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May 24, 2011 – The Challenging Subject by John Mireles

If you’re like me, most of your clients are just normal, everyday people. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and aren’t used to being in front of the business end of a camera lens. I’ll admit that it can be frustrating because my subjects rarely seem to match up with the fashion model like clients that make it into the magazines.The reality is that most of our clients aren’t models; they’re normal people who look and feel awkward in front of the camera. But everyone – clients and photographers alike – wants those energetic shots where the subject looks relaxed and happy. If you can consistently make your clients feel like they belong in a magazine, not only will you have a lot of happy clients, your business will thrive too!

So what’s the secret to getting the best out of each subject? Well, there’s no magic wand; the key is to be patient and play to each person’s strengths. While funny one-liners help break the ice, crafting a consistently great body of work is really about creating a deliberate process for bringing out the best in people. Here are some tips to help you make all of your clients look like magazine stars.

Take Your Time and Be Patient
Granted, this may not be an option when you’ve got 30 minutes between ceremony and reception to get your shots. But during engagement and portrait shoots, time limitations are rarely a factor for me. First, I plan on a couple of hours – sometimes even all afternoon – for my shoots.

There’s no substitute for time. Often it take until the very end of the shoot for the client to put away their photo-face, relax a little and let the spontaneity come out. I remember hearing Richard Avedon (the greatest photographer of the 20th century) talk about how he’d just let the subject sit in front of the camera until he or she got bored; it was only then that their true self would emerge. Although boring the subject is rarely my objective, the idea of waiting the client out is a powerful one.

Being patient goes hand-in-hand with taking your time. The key is that you can’t force things. You may have grandiose ideas for the shoot, but it’s often important to take baby steps to get there. Though your goal may be intimate and playful family shots, you’ll probably have to start simply and then build up to that. Once the subjects feel relaxed and feel more confident with the process, they are going to be much more likely to open up.

Get to Know Your Client
Don’t just jump into the shoot, instead try sitting down your clients and chatting a little before you get started. Often, I’ll meet up with my engagement shoot clients at a local pub so that they can unwind after what’s usually been a long week at work. We’re able to talk and get comfortable with one another without the intimidating camera coming between us.

Beside, people tend to work best with people they know. It’s easier for subjects to relax when they’re comfortable and familiar with the person behind the lens. The beauty of getting to know your client is that it takes the pressure off you, the photographer, from trying to be witty and funny. When the client gets to know you better and vice-versa, it’s easier to be yourself.

Invest in a Good Posing Guide
The Toolkit Lookbooks can go a long way to helping you come up with great poses and helping the client understand what you’re asking them to do. Not only do the Lookbooks have hundreds of poses for you to use with your family or bride and groom clients, you can also show them the photos so that they know what you’re shooting for.

When a subject knows what he or she is supposed to do, (and that they’re not going to look dumb in the process) it also helps them relax. Some people question whether it’s okay to show clients the book, but I’ve only heard positive feedback from both clients and other photographers alike. When clients see the pose, they get it. Once they get it, you can push thing farther to capture the real magic.

 

Think Sideways
Not every shot needs to be pretty people looking pretty, bride and groom kissing or little kids smiling perfectly into the camera. Think about other possibilities that don’t fall within the typical box of what is traditionally expected from a portrait, engagement or wedding day session. Let go of your preconceived notions of what your shoot is supposed to look like.

In my portfolio, I have a wide shot of two clients drawing “I love you” in the sand. It’s a great moment that clients often comment on. I like to point out that the couple was very shy and wouldn’t have made “most likely to make the portfolio” votes. But it worked because I tried something different that played to their strengths.

Go With the Flow
Listen to what your clients are telling you. They may not say it out loud, (in fact they rarely do,) but the signs are usually there. If something’s working, but not what you planned, just go with it. Don’t be afraid to push a good moment further along.

If your bride and groom are goofing around and making a mess, try having them roll around on the ground. If the kids are being unruly, let them go crazy. You never know what something unexpected – and really good – might come from it all.

Get Out of the Way
Sometimes it’s best to leave the clients alone so that they can relax. It’ll tell them to forget about the camera or even that it’s broken and I need to test it a little. Either way, when subjects don’t think that they need to put on their photo face, their expressions and body positions loosen and become more natural.

