On Photographing People: Pt. 2

Editor's note: This is part two of Italian photographer Sara Lando's three-part series on photographing people. Part one is here.

By Sara Lando -- So you got yourself a willing subject, everything is ready, you’re pumped up and ready to shoot. Your doorbell rings. Woo hoo!

Slowly put down that camera and breath: we don’t fire yet. Now we welcome.

During the Shooting

If this is the first time you meet your subject, you want to have some kind of conversation while they relax a little bit and you study their face. If you’ve already met them before, you still let them catch their breath. Ask them something about themselves; make them talk, be interested. Create some kind of connection.

The most basic human need is to feel like someone else in this planet gives a flying duck about us. We all secretly think we’re special (and maybe our invite from Hogwarts just got lost in the mail) and the the whole process of taking someone’s portrait is to let them know we agree with this assumption.

Having your picture taken is something intimate. It is about giving someone else total control over the way they are going to be represented, and they want to feel like you are actually invested in making them look good.

You don’t have to ask them about their most intimate thoughts, though: just find something you have in common a build from that.

You’re both runners? Ask them bout their next race. They have kids? Have them talk about them.

But remember: you’re working, already. You are studying their face, the way it catches light, how they move. Finding good angles is key to a good portrait.
Let me show you why:

I have a very asymmetrical face, due to falling face first from 6 feet high when I was 4.

You might not notice it too much if I face you straight on (to accentuate it, I’m actually lighting from one side, so you can see the shape of the shadow)
This means if you photograph me from this side I’ll be OK:

And if you photograph me from this other side I’ll be mortified, no matter how well lit your picture is going to be:

Quite a difference, uh? Most people have more subtle asymmetries, but 99% of us have a better angle. Many are aware of this and they will keep presenting what they think their best side is to the camera, no matter how many times you ask them to face the other way.

This is where you decide wether you should reconsider moving your main light on the other side. And if you think their best side is the one they’re hiding, take two pictures and show them the difference. Let them know you are paying attention and all you want is to make them look good.

After my model for the day has shown me the clothes and accessories they have brought and is ready to hit the changing room, I have them sign the model release. I have stopped using paper for that, as I found that using easy-release on my iPad is more fun, much faster and I can e-mail the release to myself and them right away.

Don’t be a jerk about the release, though. Having them sign something like “I can use any of the pictures everywhere, forever and ever and you’ll never get any form of compensation” is not going to help you gain trust.

If you’re working with a creative team, you probably want to make sure that make up and hair are going to be ready in a definite amount of time. You do that by prioritizing: let the MUA know what is the focus of the picture. I’d rather have them spend more time on the hair (which is something I don’t like post-producing) than spend 20 minutes covering a zit.

Before starting to take pictures, I pop on their music. It doesn’t matter if I’d rather not listen to death metal while I work, I’m going to like it. There are 3 things you should never diss: people’s mums, their ex-partners and the music they listen to.

At this point I’ll start explaining them how I’m going to work and even if I’m eager to start, I’ll take my time with that. I will place myself right where I want them to be (thus showing no ninja is popping out to attack them) I will tell them which one is the light I want them to be facing, and I tell them that if I say “light” it means they are facing the wrong direction and they should look the other way.

I’ll also show them the masking tape cross on the floor. I will tell them that I need them to have their feet on the mark to make sure the light is beautiful on their skin, so let them know that each time I say “mark”, I want them to go back there (I never took pictures of someone named Mark, but I’d probably say “spot” in that case).

This gives them stuff to do: they’re on my team, now. This also makes it very easy to direct them, because asking them to turn, twist, move to the right (no! The other right) usually just leaves them very confused.

I also let them know that the first 20 minutes are going to be a warmup for both of us because I need to figure out some technical stuff and they need to get used to the lights and the camera. Why would I say something like that? first of all, most people’s experience of being photographed is a single shot that will go on Facebook, taken while they perform a duck face with a glass in their hand and that’s it.

I already know the first bunch of shots is going to capture a scared/stiff person who doesn’t know what to do, but if I don’t tell them it’s normal for me to take many pictures, they’ll think I keep doing it because they are not good enough.

The picture on the left is a very normal awkward first picture while I test lights. People, without directions, will just face the camera straight on and look uncomfortable. The picture on the right is 5 minutes later.

