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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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