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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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