Get the Conversation Started
People often ask me how I get such honest expressions out of the subjects I photograph. I believe the answer to this is simple: If you are honest with people, most of the time they will be honest with you in return. Good people skills are vital if you want to capture authentic and sincere images. I cringe when I see images of subjects that are not relaxed and real. Obviously composition, lighting, focus, and the like are important for a good photo, but I am specifically going to talk about how to capture authentic smiles and honest expressions in both kids and adults.
Kids will be kids, patience is a virtue, and persistence pays off. I realize those are all clichés, but they are all true! You have to be flexible when it comes to shooting children. Upon arrival, I would recommend squatting down to the child’s level, introducing yourself, and asking them a few questions. Younger kids will listen better to your direction if they think that you are interested in what they have to say. For example, I was photographing this little boy, and he wanted to play his guitar in a photo. I actually play the guitar, and I told him that I loved that idea and that I played guitar, too. I strummed a chord and he thought I was the coolest person ever. From that point on, I had his full attention. That being said, you should connect with kids before you point a camera in their face.
Once you are connected, just keep snapping the shutter! While it is great to go into a shoot with a basic idea of how you want the lighting and styling to look, it’s also good to keep in mind that kids get hungry, tired, and sometimes don’t think you’re funny. So, you might have to abandon your original idea, be fast thinking, and move onto something else.
Environment plays a big role in how comfortable a kid is in front of the camera. Sure, parks with trees and bridges make great locations, but I always feel a child is more comfortable in a familiar home environment. They are put at ease in a place they are used to. For this reason, I often suggest to parents that we shoot in their homes. One other thing you might try is to ask the parents to leave the room when you are shooting. Kids will open up and feel more relaxed when their parents aren’t staring at them ridiculously cooing and wooing.
Overall, kids are extremely perceptive, so if your disposition is fake in any way, they will sense that, becoming more difficult to photograph. All in all, just roll with the punches!
You can follow the same basic guidelines that you do with kids when you photograph adults. Maybe don’t ask them right off the bat if they are fans of Dora the Explorer, but you can definitely ask them what they do for a living. If I am taking a portrait of someone for a magazine, I often ask him or her about the article that will accompany the photo.
This is a good start to a relational conversation. The more comfortable a subject feels with you, the more comfortable they feel with the camera. Obviously, adults will take less coxing than children, and will be more open to direction from you as the photographer. If they are still feeling awkward, I like to have them do something. For example, you can suggest that they play with a necklace, pull their hair back, scratch their head, or look out a window. Tell them they look good when they do something naturally. That might sound like a cheesy form of flattery, but just be real about it. It boosts their confidence.
When asking the subject questions, shoot intermittently, and the camera will start to disappear to the subject. Assure them it will be painless. I always connect with people by saying that I hate getting my picture taken too, because I am so used to being behind the camera. I promise you will be a better photographer if you can be intuitive in your thinking, making the subject feel comfortable as you read their body language and expressions.
When photographing families, real interactions can be so beautiful! If you are having a hard time getting everyone to look at you and smile, tell a family to just laugh and talk with one another. Taking the focus off of you and the camera, you can begin to capture real moments and natural interactions. This can especially be good when a baby is not happy, and getting a “looking at the camera smiling shot” is impossible.
It also benefits you to be relational in commercial and advertising situations. I have found that being honest, personable, and relaxed will translate well with art directors and designers. They will want to hire you again because of your calm disposition, and the honest relationship you have established with them.
Like I said, composition, lighting, and focus are so important in making good photographs, but people skills are also extremely vital. Be genuine and real in relating and connecting to your subjects and clients. Honest demeanor and speech will make you a better photographer, honestly!