It’s a popular misconception that lots of people feel comfortable in front of the camera ….in fact, it’s actually quite rare to find people who do feel totally at ease in front of one. Some of the best models I’ve known, who were scouted, started out being very self-conscious before they got used to the experience of having a photographer point a camera at them. So exactly how does a portrait photographer build rapport with their clients? Photographers are a mixed bunch, with some being very shy to others being very outgoing and gregarious so is there a right and a wrong way to go about it?
One of the best learning experiences I had was on a short evening course at City Lit for studio portrait lighting when all the class was split into groups and it was expected that everyone volunteer to sit for the other photographers in their group. I hated having my picture taken until that point but as a few of the other photographers were adamant that they were not going to sit for the others to shoot I found myself overcoming my own resistance and being in the firing ….or should I say the shooting line;) It was a real education and I could understand how boring and uninteresting it can be if a portrait photographer makes no effort to interact with the sitter and build rapport and merely fiddles with the settings on the camera. It taught me how to put myself in my clients shoes and just how important it was to chat with them and make the whole experience as fun and enjoyable as possible. I’m still not a natural in front of the camera but if someone wants to take a picture of my I don’t dive for cover anymore. It is true that most photographers make for bad subjects in the same way the Doctors make bad patients and it’s advisable for lawyers not to represent themselves………I think it’s God’s way of attempting to teach us all a bit of humility (& in some cases failing miserably too ;))
Chatting with your client and making them feel totally at ease is an essential part of a portrait photographers toolkit. Building a positive rapport is really crucial and there are many ways to do this. Asking simple questions to the client, finding out about why they are doing the shoot or even giving yourself a challenge to see if you can find out certain bits of information about them so you can identify and share some of your own experiences too. Examples of this can be pets, hobbies, travel experiences, food, musical tastes, star-signs etc. As humans, we all have the need to bond with other humans. By finding commonality we help to take down our own and other people’s defences, both conscious and unconscious. It also reminds me that as a human being I have something to learn from everyone. In some portrait photoshoots, I’ve learnt some amazing life hacks as well as potential future investment opportunities. I’ve benn told of technology to avoid and great books to read and places to visit. Let’s face it as human beings we all like people to show a bit of interest in us and it helps the human interaction process. It’s also possible to use very open body language and even mirror clients own to start off with.
Another method I read from another photographer is asking clients if they have had a positive life changing experience and asking them to talk about it. The chances are that as they speak about this they will feel good about themselves and this will allow them to relax and feel more at ease. This sense of wellbeing will then be intuitively projected by their body and their face too.
It can also help if you take a few minutes to explain how you will direct them, if they require it, especially their head so that they understand that if you say look left or right they understand if it’s their left or right or your own. If someone is very experienced & comfortable in front of the camera you may still need to remind them of simple but essential tips such as being aware of the position of their hands. If someone is very nervous then I explain how I used to be and that I got over that by the actual process of having my picture taken. The only way out is through philosophy which I have found applies to just about all life’s obstacles.
However, during a portrait photoshoot, I make it a point never to ask people to relax. In so doing I am drawing their attention to the fact that they are not currently relaxed. It’s better to suggest taking a short break if the sitter is uptight. You will take more than enough images during the photo shoot. There are usually opportunities within a session to change the lens, alter the lighting set up or the location to alter the mood and feel of a session. It’s good to have a few little reset techniques for a portrait photo session.hWith practice these can be seamlessly included in the experience.