So, Changing Gears for a Moment. I Want to Talk About a Pitfall of the Portrait Business.

In all the years I have known Belinda she has never complained about her face or seemed to be particularly self-conscious. So this image is here, at the top of the article, because I like it and I won't get sued for using it in conjunction with this topic...

I am in the business of making portraits for people. In order to make money doing this I have to make portraits of people in such a way that they will like the end result. But what do you do when a person just doesn't like the way their face looks? How do you handle the customer who feels that their face is not particularly photographable? Where is the intersection between customer satisfaction and business survival?

I bring this up because last year I'd taken a number of photographs of key executives for a mid-sized company. We created a style for the company and followed through on that style for every portrait. A few weeks after the shoot; and after all the selections had been made, and all the photographs were retouched, one executive got in touch with me and told me that she regretted her choice of blouse. She felt, after seeing it in all of its saturated (almost magenta) glory, that is just didn't match the expectations of her professional culture. I take things like this in stride. The office manager had already gotten in touch and scheduled an additional session for several new hires and, since we'd be on location at their offices, it would be very little additional work to re-shoot our disappointed customer in a better choice of wardrobe. 

She was very happy to have another shot at wardrobe selection and the re-done image was exactly what she wanted. We did not charge a fee for the re-shoot. My philosophy is to make the client happy with their portrait in any way that I can and that includes re-shooting if they are disappointed in any way. It's just good business. 

Recently the office manager got in touch again to schedule a session for another new hire. She also asked what I would charge to shoot another round of portraits for a different executive; one we had photographed in our first session, over a year ago. I told her that I would add the second portrait in when we came to photograph the new hire at no charge. If the executive was unhappy with the original portrait I wanted to fix the situation, and if another try at bat would do the trick I was certainly game. 

But I wanted to know what the person wanted to change; what would be different in the second attempt? Was it another wardrobe issue? No, it turns out that she just isn't at all comfortable with being photographed, doesn't like her smile and could be tough to please. What could I do differently this time?

I arrived at 10am and set up lighting, etc. The new hire was a fun attorney in the same age demographic as me and we developed a more or less instant rapport. We both have a kid in college, we both have spent the last 40+ years in Austin, Texas, our politics are solidly aligned, we both have technical backgrounds that are different from our current vocations. Getting a great expression from him was simple as pie. 

When we finished up sharing hands and exchanging business cards my re-shoot client stepped into the conference room we were using as a temporary studio. After the first client left I asked her to tell me what she didn't like about the last round of portraits and she was very honest. She told me she has always hated the way she looks in portraits. It quickly became apparent that her anxiety about being photographed was creating enough tension so that she was having troubling relaxing and showing her real self. I don't have any magic bullets for dealing with difficult portrait situations but experience tells me that people relax over time. Even making them bored beats photographing someone who is uncomfortable.  Neither of us had pressing business following our session so we starting making a few images, looking at them and then talking through what we wanted to fix. 

But most of the time we talked and got to know each other. She told me stories about her children and I shared stories about Ben. She's an avid golfer so I told my two favorite golf stories; one about getting an inadvertent,  four hour long, private lesson on driving on the 7th tee box of the Barton Creek Country Club's Fazio Course with Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, and the second one about playing eighteen holes with Sugar Ray Leonard (the boxer), who spent a good part of that time talking about the birth of his youngest child...

At one point, while flowing along in conversation my reticent subject, she said she had an epiphany and realized why she didn't like the look of her face. It was a cathartic moment that cleared out a lot of the tension she felt. The final frame I shot was clearly the best of the batch. We had spent thirty or forty minutes chatting and shooting. It was worth the time.

I'm editing down the number of images I'm putting up in her online gallery (for selection) and I have no idea if she will like the new group of images better than the last ones but I did take the step of retouching several image candidates just to show her what we can do in post processing to change a few of the things she is not particularly fond of. It takes some time to do this but it's my preference not to have single customer/client in my home market who has anything but good reviews for both my work and my commitment to creating work that.... works. For them.

