Portrait sessions follow their own pathways. If you are doing it right everyone is happy.

©2016 Kirk Tuck. "Alaina."

Some photographers I know get really, really anxious when they are called upon to do portraits. They fret about the camera gear they might use. They obsess about what lights to use, how to modify them, where to put them and how to make them all work. When actually in session they become weighed down by the hoary traditions of "posing" and the conventions of "head tilt" and hand placement. With all these subroutines rolling around in their brains one wonders where the joy is in doing a session.

I'm sure that no small part of their concern is their perceived need to appear as an expert to the subject. Another large fraction of their worry might be their fear that they won't be able to remember, or juggle correctly, all the technical issues that are part of the process of taking any lit photograph. Exposure, focus, color, framing, etc. But I would say that the biggest impediment to making good portraits is
that the obsession with rules, details and technical hoopla leave little time or energy to help make the session fun. Or joyful. 

In commercial portrait shoots, for people in various professions, I will often have clients walk through the door for an appointment, introduce themselves, and immediately ask, "So where do I stand?" "What do I do?" I always smile, ask them if the want coffee, water, tea and then ask them to take a few moments just to get comfortable in the space. I ask about their jobs, their hobbies, how they stay in such good shape, how many kids to they have? and get them into a real conversation. 

I explain to them what we're going to be doing and what both of our roles will be. I demystify any part of the process. I suggest that it's all "no big deal" and that if we don't get it right on the first go around we'll try again. Most importantly I tell them that a good portrait session is first and foremost a collaboration; a group effort, an equally shared thing.  By the time I get them to their spot on the studio my hope is that we're already on our way to being friends and that our conversation is about anything but the process we're about to be in the middle of.  I try to remove any barriers and have each encounter be a guided conversation between two people who (for the most part) have lots in common. A conversation about their kid's soccer prowess, or their search for a new home in a certain school district is a lot more conducive to making a connection than me prattling on about lighting or what camera I happen to be using. 

So, last Friday I got to photograph Alaina. She is an actor who, at 18 years old, already has a growing resumé of roles in great, regional productions. The crazy thing that she told me when she came into my little studio was that she'd never had a headshot done before. This would be her first time having a professional portrait made for auditions and castings. She was nervous and didn't know exactly what to expect. How does an 61 year old portrait photographer bridge the gap with an 18 year old? How do you develop a good rapport that makes for a conducive portrait session? 

In this session I made sure I had my initial lighting set up, metered and ready. The camera was ready. We'd met several times before when I photographed rehearsals for a show Alaina is in at Zach Theatre so we had that connection already. The session got started and initially you could read the nervousness all over her face. Then we started talking about acting, and college, and great plays we'd both seen, and in no time we were sharing like old friends. I'd asked my kid to recommend a good play list for someone his age so I could have some appropriate music playing in the background. He recommended some great stuff and I had Adele's new album playing in the background. In retrospect, who doesn't live Adele's music?

So, the turning point in a portrait session, the way you can tell you are doing it correctly, is the moment when you say something (intentionally) goofy and you and the subject break into big grins and laugh. After that moment the walls fall down and you start collaborating on getting good looks in every frame. 

In most shoots I could toss the first 1/3 of the images and do just fine. Those tend to be the warm up frames. It's the middle stuff that's usually best. By the end you are mostly just re-trying expressions and poses you saw earlier. 

If I were to teach a portrait workshop, at this stage of the game, it would have very little to do with lighting and camera work and very much to do with developing an appreciation for good conversation and good listening. The wonderful thing is that it's a skill that works almost universally. 

When you see the big smile, intentional goofy response, the joy in your shoot, that's when you know you are on the right track to make good portraits. Barking out "orders"? You picked the wrong career...


Kirk Tuck said...

John, Thanks for the spell check. I appreciate it. KT

Rev. Heng Sure said...

Kirk, you do this so well. Alaina's inner light is on display.

George Beinhorn said...

Thanks for this, Kirk, as it was very timely - I've been reading about high-speed-sync flash portraiture, etc., and, my, how the mind does get on a straight railroad track of equipment, equipment, equipment. Wonderful to be reminded to turn around and come back to what really matters.