Let them know they’re doing great, keep the energy level high, let them have fun. Stopping too often because you need to adjust stuff is normal when working with professional models, but can be very upsetting for the average Joe.

You want to make everything in your power to make sure they’re having a great time and they feel taken care of. This is particularly important if you’re asking them to do something weird or extreme (e.g. shooting naked on the snow means you have hot tea waiting for the model in between shots and a warm blanket, or if you have your subject fully painted, you need to make sure you have a shower at hand).

Being considerate is probably the easiest part, but if you want them to really act natural in front of your camera, you want to prevent them from feeling stupid. What does this mean?

If there are people on set giggling, the subject will think they are laughing at them. Don’t be afraid to (kindly) throw people out of your set. Unless that’s the client, in which case you should take the time to explain why their behavior is going to cost them money.

Also make sure there aren’t several people shouting directions at once. This can happen when the subject mum/ fiancé /best friend is watching. It often comes from a good place, but is a recipe for disaster. There should be only one top dog on set, and you have to make sure it’s the one holding the camera. If everything else fails, have them hold a reflector while facing the wall. This won’t make much for your light but will make everything lighter just the same.

Connect with your subject, not with the gear. The more time you spend adjusting stuff, the more they will think they are not good enough.

Don’t be afraid to look silly while you are shooting. Show them what you want them to do. Go there yourself. If someone is not used to posing, mirroring your poses will be easier. Or at least tear some pages from magazines that they can copy. Quick tip: if you want them to turn their body, ask them to turn their feet your way and move in front of them. It’s easier and quicker.

If something is not working, keep shooting a couple of pictures before changing it up. Smile while you do this, or people will think it’s their fault, and will get frustrated or scared (imagine a dentist looking at your mouth saying to himself “hmmm… this probably could work… no wait, this sucks”)

Start from something relatively easy and comfortable for both you and the subject and then build the photo from there, then go back to something simple at the end of the shooting, when they are more relaxed. Taking pictures “just for the LOLS” after the official shooting is over often leads to way better and more natural posing.

Have fun. Let them go crazy and then bring them back. It’s important to find a balance between under-directing your subject (standing there without knowing what you’re supposed to be doing really sucks, which is why I really think each portrait photographer should have their picture taken regularly) and over-directing them (they might become really stiff really quick).

Asking people to scream, give me their best pirate face, saying something totally weird or having them jumping on beds is pretty much standard practice. Not that I care about taking pictures of people acting silly, I just want the picture that comes right after that.

The “official” shot is on the right. On the left, what was happening moments before.

Here’s a good example of what I’m saying. Angelica is an adorable girl who’s pretty shy. She doesn’t have much experience in front of the camera and she doesn’t know her angles yet.

When we started shooting, she was evidently uncomfortable, she was posing after each shot and waiting for the next one and she wasn’t really *looking* at me, but she was rather resting her eyes somewhere behind me, without focusing them, which is very common when uncomfortable people try to “zone out”.

So how did I get from the picture on the left to the picture on the right?

1) I moved the main light to have her show her best side.

2) I walked to her and started explaining what I wanted while focusing on a spot on the wall behind her back. Yeah, it was weird. Then I looked right in her eyes and said “can you see the difference now? This is why I need you to really look at me." I also shared a trick models often use: look down and then look at me when I ask you.

3) We forgot about taking pictures and spent about 10 minutes doing this. There was a lot of laughing involved.

4) I gave her a story to play in her head. If I tell someone “hunch your shoulders and look sad, but still elegant” it’s probably going to look fake. I’d rather say something like “imagine you are a very rich woman and you just got home from a party. You realize all these people don’t care about you: you are alone and it hurts." They are going to fill the gaps with their own experience and that’s what I want.

5) I asked her to perform a specific action (cross you arms and stroke your hair while you look at me) rather than holding a pose. If she has a gesture to perform, her hands are going to look natural.. She was transitioning too fast at first, but it took less than five minutes to show her what I wanted and we were great after that.

Note: I am a tiny girl with a tiny voice. If I curse like a sailor and pull out a gun most people will still react as if I were pretty much harmless (and they’d be right. I’d end up shooting my foot). If you are a huge man with a beard and a peg leg and you are taking pictures of young girls, you need to factor that in.

