Anonymous said: Hi Zack, love your stuff. What would you do on a portrait shoot, if your subject is 'against you'? He needs to be photographed but he doesn't want to. He only gives a blank look... I had this guy and it was terrible. He wouldn't even talk. I talked to him and made him smile but before my eye hit the viewfinder, he transformed to 'blankness' again
Welcome to the wonderful world of photography!
I’m going to talk about this in an expanded way so folks who haven’t dealt with this sort of thing yet have an understanding of what is going on.
I deal with this stuff on a regular basis. You can break this situation down into two categories.
1) Someone who has hired you directly yet they are uncomfortable in front of the camera. They know they need these photos but they hate the process. This can be a family portrait shoot where one or more of the members of the family hate being photographed but are going along with it because someone in the family set this up. Or you can be dealing with an individual like a musician or business owner who needs photographs but still doesn’t want to do it.
2) The other situation is getting hired by a company or publication to go and photograph a person for an article or whatever. The person being photographed has not been part of choosing the photographer and they aren’t really happy about the process. Let’s say a magazine is doing a story about the ACME company. The PR or marketing person is setting up the shoot and this is going to be an important article profiling their business. They want the CEO photographed for the article since it is mostly about them starting this company. The CEO likes running the business and is glad for the press but HATES to be photographed or thinks that photography isn’t that important or whatever.
You show up and you have a a very difficult job on your hands.
Case in point… I was in New York this weekend and stopped in front of a Guitar Center because of a portrait of Eric Clapton. He looked so disconnected and bored. You could just see it on his face that he didn’t want to be there. At least, that’s what is conveyed to me, the viewer.
There’s Mr. Clapton holding a guitar that he’s so famous for being able to play. Household name kind of subject. Full photo shoot going on there. Main light and at least two kickers on the side for rim. Does it look like he’s happy to be there? Does he look like he loves his job?
I’ve done some research on this since you have asked me the question. I’ve found some other photos from this session…
Here’s the one chosen for the poster in the window…
Here he cracks a bit of a smile and looks a little more personable. A little more comfortable.
Here he’s getting into his thing in a more candid way…
Now then. The situation for this photo shoot could very well, and most likely be, the kind of thing where the photographer showed up hours before the shoot, did a lot of tests, had the assistant stand in for countless test shots, etc, etc. Then Clapton stepped on set and the photographer had all of two minutes (give or take two minutes) to get the job done. Let’s say Clapton was on a press tour and was in front of cameras and reporters every day for a week from one city to the next. Maybe even one country to the next. He could have just walked off an international flight three hours before. He could be having a horrible day. He could be tired. He could want nothing more than to just go home and shut the windows and not have to talk to another living soul for a month.
But… he’s on this press tour and one hundred people want one thousand things from him and he has to oblige because he is a nice guy or he has a contract stating he has to oblige. Clapton has rent to pay just like the rest of us so he needs to show up at “work” and do what he has to do.
All of this comes together in a fast and furious photo shoot with a photographer sweating blood and hoping to God that the photos he or she is capturing are at least in focus. There could be 10 people standing around on set breathing down this photographer’s neck. The photographer could be star struck and is doing all they can just to push the button. They could be intimidated by the handlers or by Clapton himself and feel they don’t have the courage to step in, take control, and make it happen.
I’ve been in these exact situations. I photographed Rev Run last month and was sweating the whole time. I mean, I have listened to him since I was in fifth grade. OMG. Run from Run DMC is standing in front of my camera! Rev didn’t hire me. He just knew that he needed to show up at X time and some photographer was going to take photos of him for a show he’s doing. That’s it. This wasn’t a four hour shoot either. It was get in and get out.
I’ve also been in situations like the first scenario I described. The person hires me for a full day shoot. They need images for press, promotion, and CD artwork. They know they have to do this but they’d rather be having exploratory surgery than be at a shoot.
So…. Your job as a photographer is to NOT be dealing with lighting and exposure and focus on these jobs. Yes, of course, you have to deal with that but it needs to be so second nature to you that you aren’t spending brain energy on it. You need to be connecting with your subject and directing them. The photos you make is putting YOUR ass on the line in either of these situations.
To be a good director on a shoot you need to know what you are wanting to capture and you need to have courage and fortitude to grab the reins and drive the shoot where you need it to go. You are the pro on the set. You are the one needing to further your career. You are the one who holds the responsibility of getting images the client or subject is going to be really happy with.
Subject hates photos? Oh well. Tired? Oh well. Is a pissy debutante? Oh well. Subject walking off the set? Oh well. Total drama queen? Oh well. Publicist or other handler is a dungeon master? Oh well. You have to step up, step in, and do the best you can. There are times that you just can’t storm the castle and you hope and pray everything is in focus and call it a day but those are the days you walk away with battle wounds. Yes, you delivered images and everyone went on with their day but you don’t want to string a lot of those days together.
You have to earn the trust of your subject and take control. I will subtlety direct clients out of a weird awkward smile and into something more pleasing. If my subtle direction isn’t working then I am a little more foreword with them.
"Ok now, that smile looks like your fifth grade school photo. Relax. This is just a full page spread in a national magazine. It’s just your image on the line. It’s no big deal." And then I smile, crack jokes, and direct them into a serious look. Then I try to get them back to the happier look. Then I throw hypothetical situations at them to see what I can get.
"You just beat Tiger Woods in a game of golf."
"Jay-Z just personally called you and wants you to produce his next album."
"I want strength from you right now. Separate your feet. Chin up. Steely gaze to the horizon. I need strength from you. That is what’s going to make this picture."
"Now shake it out. Let that go. I need one vulnerable photo from you. I need one shot that says you are human. Look at your feet. Let me focus this stupid camera of mine, ok, hold that. Click. Now keep your face exactly like that. This is amazing. Stay exactly like that. Don’t even breathe. Just bring your eyes to the camera. click. Perfect. Like that again. I’m almost done. I know you hate this shit. This is going to be good. Trust me. click."
It sounds stupid when you type it out but in the moment you just need 250th of a second of a genuine reaction. That’s it. 250th of a second. You just need that one little fraction of a moment to get THE shot. Sometimes you have all day to work up to that. Sometimes you have 60 seconds to get that.
Research your subject. Find what they are into. What they like. You have to find common ground as quickly as you can.
Great lighting won’t produce that moment. That new L lens will never produce a genuine smile. A $30,000 camera will not warm the heart of an ice queen. That all comes down to the photographer.
Do yourself a HUGE favor right now and watch this 10 minute interview with Platon about his portrait of Vladimir Putin. Talk about pressure. Talk about having to come through. Talk about courage. It’s a fantastic interview. Go watch it. Seriously.
Also, a good resource for you to purchase and watch is Peter Hurley’s art of the headshot. I’ve watched this and I have seen Peter in action. He’s unbelievable in the art of direction. Don’t watch for lighting and all that. Just watch how he interacts with subjects. He’s amazing.
PS - Do you deal with that “everyone’s a photographer these days” mentality? No they aren’t! People can claim they are a photographer but this kind of stuff we’re talking about here? That doesn’t come in the box does it? How many of us would have crumbled under the pressure Platon speaks of?
What I’m saying to you is this… You need to be the kind of photographer who can deal with that pressure. Even if you are just shooting families in the local park… the bar of expectations for you is Platon shooting Putin. You need to be that good. Local park or Gorky park. Be THAT good. Then be .01% better than Platon. There’s the bar you have to reach.
Shameless plug - The Photography Q&A book is on amazon!