I find that when things aren't going smoothly the power of just slowing down and getting to know your subject is more important than anything technical that you might try. After all, it's rarely a technical glitch that causes someone to have buyer's remorse about their portraiture. The usual culprit is that the session didn't go long enough or deep enough to penetrate the glossy outer layer of a person's defenses and show something real and authentic (and positive) about the subject. The only way around it is to go through the process and find a way to make connections that give clients a pathway to show themselves genuinely to the camera. Same applies to video interviews. You have to get through the protective shields that we all surround ourselves with. The shield is there to keep us from getting hurt but it also keeps the portrait process at a distance. 

Some people are more inclined to make that shield thick and strong. I think the only cure is time, and the shared process of creating a safe space for clients to show their honest selves. 


David Maxwell said...

Wow, I think this article perfectly demonstrates why you have such a successful photography business that has survived the market's many ups and downs. Yes, technical skill is a factor, but it wasn't your lighting or nailing focus that made that lady happy.

I'm a big believer that if you seek to bless others, as you did by attempting to give this lady a portrait she could be proud of, that you yourself will be blessed.

Wally said...

The other day I was speaking with a manager the about the youth culture within a technology company. He and another manager indicated they really would like some experience on the team. It seems that some greing hair is welcome when dealing with executives you are trying to sell products to. Making images to a fussy customer falls into the same categroy - having the life experience to deal with a corporate executive, get the desired result, and coming away with repeat business is as important as getting lighting, exposure, and lens selection.

Joe Reed said...

How odd. You actually listen to your customers. Ever thought about running an airline - one in particular will remain unnamed. Thanks for a reminder of the most important reasons why some people are successful and others aren't.

Anonymous said...

Heh, this post is exactly about the same thing I'm trying to tackle in my ongoing portrait project (taking portraits of photoshy people).

I book in an hour or so, meet them in a coffee shop I know with good light and rattle them quickly through a series of quirky poses to get them used to having the camera there.

After that we sit and drink coffee and I take pictures of them as we chat. I try and get them relaxed and talking about stuff they're passionate about. Which gets them settled and how they actually look.

It's been immensely gratifying to have people who hate their image to have a series of nice pictures they're happy to use at work or hang on their wall.

And it's lovely to get to know them all better.


Anonymous said...

Now I know why I prefer to shoot inanimate objects than people. Dramatically different relations!!!

Unknown said...

My business model for portraiture is about the same. Works around Raleigh too! Just finished refresh of head shots for Dentist office staff. One had her 10 month old with her, made a Mom and baby portrait. Got their selections yesterday and next week when I deliver files for web site, she's getting a free print. From a sales perspective, I'd rather be a farmer than a hunter.

Dave Jenkins said...

Another chapter for the definitive book on professional photography.

Ian Kirk said...

A brilliant article.

Having worked a lot with autistic children I know how important relaxing, distracting and being gentle and friendly can be - you clearly do this almost naturally and it is no wonder you can get the best out of all your clients.

You would probably be very good at patiently working with autistic children and finding their beautiful smiles.

seany said...

Kirk you're a very lucky man you like people and are prepared to go the extra mile to cater to their needs, seems to me you would make a success of any venture you cared to pursue in life.
Be well, good guys are scarce.

amolitor said...

I've experimented, slightly, with a brisk technique which goes like this:

I direct them to imagine they're the king of england (or whatever, it doesn't matter), with the weight of the nation of on their shoulders, and whatever subtext they imagine. Do you hate the idea of the monarch? Whatever you feel, *be* that.

Then they do their best to "act", it doesn't matter, because after a few shots I say "Ok, thank you"

and then they come back, and then I take the picture that's actually them. A relaxed "phew, I'm glad that's over" them, which isn't the most depth I can imagine, but it's at any rate a single honest moment.

Disclaimer: I am not a portraitist. At all.

Rob said...

This post is great for anyone that has to deal with clients regardless of their business. I'm passing it along to our sales and support teams to remind them of the strength of making a genuine personal connection with customers.