When I say “OMG That bra is so awesome!” to a model, we’ll end up talking about lingerie. If a man says that, it’s a creepy way of hinting he was looking at boobs.

For the same reason you never ever touch a model. Have a female assistant fixing that shoulder strap for you, or ask the model to do so herself. And if for any reason people need to change on your set, that’s the best moment to chimp at your camera.

Don’t try to be funny or witty if you’re uncomfortable, but being likable helps. Treat your subjects the way you wish you would be treated if you were in front of the camera. If the person in front of you is evidently anxious, talk to them with the same tone you would use to calm down a scared kid. Your tone and body language should say “Everything we’ll be alright. I have it. We’ll get through this."

Make it a good experience for them and they are going to like the pictures before they even see them. Most of all, remember to have fun. You are doing what you love to do, enjoy it!

Coming next: Pt. 3 - After the Shooting


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Blogger Stephanie Simpson said...

Really excellent article. Thanks for your great tips!

August 13, 2012 11:13 AM  
Blogger Heather Nilson said...

Slam dunk number 2. (Or do I mean nutmeg?) Anyway, thanks for another excellent post.

August 13, 2012 12:11 PM  
Blogger markblock said...

Wow.. Those comments are invaluable, and obviously obtained by a tremendous amount of experience. Thank you. ~Mark

August 13, 2012 12:36 PM  
OpenID kenkyee said...

"If everything else fails, have them hold a reflector while facing the wall"

LOL. I'll have to remember that one :-)

August 13, 2012 12:58 PM  
Blogger Adam James said...

I really enjoyed reading this - something I will definitely take away is using the subject's imagination to help them post/gesture.

Also: "... If everything else fails, have them hold a reflector while facing the wall. This won’t make much for your light but will make everything lighter just the same" is just brilliant.

August 13, 2012 1:04 PM  
Blogger OiD said...

I found this one a lot more interesting and funny thant the previous one, lots of bits of info that are very usefull. Hope to see the third one soon!

August 13, 2012 1:09 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

I like the third image you took of yourself to indicate "your best side" which apparently you don't agree with.
Beauty in the eye of the beholder or perhaps I'm just flat out wrong.

Great read, thank-you.

August 13, 2012 1:12 PM  
Blogger marco said...

Excellent, as always.

There are two pictures I consider your own signature. One is called here strobist_during6.jpg with that awesome looking girl.

The other it's you with a white wig.

August 13, 2012 1:15 PM  
OpenID otsography said...

I adore this series -- it's perfect for me right now, as I'm transitioning from candid portraits to formal.

I suspect this will become a "must read" for my models (and the other photographers on my team)-- something for them to do after greetings and while I'm getting set up.

August 13, 2012 1:44 PM  
Blogger Lincoln Brigham said...

It's true that most people have a good side. It's a good reminder. But it's also true that people often have a very warped perspective on their own looks and the sound of their own voice. They are often quite wrong about their own looks. The TV show "What Not To Wear" is a great example, as is Stefi Graf's famous profile from her Sports Illustrated photoshoot. Like others, I also prefer the third shot of the author's "mortified" face.

August 13, 2012 1:45 PM  
Blogger Michèle said...

I enjoyed the first one, really found the second one refreshing and interesting! Thanks for sharing. I look forward to read the third part! - Michele

August 13, 2012 2:10 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Absolutely excellent and witty articles. Thank you for inviting her to share.

August 13, 2012 2:13 PM  
Blogger Dream Boy Martin Kimeldorf said...

This great, like the first one!!! I wrote a whole book of short improve stories to get the looks of clowning around to melodramatic. It is great fun and now I see this pro is using the same thing.

Todally works, her message is spot on!

August 13, 2012 2:29 PM  
Blogger SKY7 STAFF said...

Thanks for your article. I've been trying to practice on people who I know are already comfortable in front of the camera, but this gives me much needed insight on shooting those who are mortified. I think the photographer's level of comfort and calm is extremely essential. And I've noticed that the more I relaxed and had a good time, the more relaxed the model became, and the better my shots we made.

August 13, 2012 3:51 PM  
Blogger SKY7 STAFF said...

Thanks, very useful for a noob. When everyone's relaxed and having a good time, everything works way better. So true.

August 13, 2012 3:55 PM  
Blogger M said...

Great shade-tree psychology - again. Learned a few thing...

