighted, those emotions will be triggered again by the images as well.
One of my best experiences being photographed
Contrast that experience, with another one I had two years ago. After speaking at the Beloved Collective Festival in 2012, Joe Photo approached me afterwards, politely asking to take my photograph. I had never met Joe before, so this was completely unexpected. While flattered, I was totally unprepared (no time to even look in a mirror, let alone think about clothes, hair or makeup). He kindly led me to a beautiful place on the grounds of the Parker Resort and spent about 10 minutes with me.
Joe was amazing. He was so incredibly kind. He told me all the things he loved about my speech, he asked about my family, he asked about my goals and aspirations and somehow managed to do all of that while also taking my portrait. I instantly loved this guy! Chatting with him was enriching and engaging. He made me feel like one of the most interesting and important people in the world. When he emailed a slideshow with the photos a few days later, I was instantly brought back to the way he made me feel when we were together. How could I not love the photos when the emotional experience tied to them was so positive and empowering?
Since that time, I’ve had the amazing privilege of being photographed by industry greats, such as Elizabeth Halford, Treacy Mize, Davina Fear, Sarah Allred, and Kristin Brown. All of whom have an amazing gift not just with a camera but their winning personalities.
So how do you create great emotional experiences for people?
David DuChemin writes,
“I can think of nothing better to help you build a genuine connection to your subject than learning to unleash your curiosity. Becoming insatiably curious around others, asking questions, and communicating a clear and genuine interest in your subject will not only help to pull down the protective walls that prevent great portraits, it’ll give you a deeper understanding of the subject you are photographing…the way you connect with your subjects can improve your portraits more than anything else. While we love photographs with great backgrounds or composition, it is the portrait we connect with emotionally that will remain the most compelling, and these emotional reactions come most often from the subject being their true self, gently guided by the photographer.”
Master the technical side of photography to the point you don’t even have to think about it. Only then, do you have space to do the real work of focusing not just your lens, but your heart on the people in front of you.
Brooke Snow is the Professional Photographer for her own family and an Abundant Life Practitioner. She loves tree swings, the month of May, and early morning walks. She lives with her calm husband and adventurous son in Northern Utah. Join her FREE Photo Perspective Photography course for great instruction on easy ways to immediately improve your photos.