Sooner or later, almost everyone has to sit alone in front of a camera for a grad portrait or professional headshot. It is almost always an uncomfortable experience for portrait clients. But it’s easy to forget this as photographers.
When I great people for their portraits they often confess things like, “I’m terrible with photos,” “I feel sick,” or “I hate my face.”
Perhaps because I’m so empathetic, I’ve developed a knack for making the most nervous and hopeless people shockingly excited about their photos.
In this article, I’ll show you how I do it so that you can make even your most uncomfortable portrait clients happy with their experience.
1. Simple Light Setup
Since everyday life already throws you a heavy load of distractions and difficulties, I always encourage photographers to keep their projects as simple (but meaningful) as possible.
No matter how you choose to light your portrait subject, I recommend you do it as simply as possible. The point is to put all your focus on the person you’re photographing, not on equipment.
I either use natural light (a window and a reflector), or a one light setup inspired by Zack Arias.
The benefit to natural light is that there are no flashes of light or large umbrellas to make the person feel as though they are at a high-pressure professional photo session. Your subject’s imagination is filled with the photo shoots they’ve seen on TV and you should relieve that pressure for them.
Using natural light and a silent shutter with a mirrorless camera allows the photography part to be as invisible as possible.
My one light setup includes a speedlight with a 60-inch umbrella and a reflector.
Once set up, you should forget about your gear (the window, speedlight, and the camera) and focus 100% on your subject.
2. How to Focus
This isn’t about your camera, but focusing on your subject in order to make the best portraits possible.
If you are at all self-conscious as a photographer, it is absolutely critical that you do not focus on yourself.
Perhaps you’re nervous because of a lack of confidence, or because you’re worried they’ll hate their photos. Forget all that and just focus on your subject.
“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” — Edward Steichen
Feel free to warm up with some “test shots,” even if you don’t really need them. Have your subject sit in front of the camera for a few shots where you’re doing nothing but “testing the light.”
Direct them a little bit, but nothing too serious. I sometimes transition into the real photos by saying something funny like, “Okay the light is perfect, now let me see a cheesy smile.” It can often lead to some laughter and the first candid photo.
“There is one thing the photograph must contain, the humanity of the moment.” — Robert Frank
Yes, even a professional headshot session should include some informal candid photos. Candids are real, and even if you’re after a posed photo, candids are the path to discovering who they are when their guard is down.
3. Finding Soul
“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.” — Yousuf Karsh
I don’t care whether I’m photographing real estate agents, future lawyers, high school grads, or “mompreneurs.” I treat everybody like an executive, valedictorian, or royalty during their portrait session.
We’re all much deeper than our occupation, even though it may be a deep expression of who we are. Fill your sessions with lightheartedness and true human connection. When you look through your photos later, you should be able to see the moment that your subject finally became relaxed.
Once relaxed, you’ll find the “real” person that was trapped below the surface of fake smiles and self-consciousness.
It may take you 10 minutes or more to get there, but it is the point in the session that you can move through your creative vision with your subject. You can show them how to squinch (Peter Hurley’s famous technique with the eyes), strike more advanced poses, or move in for close-ups.
4. Completely Candid
“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” — Paul Caponigro
Being inspired by photojournalism and the idea of capturing truly raw, candid, spontaneous photos, I decided to try a portrait session with no posing. All there would be was conversation and pictures.
Here are some of the results, which I love.
The next time you greet a nervous portrait client, remember that the experience has been hyped up in their mind. Distract them from their discomfort with small talk, warm them up with “no pressure” test photos, and make laughter a part of your session.
Include the candid photos when you deliver their photos. Even if they don’t use them for business purposes, they may be the photos they (and you) love most.
I’d love to hear what else you do to help people get comfortable in front of your camera. Let me know in the comments below.
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