Over the years I've read or scanned dozens of books about portraiture. With few exceptions, they go into great detail about how to light your subject, how to light the background, what types of poses look best for various types of faces and bodies, what lens to use, the virtues of color versus black and white... In short, they're fixated on equipment and technique. It's as if they believe that portraiture is essentially an exercise in posing and lighting.
If you've ever sat for a portrait, however, you know different. Rare is the person who feels completely comfortable sitting in front of a camera and lights. You probably felt self-conscious. Nervous. Possibly even panicked. You weren't sure what to do. You wondered whether your smiles looked natural or forced; whether your imperfections would be exposed for all to see. Above all, you wanted to look good, or at least not like an idiot.
Well, guess what? Your subjects feel the same way. Some may come right out and tell you. Others will make jokes to hide their nervousness and insecurity. And let's not forget those poor souls who sit mute with terror. Whatever their state of mind might be, you won't be helping it by focusing all your attention on your camera, lenses, lights and reflectors. What you need to focus your attention on is your subject.
To be more specific, turn your empathy sensors up to maximum. Look for ways to make them feel more at ease in an unfamiliar situation. Questions you should be asking yourself include:
- Is the room temperature comfortable? No one looks their best when they're freezing or sweating.
- Would your subject like a refreshment or a visit to the rest room?
- Does your subject want to talk? If so, listen and encourage them to tell you more.
- Does your subject seem more the quiet type? If so, have a few stories you can talk about to engage their interest and help relieve their nervousness.
- Are you giving positive feedback? If someone looks great in a particular pose, tell them in no uncertain terms. (Examples: Wow! That's fabulous! That's a keeper! Perfect!)
- Are your instructions short and unambiguous? Telling someone to "turn a little" is confusing. Telling them to "turn your face toward the light" or to "raise your chin" lets them know exactly what you want them to do.
- Are you telling the subject what you're doing and what you're looking for? Doing this makes them feel as if they are a part of the process. If you're lucky, they'll give you exactly what you're looking for and maybe more.
Finally, pay close attention to the emotional connection you make with your subject and how that connection is mirrored in their expressions. A subtle change in expression can make the difference between a good portrait and a great one. What it all boils down to this is: If you want portraits that will make an emotional connection with viewers, you're going to have to be mindful of the emotional connection you make with your subjects. Make that your priority and the quality of your portraits will improve where it matters most.