Friday, November 19, 2004

Gain trust for portraits

When making most portraits, PJs want the subject to be relaxed and look pleasant. Frequently, it's the subject's chance to shine and get recognition for achievements. Consequently, PJs and subjects must work together and trust each other.

Often, PJs are required to be part sociologist and part stand-up comedian to accomplish the images. Meanwhile, the patience clock (or cross-town fire) starts ticking the second the PJ arrives.

Personal space
It’s possible to get too close to someone’s personal space (particularly with wide-angle lenses). Each person has a different comfort level for personal space. Often this is dictated by culture. Americans are notorious for wanting lots of personal space while people in many other countries are comfortable in close proximity.

This can cause conflict and misunderstandings while shooting. PJs know we could stand across the room with a 600mm and shoot unflatteringly tight shots of anyone. We also know we can stand a few feet away with an ultra-wide-angle lens and shoot the entire person and most of the room. These are mechanical and technical issues the subject may not understand.

The subject only knows when the PJ is too darn close for comfort. Therefore, the subject becomes uncomfortable and looks as much in the images.

Build trust
To overcome this situation, it takes some trust building. Since PJs don’t typically have oodles of time with the subject, we need to have a plan for a successful portrait session.

The subject must know what the PJ is doing and why s/he’s doing it. The subject also wants to be reassured that they don’t look strange. Some subjects may have had bad experiences with photographers in the past. Now, they assume every photo will be as bad. It’s the PJ’s job to quickly convince them otherwise.

Trust is normally built within the first few minutes of meeting the subject. In these critical first few minutes, the subject will assess how personable, talented, skilled, honest and creative the PJ is. Whatever happens next reinforces any of these initial concepts.

Consequently, the most important first impression for the subject should be a warm, genuine smile from the PJ. Maybe it's a Texan thing, but I always offer to shake hands upon meeting a subject (if I have a free hand). If I don’t have a free hand, I typically say, "I'd shake hands, but my hands are full." This is the first step to gain trust. A handshake is an implied truce.

Next, if the shoot is indoors, ask to enter the home or facility. For portraits, the PJ is the subject's guest. As such, the PJ should be courteous and work with the subject. If PJs need extra equipment from the car, ask if it's OK to reenter without knocking before leaving the location.

The courtesy shown by PJs buys more time for the total shoot. It's also important to use set-up time to reassure the subject and build some trust.

We ask to see some different rooms or patio options. We look around the scenes to find a visually clean shooting area. We're also looking at personal artifacts around the room to find common interests to break the ice. The PJ can comment about a few artifacts, ask questions or relate a story to find common ground.

Once we've chosen an area, we set up. While setting up light stands and tripods, PJs explain what they're about to do. We explain how many frames we'll use, how bright the strobes or flash is and why we're using it. If we're using a florescent gel, we show the subject the gel and tell them they don't want to be this color (bug green).

Be confident
From the subject's point of view, the PJ is a visual brain surgeon. They expect the PJ to be a knowledgeable, confident expert and everything to go smooth. Even if the camera bursts into flames, don’t freak out. If PJs freak, subjects freak and everything slides quickly downhill.

Likewise, if PJs are confident in their technical wizardry, the subject is happy and works with the PJ to make nice images. As we've discussed, we're working toward 100 frames. Consequently, there will be a few lens, lighting and scene changes during a portrait session. Use the subject's stress breaks to chimp a bit and tell the subject how well everything is going. They want to be reassured as much as possible. Say, "I've extracted the tumor and you'll be fine."

Explain issues before they happen
I know my bald scalp sweats a lot while I shoot with a tripod and my big strobes. It could be below freezing, and I'll sweat. Normally, I wear a boonie cap and it soaks up the perspiration. But I still explain this to the subject before I start setting up lights.

I explain that I'm making exposure calculations in my head, and I'll probably sweat. I also quickly add how light is measured in square roots and lenses are in cube roots and how everything comes out right to make the subject look "mah-velous." Then, the subject expects me to sweat and won't worry about my health or if I really know what I'm doing. It's expected and accepted.