August 13, 2012 5:23 PM  
Blogger Dream Boy Martin Kimeldorf said...

Sara is totally on the money. Loved her first post and this second one sings to my heart. Good to fine that one one has been doing is validated by a pro like Sara.

I have written a small book of posing improvisational prompts called "loosen up before the lens". And int he spirit of sharing, I would be happy to make a few copies available for no charge via Sara if she is so inclined..

Look forward to her next installment.

August 13, 2012 7:16 PM  
Blogger Nasty Clamps said...

You are oh-so-right to say: "There are 3 things you should never diss: people’s mums, their ex-partners and the music they listen to."

Interestingly – of these three – it's people's musical tastes that are often the most contentious, and an area when the photographer (and crew) needs to tread lightly.

As much as I might despise adult-contempory music, I will, if need be, put Air Supply's Greatest Hits on tortuous repeat –– especially if playing "All Out Of Love" over and over is the catalyst towards a great shoot.

August 13, 2012 7:26 PM  
Blogger DGV said...

(thus showing no ninja is popping out to attack them) - ROFL

August 13, 2012 8:49 PM  
Blogger Blonde Woman Stamping said...

Really, really enjoying these wonderful articles by Sara. Can't wait for part 3. Yay, Sara!

August 13, 2012 8:55 PM  
Blogger odnarim said...

i can relate to all your comments and already use many of the techniques and will take advantage of some that i haven't thought of before. the one weird thing is i like your "bad side" much more than your "good side." oh well - subjectivity.

August 13, 2012 11:50 PM  
Blogger Patrick said...

This is great stuff. As a photographer that is new to working with models this is fantastic. I will refer back to this more than once I'm sure. Thanks for writing this.

August 14, 2012 12:29 AM  
Blogger Dave Connelly said...

WOW!!! Quality article. Thank you Sara. 3 gold stars.

August 14, 2012 3:25 AM  
Blogger Wally said...

These are really excellent articles!

August 14, 2012 7:59 AM  
Blogger Gary Wornell said...

David - I rarely comment on your posts - for the simple reason that being in awe can leave me without words. You have been the source of my lighting inspiration now for several years - thanks. It is your casual humorous approach that makes the learning so great. Sara's two part series now is icing on the cake. I love shooting portraits - more than any other subject and Sara's way to connect with her subject is absolutely spot on. Thanks to both of you.

August 14, 2012 8:04 AM  
Blogger Mark W said...

So, is it bad if I could not look at those good side and bad side pictures and identify them. I've taken portraits of a decent number of people, and have only on maybe one or two occasions noticed a better side. I guess I'm not observant enough.

August 14, 2012 1:27 PM  
Blogger spottheblogger said...

I think the reason so many of us prefer the "bad side" photo is because of how intimate and revealing it is. In that photo we see what she is "really like" instead of the "pretty face" of her good side view. When she shares the intimate "bad side" photo with us, we feel like we really know her. When we look at the "good side" photo, she's untouchable, like a magazine model - someone we will never really know.

August 14, 2012 1:37 PM  
Blogger Sven Hedlund said...

Thanks so much for all those useful advice! Needless to say that I eagerly await Pt 3!

August 14, 2012 2:15 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

I guess my point with the "bad side" is exactly that: what you might think is more interesting would be something I'm really uncomfortable with.
Not knowing that, you might end up taking pictures I would ask you not to show, that I won't buy and that I won't share. And I wouldn't shoot again with someone who made me feel uncomfortable.

There isn't much objectivity in what people hate about themselves and is usually a mix of what they were teased about when they were kids, mental image of themselves vs what a camera captures and pure madness. If they're females, double the madness.

My point it, you need to be able to either recognize and avoid that or make sure you have their collaboration before taking a picture that would make them feel betrayed.
Unless you don't care much about the subject's opinion because part of your process is about exposing weaknesses. It can be interesting from an artistic point of you, but unless the photos come out amazing, you might end up just being just another A-hole with a camera.

August 15, 2012 6:01 AM  
Blogger Marc Gong said...

Awesome, lots of useful information. Thanks for sharing.

August 15, 2012 6:23 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Great article!
I do, however, disagree about never touching a model. Everyone, of course, has their different personal boundaries, but a sometimes a small amount of physical contact (in a non-sexual manner - for example fixing stray hair or adjusting a collar) can break down barriers and make people a lot more at ease.

