Q&A: Seven Words to Expect

Amateur, pro, editorial photographer, hobbyist -- it really doesn't matter. As often as not, your subject is going to this question:

"What do you want me to do?"

How you respond will affect your shoot as much as setting, lens or light.

As a beginning newspaper photographer in the 1980's, I dreaded hearing those words. That's because being a newspaper shooter brought with it a strict code of ethics, writ holy by the Nation Press Photographer's Association. Simply put, we were not supposed to alter the situations we were covering.

It was enough to make a young photographer's head explode. My solution was generally to just hope the hell they did not ask. But they did. And eventually, I developed responses that allowed me to make portraits within the ethical constraints of the papers I worked for.

Later, I began to see the question as what it really was: The subject deferring to my authority in this particular situation as the photographer.

Not so bad when you think about it that way, huh? They're basically saying, 'You're in charge. Tell me what to do and let's get this thing over with.'

But still, you are gonna need an answer -- or several answers which you can choose from, depending on the situation. And how you respond can give you a lot of control over where the shoot goes from there.

So learn to anticipate the question, as you'll get it a lot. It's an offer of control. Be ready to accept it graciously and use it to your advantage.

Even when shooting a portrait for the paper (and under the constraints that entailed) I have always felt it was permissible to move someone into better light. Or to create better light, obviously. But whether you are moving someone to a window or setting up a soft box, you are altering the situation. But generally its because of technical/repro requirements and that was seen as okay.

As far as posing goes, my feeling was that I could exploit the easily discernible difference between a straight documentary photo and a portrait and position someone in some way that was truthful with respect to who they were and what they do.

Shooting the high school QB above (OA here) it makes sense for me to be able to have him into a pass-ready stance. This is obviously lit, and no one is pretending I just happened upon him like this.

Alternately, you could just ask them to do what they normally would be doing. Which seems more ethically pure, but in the back of your mind you know it isn't. For one, they are acting at your direction, and of course they will be acting differently because you are there.

Now that I am shooting outside of the restraints of the newspaper, I have much less of a problem creating a setting -- and with giving them something to do that is relevant to who they are.

For financial blogger J.D. Roth (OA here) we came up with the idea of him rolling pennies during a series of emails before the shoot. Is it a straight, hands-off portrait? Not really. Is it relevant and truthful to who he is? Yep.

The more time you spend as a photographer, the more comfortable you will get with handling people and working with them. Get comfortable with your role as not only the photographer but also psychologist and facilitator in the process. People are not professional models. They need your help.

Take this shot of blogger/copyeditor John McIntyre (OA here). It was a lit headshot, so of course I put him in a zone where I was creating a specific kind of light.

But even in that situation, you can facilitate little moments happening. If you are not getting a pose or expression you want, just tell the subject to relax for a sec, and pull away from the camera -- but keep your finger on the trigger. It helps to be on a tripod of course, and if you are using a remote you can even walk away from the camera and still be ready to shoot.

In this case, I kept the PocketWizard in my hand and walked away. That way I was still able to shoot as he checked a text on his phone during a break. John is a long-time copyeditor who is also a widely read blogger. He's equal parts old-school and web 2.0, so the moment made for an appropriate portrait.

There are lots of ways to create little moments with people in controlled situations. In addition to grabbing frames when we are "relaxing," I'll also ask people to look away for a minute (maybe shoot some then, too) and then look back when I say. You'll have a half second or so while their eye zeroes in on you, and this definitely translates to a visual connection.

When photographing a couple, shoot photos for a bit just to get them comfortable with the camera. Then try asking them how they met. This will nearly always get you a moment where they look at each other, as if making sure they both know the answer, or some brief (but real) interaction. Just make sure you have your finger on the shutter button when you ask.

I'll probably burn in photographer's hell for some of my little tricks. If I am photographing someone who is more advanced in years, I might get a little more of a visual connection with them by lowering the volume of my voice, or mumbling just a bit. Hearing at 70 ain't what it is at 20. And that brief bit of intense concentration makes for a good visual connection.

And I've done worse. I once shot a businessman who had a reputation for being a jerk with photographers. I walked in with two index cards, pre-written. One was for the receptionist, and identified myself as a photographer from the paper. I smiled and remained silent.

She went in, had a couple of words with the subject, and he invited me in -- all the while speaking loudly and slowly. I handed him a similar card, and remained silent. My thinking was that his horrible people skills (at least towards perceived underlings) would probably also put him off guard in a situation like this. And I am pretty sure it did. He all but bent over backwards for me. I got good photos in very short order and I was out the door. It was all I could do not to cheerfully thank them as I walked out.

Often, I'll come in with a pretty good idea of what they would be doing in their natural situation, but ask them anyway. Even though I may be all preplanned for a shot, if it emerges as their idea it usually seems to come across as more organic.