Happy face

When photographing the bridal party, I’ll often do my “camera is broken” trick. The girls will invariably start making jokes and laughing since they don’t think they need to pay attention to the camera. Eventually they’ll realize that I’m actually shooting and then the laughter – along with some great expressions – starts all over again.

Other times, backing off and using a long lens can take the pressure off of the subjects. Give them some distance and see what happens.

Work the Scenery
No matter who the client is, it never hurts to pull back and let the scenery be the hero in the shot. Breaking things up also opens up opportunity for sales of albums and wall prints. Many people who would be loath to put a big picture of themselves on the wall will happily purchase a framed print where they are smaller in a beautiful scene.

Happy face

Drop a Brick on Their Foot
This one comes courtesy of one of my favorite writers, P.J. O’Rouke. In one of his books, he suggested dropping a brick on someone’s foot if they have a headache. The idea being that you can distract someone from a minor discomfort with a major pain.

My manner of executing this dubious logic is to get right in my reluctant subject’s face with my camera. Or I let the client sit awkwardly in front of the camera with no direction from me. I’ll go well past their comfort zone – for a little while. Everything after that seems so much easier for them to deal. After uncomfortably posing in silence or facing a lens just inches away, my more normal shooting style is received with new appreciation.

Get Buy In
Nothing can turn into a train wreck so quickly as trying to get kids to do something that they don’t want to do. I like to talk to the kids in advance and let them throw out ideas for what they’d like to do. I’ll even offer to let the kids photograph me after I photograph them. Once they realize that it’s a two-way dialogue, they feel much more involved with the process.

If dad books the session, but mom is the real driver behind the shoot, be sure to talk to mom. She may have completely different ideas about the images she’s expecting. Few things are more frustrating than showing up for a shoot with a plan in mind but then butting heads with a mom who has her own plan. (Also, since mom will probably make the buying decisions later, be sure she’s on the same page as you if you want to make any post-shoot sales.)

Happy face

Try a Variety of Scenarios
This goes hand in hand with thinking sideways, taking your time and being patient. Don’t just stick to one setup or composition. Try different backgrounds, poses and camera orientation (landscape v. portrait). Don’t get stuck on one setup no matter how much you think it’s working.

If a client doesn’t like any given series after a shoot, it’s good to have a variety of others that the client can choose from. There’s few things more frustrating than coming back from a shoot where your hero, can’t miss shots look blah and you have nothing to fall back on.

Ask for What You Want
If you want a client smile, ask them to smile. You want a laugh, ask for a laugh! I recently had an assistant take some photos of me for practice. He kept trying to crack dumb jokes to get a smile of me. Finally, I told him to ask me for what he wanted. Things went much better from that point.

Happy face

It doesn’t hurt to actually practice a little with clients. I’ll show them what I’m looking for. Most subjects will give you what you want if they know what to do. A little encouragement and practice can help them turn it on for the camera later.

Act Like a Fool
You can’t expect your clients to cut loose if you don’t or won’t. A lot of times, I ask my clients to do stuff that they find embarrassing. They’re much more likely to go for it if I’m doing stupid stuff too. When I open up, it gives them license to do the same.

In response to a video of my photographing a subject, someone once posted that they were embarrassed for me because of the dumb things I was saying to direct the woman. They meant it as an insult, but I took it as a compliment. In the end, it’s the moments and expressions that I capture that matter.

Happy face

Don’t Stick Your Clients in a Box
There’s nothing wrong with focusing in on something specific with a client. But don’t allow your initial concepts to limit the direction of the shoot. What works for one subject on one day may not work for another on different day.

I recently took a look at another photographer’s bridal shoot. I was struck by how the the photo were technically nice, the bride pretty and the poses fairly sophisticated – but the shots just fell flat and had no life. The problem was that the photography ran his client through a set of poses he’d learned from a well-known photographer, but they just didn’t work with this subject. He’d have been far better off to dump the concept once it was obvious that it wasn’t working try something – anything – else.

Final Thoughts
Creativity is often viewed as this lightening bold that comes from above. In reality it’s often the end result of simple playfulness and experimentation. By adopting a process that allows you to adapt to the unique demands of each shoot and go beyond the expected, you’ll quickly be regarded as a creative genius. And you thought photography was supposed to be difficult!

 

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