Connecting with Your Portrait Subject

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Portraiture is a collaborative process. Mastering the technical skills necessary to make a successful photo is only half of the job for the portrait photographer. The other half is managing and working with people. The best portraits offer more than just a record of how a person looked on a particular day; they provide a glimpse inside of that person. The challenge for the portrait photographer is in creating an environment and establishing a rapport that can accomplish this goal, often in a very short amount of time. The tips below should help you get started.

When you are tasked with making a portrait of photographer Jamel Shabazz, you may end up with a portrait being made of yourself, as well.

Do Your Homework

The first place to begin when planning a portrait session is by asking: Who am I photographing and why? Creating a portrait of a celebrity for a magazine is going to require a different approach than making a headshot of a lawyer for a website. Consider—or better yet—ask what your subject hopes to get out of your shoot ahead of time and plan accordingly. While the most exciting projects are the ones that give you complete creative control, often you will find yourself navigating certain expectations, either from your sitter or from the final audience of your work. Be mindful not only of what you want, but what your sitter wants.

Gershon Eisenberger inspects a Vivitar flash he developed.

When I photographed members of the photography community for the “What is Photography?” series, I invested a substantial amount of time into researching each person well ahead of when they arrived on set. Being knowledgeable about who somebody is—without being overbearing—can go a long way in establishing a connection when you first meet. It can also provide a creative springboard when planning shots.

Make Time for Your Sitter

Before photography, making a portrait required a substantial commitment of time and labor. Painters sat with their subjects, often for excruciating periods of time, studying and refining their work until it was just right. One thing that has been lost with the technological acceleration brought on by the camera is this time shared. While it is very useful to know a thing or two about who you are photographing ahead of time, nothing beats in-person interaction. I have often been surprised by the difference between how I imagined someone to be in my head compared to how they behave in front of a camera. Otherwise reserved professionals can let loose while outspoken characters can become timid.

Photographers Xyza Cruz Bacani and Clay Benskin between portrait sittings.

Before every shoot I set aside time—even if only a few minutes—to sit down with the person I am photographing. This allows us to relax for a moment, slow down, and get to know one another. Providing refreshments is always a plus. Ask your subjects ahead of time if they would like a coffee, tea, snacks, etc., for when they arrive. This window of time is crucial for setting the tone for your shoot.

Many people can be uncomfortable when placed in front of a camera. Your primary task is to make the experience less intimidating. Even when I have a certain set of images in mind for a shoot, I always ask if the person I am photographing has any ideas for the shoot. Not only does this get the sitter involved in the process, it often leads to interesting and unexpected results.

Geoffrey Berliner poses with a few handfuls of lenses from his collection.

Prepare Ahead of Time

While you certainly do not need to map out every single setup you plan to use during your shoot, you should have a general idea of what you intend to try and how you plan on accomplishing it. The less time you spend worrying about technical concerns, the more time you have to engage with your sitter. This is especially important if you are working alone and do not have an assistant to take care of the little things for you. Set up your lights and run exposure tests ahead of time. Once your sitter arrives, your attention should be focused on them as much as possible. At the very least, make sure your first setup is ready to go in advance. This will allow a seamless transition from introductions to image making.

Reviewing images with artist Carlos Motta.

Provide a VIP Experience

The better you treat your sitter, the better your photos will be. As mentioned earlier, providing refreshments is a good place to start. This extends beyond your sitter to your entire team, if you are working with one. Ask everyone ahead of time for requests and allergies. At the very least, have water on hand. Music is another great way to set the mood for a shoot. Take requests. While you might have just chugged three energy drinks and want to rock out to Metallica, your sitter probably wants something a little more relaxing. Finally, if you are shooting multiple looks, provide a private changing area. Pay attention to the temperature of your environment so that it is comfortable for everyone. It never hurts to have some heavy robes on hand for your sitter to wear between shots if needed. Make the experience as enjoyable as possible.

Keep It Professional

Be respectful. In the rare instance where you might need to adjust a stray hair or make an adjustment, ask before acting. Never touch your sitter without permission. These points should hardly need to be reiterated in 2020, but the growing list of photographers being outed for their transgressions on set suggests otherwise.

Even with the most innocent of intentions, all it takes is one careless word or action to completely derail the energy of a shoot. And, once that happens, good luck trying to get the energy back. This is why it is so important to communicate with your sitter. Spontaneous is good, surprises are bad. Be clear about what you plan to shoot and make sure that your sitter is on board. Ask first, do not assume. Never force or guilt someone into doing anything they are uncomfortable with. It is your responsibility to make sure that everyone on set shares these values.

August Pross of LTI Lightside Photographic Services posed for a portrait, created a print, then returned to pose with his print.

Maintain Relationships

Sometimes you are lucky enough to photograph someone more than once. With each sitting, everyone involved becomes a little more relaxed and the photographs often come more naturally. One of the best ways to establish an enduring relationship with your sitter is by providing images in a timely fashion. Treat every shoot like a commercial job, with hard deadlines for image delivery. In a digitally saturated world, another way to stand out is by creating prints. A good portrait will be cherished for a lifetime. The most future-proof way to present your work is by making an actual print to hand someone. I guarantee they will appreciate the gesture.

Are you a portrait photographer? What are some of the things you do to connect with your sitters? Share them in the Comments section, below.

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