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Preparing For a Portrait


I recently had a request from a Nova Scotia photography student to answer a few questions as a part of a school assignment. Here’s one.

How do you prepare your subjects before shooting? How do you indicate there’s something wrong with the pose or expression?

Shooting? I’ve struggled with this overused term for a long time. Years ago, I saw an American photographer from Maine who did beautiful portraits including people from the US Navy. During his presentation he talked about what we do as photographers. “We shoot them, process them and then hang them.” From that point on I have tried to avoid using the word shoot when talking about photography.

Why care? We work in a field of communication. A hugely powerful form of communication we sometimes take for granted. How we speak about photography is as important as how we compose an image.

How do I prepare for a photo session? I always start with a conversation asking my subjects desired outcome and expectations which helps define what they wear, what the background looks like, lighting and more.

This can happen very quickly if you happen upon a person who you just have to photograph right now or more thoroughly when arranging a more formal portrait assignment. If I happen upon someone, I just have to photograph I will ask their permission which will typically include a description of what I see revealing my why.

An exchange versus an imposition begins.

For this reason, as a photographer I’ve never fully embraced street photography of individuals in compromising positions. Now as a reader of these images I often stand with mouth agape at such brilliance. Think of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Friedlander, Winogrand, Evans and Erwitt. Interestingly, I saw a presentation by Meyorwitz who saw an image on the street with a guy carrying a ladder. He chased after the man and asked him to help recreate what he saw. Fascinating action to take migrating the whole idea of street photography to another space; a collaborative one.

The preparation piece has always provided opportunity to create inside of the experience itself. I’ve got what we discussed plus I see this possibility. Let’s give it a try. I learned this from an art director early on. His client wanted a photo with a mad scientist. Very conservative and professional looking with white lab coat and tie working with a Bunsen burner and various partially filled beakers in a lab setting. The AD suggested making our mad scientist actually look a tad crazy. Nope they weren’t interested. So, we did it both ways. The client’s way then with mussed up hair, tie askew, coat twisted with various degrees of madness being expressed. When the AD presented both versions to their client they bought our second far more impactful one.

I have worked with photographers who go into a session unprepared. They always appear uneasy and sloppy which is how the resulting photos typically look.

What about if you see something wrong during your portrait session?

My approach is to start on a tripod. I’ve got everything set up in the frame the way I want it providing my subject with some room to move inside my framing. I can then interact with them which allows the photographic act to somewhat disappear making them more comfortable - if that’s your goal. Perhaps you want them to express a certain hostility or vulnerability then that will define your interaction. If your face is hidden behind your camera, how can you create a response? Will you even see its brief appearance inside that tiny frame? I don’t believe you can and hazard you must be brave and get out from behind the camera.

What about that crooked tie or glasses or wild hair she just nervously created? First off, behind that camera you’re going to miss those details inside that tiny little frame. I know this from experience. Fix them in Photoshop? Way more time consuming while undermining your abilities. Really? Absolutely.

Let’s say a woman’s scarf has fallen a little loosely from where she had it at the outset. You mention the problem you see and ask permission to fix it, or you pull out the handy compact mirror your wife gave you 20 odd years ago and ask your subject to fix it. By showing you are looking out for them and are thoughtful enough to point out the problem you are immediately propelled to a place of respect. “This person knows what they’re doing!”

What if you’re 3 exposures in and you recognize you’re not happy with the lighting. I express my concern and take 4 minutes to improve their image. They won’t think you’re a bad photographer. They’re going to hire you for life because of your sincere interest in their photograph. Sidebar: I talk to them while I make these changes always driving the whole process toward a desired outcome.

Have you ever had an experience taking (I prefer ‘making’) someone’s picture when you can’t freakin’ believe you missed the crooked hat or the background light too far to the right after the session is done? Once you see it you’re always going to see it and it can make you a tad crazy! Slow the whole process down, look, really pause and look at your subject then release the shutter. Even if you have 10 minutes with your subject, that 15 second pause can make all the difference in the world.

You have the power to define the very best result for your subject and yourself whether a paid job or a portrait of your daughter on her birthday. It’s a big responsibility.

Sure, you can fix things in Photoshop. It’s far less impressive and often the effort to do it live, in person is far less effort regardless of your prowess with PS. In an upcoming blog I’ll share a story about “fixing it later in photoshop”.

Interested in taking your photography to a whole new level? Check out the link.



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