For this theater director I set up lights around the seats and then sat him down in that zone, suggesting he just relax and get some work done. He appreciated not having to do anything special, and I got a more organic portrait.

Always have a game plan for "What do you want me to do?" Have a Plan B, too. Anticipate that question.

You can short circuit the question by brainstorming with the subject beforehand. If you want to have people doing something specific, it really helps if they know that before they get there.

It helps them to prepare, and avoids your having to spring it on them during a shoot.

If you come up with an idea on the spot, sometimes it helps to lead by example. In the shot at left (OA here) we stuck one of the assistants into the locker before asking Shelly to do it. If he could do it, she certainly could.

Some people will be more comfortable moving into an idea incrementally than they would in one fell swoop. (I use this technique a lot.)

I like to think of this as boiling the frog. You lead them into something interesting, but do it one little step at a time.

For Jillian, a soprano I photographed for the Howard County Arts Council, we shot in a room in a luxury hotel. There are lots of choices in an environment like this, and it probably helped to work through a couple of different shots before suggesting that we do something in the shower with her in a gown with the water running.

The conversation is very incremental. If you build rapport and mutual respect as you go, there is really no telling where a portrait might end up. That progression is something to be anticipated and enjoyed, rather than being blind-sided by 'What do you want me to do?'

Watching other photographers work with their subjects is a source of endless fascination for me. That's one reason I am always on the lookout for great BTS vids or interviews with noted photographers to run on the blog.

For looks at two completely different approaches by high-end photographers for their subjects, I recommend a couple videos. First, this (annotated) video of Annie Leibovitz shooting Keith Richards, who has raised dealing with famous subjects to an art form.

And for a quieter approach, this interview with Dan Winters spends a lot of time (in the second segment) on photographer/subject interaction.


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Blogger camerakungfu said...

What no shock and awe technique? Like Avedon's "My taxi driver just ran over a dog" opener. The resulting photo: http://www.moma.org/collection/browse_results.php?object_id=128613

August 04, 2011 1:42 PM  
Blogger James said...

So what did the index cards say? Either that you couldn't hear well or you didn't speak English?

August 04, 2011 2:21 PM  
Blogger becky ruppel said...

The best money I ever spent was a workshop on the art of directing. It had nothing to do with camera technology. 25% of it was about using natural light, the other 75% was about working with people. It took my portraiture to the next level and gave me a great deal more confidence in how to ask for what I want from a subject. My work changed and I liked what I did before, but now I love it...

August 04, 2011 2:23 PM  
Blogger becky ruppel said...

The best money I ever spend was toward a workshop on the art of directing people. A little bit on using the light you have, a lot on how to connect and ask for what you want. It changed the way I shoot people and gave me the confidence to ask for what I want from a subject and to know what that is.

August 04, 2011 2:27 PM  
Blogger acmesnaps said...


This is spot on "So learn to anticipate the question, as you'll get it a lot. It's an offer of control. Be ready to accept it graciously and use it to your advantage." Respond with "I have no idea", and it might take a long time to recover confidence. Even if I don't have any idea, I'm sure not going to let 'em know. I have found that "Let's try this" is a good way to get things started because: 1) It might buy me some extra time to pull something out of the hat; 2) It gives the subject a chance to verbally respond with "I'm not sure about that" or with some equivalent non-verbal response that can provide insight on where to go next.

Your post also made me chuckle because it reminded me of a prof back in my J-school days who used to show a series of images taken at car crash scenes by a photographer at a rural paper. Funny thing is, they all had one thing in common: a pair of shoes in the foreground. How does that happen?

-- 30 --

August 04, 2011 2:38 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Etan- Thanks for the heads-up on the links. Fixed.

August 04, 2011 2:42 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Nope, they just introduced me as David Hobby, the photographer from the paper I was working for.


August 04, 2011 2:43 PM  
Blogger acmesnaps said...

Forgot to mention the sometimes most obvious response: "Just keep doing what you are doing while I get setup."

August 04, 2011 2:43 PM  
Blogger Justin said...

I've read the blog since the early days and over time I've really come to appreciate how you manage the pendulum swing between "gearhead" and "human person making photos of other human people." (So to speak.) I tend to swing heavily one way or the other in different seasons of life/career.

And for the last couple of years I've been thrust headlong into the world of video because of my day job..so no strobes on my mind for a while now, sadly..but posts like this continue to be really helpful. So thanks!

August 04, 2011 3:15 PM  
Blogger Dave6163 said...


Thanks so much for sharing your insight on stepping through those projects. Your "little moments" is a great way to catch on those small, but ever important expressions.

I just want to share with other readers, I think if someone is looking to build on this topic there are plenty of wonderful examples in the Lighting in Layers DVD. The DVD set is great instructional tutorial that covers not only flash techniques, but so much more.