Start wide and close
PJs know the first few frames are typically "warm-up" frames. These are the ones where the subject gets accustomed to the strange person who’s invaded their home or office with lights and tripods and other unknown objects.

Since these first few frames are often light tests and aren't expected to be the best shots, PJs can work this discomfort to their advantage. Explain to the subject what a wide angle lens is. Explain we can see all or most of the whole room, but it makes things look farther away than they really are. Next, explain how we need to set it really close to make the subject dominate the frame.

Then, set the tripod right next to them where their head fills the frame on the widest setting. Give the subject a moment to look at the camera. Then shoot to test the light level.

What just happened?

We built trust, we quickly moved inside their comfort zone and made an image. For the subject, the worst is over. From here, PJs can back away frame by frame and the subject relaxes with each step of distance. Even if PJs change to a 200mm, it won't appear as bad to the subject as the ultra-close wide-angle image. The subject looks comfortable and is relieved the PJ is further across the room.

It's often a mistake to start long and work to wide because the subject feels invaded as PJs get closer. The subject's body language shows this level of discomfort or irritation, which isn't what PJs want as shoots progress.

Sense of humor
If the PJ has a good sense of humor, use it. Subjects appreciate a little levity to lighten the mood while they're uncomfortable. I've found different accent imitations help get subjects to do what I need.

An Arnold Schwarzenegger impression gets football players to stand straight. A bad French accent gets folks to relax their hands. Thick Texas drawls, or any popular animated cartoon character voice (Crush from "Finding Nemo" is my favorite) amuses the subject. However, don't wear out any one accent. Switch them up so the subject knows you're doing your best to amuse them (and yourself).

It's always nice to hear, "This was fun," from a portrait subject when I leave. It means I did my job and put the subject at ease. No matter how the final image looks, the subject will probably like it because it was a fun break from their daily life.

Enough for now,


Daniel Han said...

I wanted to know how to run a portrait session smoothly and professionally, but no one explained it this well.

Thank you Mark! You're an inspiration.

Mark M. Hancock said...

Thanks Daniel. Portrait sessions should be fun. Good luck.

Shropshire said...

This is a fantastic post, thank you Mark. I'm till trying to get people to relax and smile, especially on a super tight deadline.

For example, the Saturday just gone, I was at a charity meal which wasn't due to start until 7:30 pm. as it was the last one of the day and I was dog tired by this point, I wanted to get it over and done with and the pics sent off before 9pm. I got there at 6:45 and get ready, the room was lit by super warm lights, just a few stops short of gym lights. I used a Full and a half CTO to balance and because the groups were going to be big, I bounced the flash with iTTL.

Anyway, people started arriving at 7pm and the place was getting full pretty fast. I only had a few minutes with each group and I needed 5 pics.

I can usually make people laugh but I was so stressed, the room was tiny and I couldn't back up enough to get the 8-9 people in. I spent most of the time shouting moving instructions as it was so noisy, I had to repeat myself three to four times. After they were in a rough approximation of order all I had time left to do was count down 3 to 1 and smile. The pics are fine technically but for composition and engagement they are lacking.

I like the idea of using the wide to get them to relax when you start making proper exposures. I was wondering if you had any tips on how to deal with a situation like that one above?

Mark M. Hancock said...

Yes, I should write group-portrait solutions as a full-length post. However, it must wait a few months.
Whenever mass portraits are required (aside from sportraits), I tend to use sofas and chairs to make rows. This fills the frame more naturally. I'll place one or two less people in the front row to balance the images (i.e. two front / three back or two front / four back).
Placement depends on the formality of the event and the age/flexibility of the subjects. If it's a really large group, I tend to use triangular or wedge arrangements and try to get a ladder or some other elevation. This complements the lens angle and adds depth to the image by varying the relative size of the subjects. Because you're shooting from above, the plane of focus shifts and more faces are in sharp focus. This arrangement also uses the floor to create a clean background.
Knowing various setups before arriving speeds things along. In college, I'd arrange different-sized coins to learn the patterns. The largest coins are closest to the camera and the smallest are farther away. Look at playing cards or dice for suggestions.
Once you learn the patterns, you can quickly fill the frame and keep everyone happy.
To deal with the noise, you need to be part mime. :-)