August 16, 2012 8:51 PM  
Blogger Paul Bohman said...

You've written some great suggestions that are more about the people skills than about the technical side of photography.

I like both your good and bad sides, by the way. Assymetry is not really a problem, in my opinion. You just have to watch to make sure the lighting and pose work well together.

A while back, I was photographing a friend of mine who was mortified when I asked her to turn in profile. She was very self conscious of her nose, thinking that she fit the Jewish stereotype too well. The problem at that point was not really her nose, but her perception about her nose. I abandoned the profile idea because of how self-conscious she was about it, not because her nose looked bad.

August 16, 2012 9:43 PM  
OpenID bencaty41 said...

I like the third image you took of yourself. Beauty in the eye of the beholder or perhaps I'm just flat out wrong.

August 16, 2012 11:29 PM  
Blogger Fenix Fotography said...

While I agree it's important never to be creepy--I'm male, have facial hair and specialize in fashion and boudoir. So I think my opinions about lingerie are extremely valid. In fact I think I have better tastes in these areas than a lot of my female subjects. Besides the fashion aspect, there's also fit/shape, color, texture--all aspects of a photo I don't want to give up.

Perhaps I'm over-reacting, but I do feel that saying certain areas of discussion are of limits because of gender is well, just wrong. Especially when it's part of what people are paying me for. I for one would never tell a woman that her opinion on certain traditionally male subjects wasn't valid.

August 18, 2012 7:21 PM  
Blogger Sara Lando said...

@Fenix: well, as a general rule I think we can agree portrait photography and boudoir are not the same. They overlap in places, but I assume (and hope) you wouldn't photograph a 15 years old shy girl the same way you'd take picture of a glamour model.
There are no area of discussion that are off limits, in my opinion, but thinking that gender is not a factor would be a bit naive: you are a male and you need to take that into consideration when dealing with female subjects, most of all if they are inexperienced in front of a camera.
If you work in fashion I suppose you work with models (who aren't nervous about having their picture taken) and there is a stylist on set. You would discuss the lingerie with the stylist, in that case and it would be the stylist who would adjust it, if needed.
There are exceptions of course, there are people who really don't mind. And if in your experience gender it is not an issue... good for you!

Certain women are uneasy in front of male doctors and that has nothing to do with the doctor. And there's nothing "wrong" about it. And the more they are uneasy, the less likely they are to tell the doctor "I don't like being in front of you".
My point is, when you are behind a camera you come from a position of power, whether you realize it or not. You can decide to ignore it (and I usually really enjoy the stories female models tell me, when this happen) or you can respect other people's weaknesses and work around it.
In my personal experience, it is always the waekest element in a group that dictates the pace: standing in fron of a camera in your undies can be empowering for some, but most women find it a bit scary...

BTW. I never said your opinion wasn't valid and I never said portrait was a "female subject". But I am assume if I started talking about how being kicked in the nuts doesn't hurt THAT much you'd be smiling a little bit. Juuust a little bit :)

August 19, 2012 5:10 AM  
Blogger Greg said...

I'd like to add one more thing to the whole good side/bad side issue. The "bad" side actually looks better to me, because the asymmetry of the face is hidden by the hair, etc. However, it is very noticeable in the portraits that you are MUCH more comfortable in the "good" side portrait. Photographing you, this would present a conundrum.

If photographing the "good" side the photographer would have to spend a lot less time trying to get you to feel comfortable, and could spend a lot more time trying to get just the look they're after. This would definitely make everything go more smoothly, but could ultimately result in inferior photographs.

If they photograph the "bad" side then they would need to convince you that the "bad" side really looks better, and that the end result will be something you'll both be happy with. Even then, you might refuse (likely would, darn photographers as models... :)

The point (which you make) is that the photographer has to make trade-offs and work with the model, not just give orders. If the photographer really wants to photograph what the model considers their bad side, the photographer has to decide whether it is better to agree with them for the smoothness of the flow, or to take the time to try to convince the model that photographing what they consider their bad side will result in better pictures.

September 27, 2012 10:16 AM  
Blogger Jon Legge said...

This is a great post, I envy your skill! The only thing I disagree with is the use of music. Photography, like prayer, should be carried out in SILENCE! : )

September 10, 2013 6:04 AM  

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