August 04, 2011 5:05 PM  
Blogger Drew said...

"the moment made for a appropriate portrait"...

What would Mr McIntyre have to say about that?

August 04, 2011 7:48 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...


Ha! He'd say that it proves the world needs copyeditors. (Fixed...)

August 04, 2011 8:20 PM  
Blogger commpilot23 said...

Hi David,
Been reading your blog regularly and been experimenting more and more with lighting. I even have your DVD set. Really great stuff. Thank you.Not trying to nitpick but just happened to find a typo in the article.

"He appreciated not having to do anything special, and I got an more organic portrait."

Great site and I will continue looking forward to reading more.

August 04, 2011 9:19 PM  
Blogger Levy Carneiro Jr. said...

Nice advice, thanks!

One of the phases I heard in one of Dan Winter videos that really struck a chord with me:

"This is not a photo session, it's a portrait session".

Hopefully this puts people more at ease and they can just be themselves, which is really the point in a portrait :)


August 04, 2011 11:49 PM  
Blogger doebtown said...

I've gotten a lot of legs out of a suggestion you made on the Flash Bus Tour: "give me the look you would give yourself in the mirror right before you go into a big meeting."

August 05, 2011 12:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Parker said...

Sometimes my answer is, "Whatever you'd be be doing right now if I weren't here." People are busy enough these days to be glad to not have to dance around for me so they get back to what they were doing and forget about me.

August 05, 2011 12:07 AM  
Blogger Puggle said...

Excellent topic David.

I was painfully shy when I was younger but I now call myself a practiced extrovert.

The best class I EVER took, and I strongly recommend it to everyone, is Dale Carnegie's "How to Win Friends and Influence People".

The class taught me how to break out of my comfort zone and handle difficult people and situations.

I use the interpersonal skills the class tought me today, and I attribute much of my success in business and life, to that course.

August 05, 2011 12:20 AM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

@Commpilot23 - Thanks and thanks. Fixed.

August 05, 2011 8:35 AM  
Blogger MasterOfGoingFaster said...

"What do you want me to do?"

Me: "Nothing right now. I have to make a few exposure tests, then we will begin."

But I'm actually shooting. This way they are natural and not concerned with the camera. Some people freeze up when they pose, so I like to have a few shots in the bag before I begin directing them.

August 05, 2011 1:17 PM  
Blogger Mark D said...

Hey David,
Many, many thanks for Strobist! Have been a daily reader and experimenter since the start.

Had to smile at the excellent J.D. Roth photo. My wife worked as a teller for many years and noted that rolling coins for deposit is no longer desirable. Whenever home-rolled coin is deposited, the tellers have to unroll it in order to run it all through the automated counting machines. The only exception: rolls that came straight from the Fed. J.D. can keep it in the jug and save some time - and as we know, time = money. ;-)

August 06, 2011 10:17 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

One line I like to use with kids is " Whatever you do don't smile for this one" ...damn contrary kids lol

August 06, 2011 5:39 PM  
Blogger rossjlennox said...

Excellent advice as ever, thanks David!

August 08, 2011 8:54 AM  
Blogger Michael McMullen said...

The very next shoot I had after reading this article, I got asked by the model "what should I do". Now, while it wasn't exactly the same phrasing, I felt it was close enough to merit using your advice.

August 08, 2011 2:28 PM  
Blogger Eric Duminil said...

I feel kinda stupid, but after reading the "jerk businessman" paragraph 3 times, I still cannot understand what you did.
And especially not why you would "burn in photographer's hell" for this. :-/

Could somebody please enlighten me?

PS : That was a very interesting read, as always.

August 09, 2011 10:10 AM  
Blogger Piltdown Films said...


I think he was pretending to be deaf.

August 09, 2011 2:17 PM  
Blogger nvjims said...

I had to shoot about 50 Law Enforcement officers, and they didn't want to smile... I made comments about telling their boss about their outstanding part in finding acres of pot plants, and they all came up with a big grin... now if I could only figure out how to make their dogs to smile....

August 09, 2011 9:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thank you again for your generous contribution to the photographic community. I have always said that directing is more important in my specific job than anything else.
I have been following for a long time and appreciate the educational value as well as the humor with which you write. I loved attending the Flash Bus tour and hope you make another round in San Diego soon!

All the best to you!

August 12, 2011 12:07 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

I laughed my head off when I read the index cards paragraph. You consistently think well outside the box. Good stuff!

Even though my parents are deaf and I could fake it with the best of them, I don't think I could keep a straight face that long.

Good stuff!!

August 15, 2011 8:53 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

I'm fairly new to the site and just wanted to say thanks for the great job/work/inspiration/etc that you provide. I'm looking forward to being a longtime reader.

August 22, 2011 12:19 PM  

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