Head games in portraiture

Twice the fun--Working with multiple subjects can be doubly intimidating like it this case when I photographed Congressman Jerry Lewis of Redlands and his lovely wife, Arlene, at newly opened pool in San Bernardino.
Window light--For this portrait of French muslim scholar, I kept the situation simple. Fortunately for me, Islam was not new to me having grown in Malaysia. Ultimately the more life experiences you can bring to each portrait situation, the better off you will be.

Whether your subject is children, the hot person you just met on the street, someone you hired as a model, or the CEO at a large institution, a portrait is always a collaborative effort between you, the photographer, and your subject.

Note, I’m making an BIG assumption here.

I’m assuming you, the artist, know your brushes, paint and canvas: your entire arsenal of gear, camera, lens, lighting gear.

So your challenge is to get your subject to relax and trust you.

Most subjects who don’t know you worry about how they’ll be immortalized in a still picture.

It’s totally understandable.

Generally speaking portraiture subjects fall into these two groups:

  1. The Almighty–folks whose stature warrants an entourage
  2. Everyone else

Needless to say, those in group #1 present the most challenge simply because their time is so precious.

The trick is not to let their stature get to you.

Attorney Mary Daniels in a portrait when she was named president of the local bar association. I opted for available light in this instance because the ambience in her office was so good, I couldn't improve on it by lighting.

Your Own Psyche

If you act like you know what you’re doing, even if you don’t, your subject will be at ease.

You don’t want to be so bossy to the point you are rearranging furniture without first asking.

But you also don’t want to be such a push-over that you’ll come away with pictures you can’t be proud of.

It really is a fine line between treating them as someone really special (if they are very self-conscious) and not letting them and their entourage push you around.

Some folks assume just because you make living from photograph, you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed.

There is something in your own life which you do really well unrelated to photography which you can use to give you that shot of self-confidence should you need it.

I remind myself I know how to fly a plane.

To make things go smoothly

  • Arrive early

When you don’t give yourself enough time, you will be flustered

  • Pre-visualize the scene where you’ll shoot.

If you know before hand the location, this helps a lot since you can anticipate what gear you’ll need.
Bring as much gear as you can. You can always leave it in the trunk. That way, it’s at least an option.

  • Do some background reading on your “Almighty” subject.

The internet makes it a whole lot easier to learn about your subject especially if they are in this important group. They might even have their on Wikipedia page.

  • Engage your subject in conversation as soon as you meet.

Don’t wait till they are in front of the camera to start chatting to them.

  • Be prepared to share something personal with them

Even though most folks love to talk about themselves, you will often encounter others who are tight-lipped. Since someone has to break the ice. It better be you . But once you have them opening up, reel yourself back and let them do the talking.

Combining available light with a flash--The inside of most locker rooms are messy. That's why I turned off the overhead lights. I made this portrait at f11 with an 85mm lens. There was an open door on the left. The 2nd light source,a flash on a light stand on the right, was set to give f11 as well

Is it your picture or your subject’s?

Showing  your subject your camera’s LCD monitor after every shot can back fire on you.

You could be reduced to a button pusher or worse a photo booth.

And someone else will be making the creative choices instead of you.

I usually start off with the ‘safe’ conservative shots making sure the subject gets what they want.

Then I get increasingly more adventurous in the poses, lighting, even camera angles, use of props.

While I shoot, I’m always asking, “how do I make this better?”

If you have some other tips, do share them under comments.

Next time, I’ll share what works for me with those subjects in group #2.

Peter Phun Photography

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7 thoughts on “Head games in portraiture”

  1. Paul,
    Thanks for stopping by. I think too often photographers taking on people as their subjects forget that people , unlike landscapes and pretty scenery, don’t stay put. And even if they do, they don’t walk around with their ‘best face’ on the whole time. So photographers need to cajole and coax to bring that out.

  2. Hi Jo,
    I’m glad the commenting is working again for you. Thanks for following up and persisting. It turns out one of the plug-ins, pieces of software that comes with this WordPress blog was the problem.

    Ironically the plug-in was called “Bad Behavior.”

    You are correct, Jo. That is the attorney’s knee in the foreground in her portrait that is in profile. I had her cross her legs so the pose was more comfortable.

    Thanks again for helping me troubleshoot my “Commenting” problem.

  3. Second attempt, Peter!

    I LOVE these portraits, especially the Muslim scholar (how the lacy curtains in the background and the ornate wristwatch pick up and deepen the complex design on the book cover) and the lawyer (such a fetching combination of casualness and poise – is that her knee in the foreground?) – stunning!

    And the advice is wonderful. This is a post I will be re-reading.

  4. Thank you Jim. I felt everyone has encountered a portrait subject one time or another who intimidated them, that’s why I wrote this. Too often those learning portraiture are so caught up with their gear and lighting, they forget that the rapport is just as important for good pictures.

  5. This is some very good information Peter. Thanks for sharing it.

    The first thing I do when I get to a shoot is take several test shots to get the white balance and exposure right before I start shooting for the client. It works for me and really minimizes post processing.

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