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5 minute read

Build Your People Skills for Better Portraits

Find out how simple ways of planning your portrait session and interacting better with your subjects can improve your portraits

Good portraits are often the product of great human relationships. Whether it’s a quickly caught moment showing an intimate expression of a family member, or a considered character study of someone you’ve only just met, successful pictures tend to feature a connection between the subject and the photographer, one that reaches out through the finished photo to the viewer. Skilled portrait photographers know how to form these relationships fast, so their pictures can benefit even if they’re only with their subject for a short period of time.

As you start to create more portraits, concentrate on things beyond the technical aspects of photography and work on your people skills. There are plenty of simple things you can do to improve your interactions, here are just a few of them…

Before the Session

If you’re photographing someone you already know, you should have a solid base to build on. But even close family members may not know you ‘as a photographer’, especially if making pictures isn’t something you’ve done together before. Indeed, picking up a camera can change a relationship, even with people you know, particularly if they’re not comfortable being photographed. So, it’s well worth taking time to talk about the session before you make any pictures. You can even have a trial run, which can take some of the awkwardness out of things. This gives the subject a better idea of how you like to work.

If you’re making portraits of someone you’ve never met, lots of communication before the session is vital. Many portrait photographers get together with their subjects well before even picking up a camera, and that’s especially true in the field of weddings and social portraiture, where multiple meetings help build trust and share ideas.

Do Your Research

Whether it’s lighting, location, style or posing, if you have a particular look in mind, it’s really helpful to build a collection of reference photos, both for yourself and your subject to use. You can do this online on a site like Pinterest, or in print, but the most important thing is that you and your subject are figuratively on the same page before the session. A simple ‘mood board’ or ‘look book’ can help them decide on outfits and styling, as well as how to project themselves in front of the camera.  

Remember It’s a Collaboration

It takes two people to make a portrait and, in many ways, engagement from your subject is just as important as anything you, the photographer, are doing. As humans, we’re hardwired to read body language, so if your subject is uptight, nervous or just plain disinterested, it’ll be pretty clear in the final images.

Putting your subject at ease and building a rapport can be done in many ways, but the simplest is just to be friendly and open. Remember that, barring professional models, most people can be slightly uncomfortable in front of the camera, or at least not act like themselves. Most photographers feel this when they’re on the other side of the camera, too!

At the start of the session, set out what it’s going to involve – preferably over a coffee – and share some small talk before you get down to making pictures, then keep the chat going as you work. And even if you’re on the clock and burning through hire time at a studio, try to stay relaxed because any tension transfers to the subject and has an effect on the look of the images.

Improve the Environment

Whether you’re working in a studio or in another location chosen by you, there’s a good chance it’ll be a new place for your subject. So, how do you put them at ease?

First off, unless the session specifically requires it, make sure the place is clean and tidy. This makes it an easier, more inviting, safer place to work. Then, you can keep your attention on interacting and directing the subject, rather than messing about with props and equipment. A jumble of leads and lighting stands puts no one in a good mood!

Many portrait photographers like to play music during a session, which is a great way of relaxing everyone involved, as well as eliminating any awkward silences while you’re setting up or considering your settings. Obviously, you’ll want to tailor your choice to fit the situation, though!

You can also improve the working environment by taking frequent breaks. Let’s face it, modeling and making photos can take a lot of energy. Not only does a rest keep things fresh, you can use the time to chat, assess what you’ve created so far, and think about where you might take the session next.

Work on Your Direction

Keeping the conversation and direction flowing during the session is really important, as it’s your way of guiding the subject. It’s often better to deliver direction through suggestions rather than orders, and that maintains a collaborative atmosphere. Show some of the pictures you’ve made so far on the LCD screen, and if there are certain things you need to improve, point out the difference that small movements can make to the overall impression of the image. You can even act out the poses you want to achieve and let the subject look through the camera for a bit, which is a great way of breaking down barriers.

If you want to show images on a larger screen, fire up your X Series camera’s Wi-Fi and connect to the FUJIFILM Camera Remote app on your smartphone or tablet. It’s a great way of making the subject feel involved and it helps you assess the images better.

Another important factor in direction is asking whether it’s okay to physically touch the subject. Some people are happy with this, but for others it’s uncomfortable, so make sure you check and respect any boundaries.

If your subject is particularly nervous in front of the camera, asking them to smile or look down the lens can make them feel even more uneasy and result in poses that are stiff and awkward. In situations like this, try distracting them by giving them something to do, such as tying their hair, rolling up their sleeves or spinning on the spot. This can be very effective when photographing children, so if your subject is a kid, plan ahead and get hold of some toys!

Take the Camera Out of the Equation

Another way of improving your rapport with the subject is to use the camera in ways you might not be familiar with. For instance, try composing using the rear LCD instead of the viewfinder. This way of working, where the camera isn’t blocking your face, means you can communicate with your subject more easily. You can help matters by using the Face/Eye Detection AF mode, which holds focus as you move the camera around.

Another idea to experiment with is switching between the electronic and mechanical shutter. When using the electronic shutter, the camera can make a picture silently, and this can be very helpful in creating natural-looking images of people who are confident in front of the camera. Conversely, some experienced models like the feedback of hearing the shutter click, as they can use it as a cue to change poses. Pick whichever makes your subject more comfortable.

To learn more about making portraits, and all other aspects of photography, sign up to the FUJIFILM Photo School using the form below and receive FREE weekly photography lessons direct to your inbox!