The camera and the clown – shooting portraits

Recently, I was commissioned to shoot a portrait and well, it reminds me of all those difficult sitters who don’t want to be in front of the camera. “Oh, I hate being photographed!” they say, as they look into my lights as if they are coming right at them at speed. In fact, if you think about it; getting so close with a camera can be quite an intimate situation, putting the power squarely on the photographer. I understand this so well, as a child I would cry every time someone wanted to take a picture of me… go figure, what was going on in my young mind (so it is probably best to not analyse too much why someone hates being photographed and just get on with it – unless of course they think you are stealing their soul).
As an adult I have just learnt to use the camera for my own devices whether in front of behind it.
It’s all about evolving, so on the moment of the shoot, you have to get the person you are photographing to evolve with you, to distract them so they forget that this is something horrid to feeling, “wow, this was fun”. Yes, sometimes you have to be the clown, the court jester just to get the shot.
First off, you have to connect with the subject, talk to them, chitchat to them while you are setting up. Ask them stuff about themselves, complement them… you know all the social skills you have developed up to this point – use them. You won’t get very far if you are demure, quiet, aloof, distant and arrogant.
Some people are very difficult and tricky to get them to relax, but so long as you are relaxed and appear in control, you are one step closer to getting the shot.
When you place them in position, it’s almost like instant freeze, nervous twitches and that glazed-over terrified look. I let them know that I will guide them through the whole process – I talk randomly about what I am doing with the light as I fiddle etc. You don’t want them to feel as if they‘re at a dentist, where things get done to them. This is a partnership between them and you.
Never turn you back to them, particularly when you are analysing your digital captures and your head is buried into technical scrutiny, let them know what you are doing, every step of the way. Let them know when you are softening, cranking up the light and engage with them, show them the pics too. I have had some people get so into the shoot that by the end of it they are posing out of their own volition.
If there is an unsightly blemish, reassure them of the wonders of photoshop… most people are self conscious of one thing or another and the word ‘photoshop’ is like their faerie godmother that will transform them into their dream self – mmm well, not quite.
Almost a decade ago I had to photograph a woman in her late 60s for a magazine, she was so unbelievable camera shy, or had sheer camera fear. I had, had difficult people before but nothing had prepared me for this. We discussed the spot in her house where we would shoot the portrait, and discussed her hair and everything else. I placed the lights and positioned the camera on the tripod (the days of heavy medium format film cameras). So there were no variables she was not aware off, but she sat there and looked great and relaxed until the very moment my head looked through the viewfinder. Loss of eye contact, and I lost her. She would jump up and run to the bathroom to fix her hair, we tried again, same thing off she went to get a glass of water, and again, she was finally running out of things to go and do. I got her to look into the lens while I looked at her, everything was set so I just clicked, and clicked and clicked as I kept my eyes on her, constantly getting her to look into camera (that was the brief for the image).
I only shot one roll of film with 12 frames, but that was all I needed and a ton of patience.

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