Everyone has their strengths and their weaknesses. My strengths have been for ideas and concepts and figuring out how to achieve those ideas and concepts. My weakness has always been with directing. Photographically I’m a voyeur. I’m an observer. I watch people in coffee shops, in parking lots, shopping, waiting for the bus, or sitting in their cars in traffic. I very easily can identify with the person singing along to a song while sitting in traffic and it always makes me smile. Not because I’m laughing at them or making fun of them, but because I do it too. Oh, I’m an ardent shower-singer and I tear up the steering-wheel drum set. I wouldn’t do it in front of people. I’m far to shy and embarrassed to do that, but I recognize myself in others. What I have a very hard time doing is pulling those emotions and “reality” out of people, simply because I’m naturally more of an observer instead of a director.
The problem is that it’s awfully hard to take a portrait of someone and have them pretend that they’re not having their portrait taken. It’s different when it’s a snap-shot or a “stolen” moment. Actually creating that moment is much harder that it seems. At least it is for me.
But I’ve been learning. At Scott Church’s workshop that I attended in Seattle in February he said something that really made me pause. He said “sometimes the best way to get the picture you want is to put aside the camera”. A lot of photographers, me included, often tend to hide behind the lens, waiting for that moment to appear so we can grab it, but really great photographers create the environment that fosters those moments first and then let the moments come, and they do that by pulling the camera away from their face and talking with their models.
And they slow down. Waaaay down. Watching Scott work with models I was struck by how few frames he’d shoot. He’d spend 5 minutes working with a model and shoot about 7 frames. Most of the rest of the people have rattled off 30 or 40 frames in that time.
What I’m beginning to do is after every shot lower my camera, re-compose my model (even ever so slightly like “lower your chin a tad”), then raise my camera, recompose the shot and shoot. There are many portrait photographers like Will Crockett who always set up every shot on a tripod so they don’t have to recompose. I’m personally not a fan of the all-tripod-all-the-time method because I like the freedom to easily switch from vertical to horizontal, to get high or get low on the fly. Will’s a great photographer and his method works great for him. I prefer to be a bit more active, although I admit at the end of a day of shooting you realize how much of a sport photography is!
The other trick that I learned from Scott’s workshop was working with lights. I learned lighting about a year and a half ago, and like many of those new to lighting I wanted to play with my lights. I wanted to move them around and try to get cool and different looks, which is fine if you’re shooting objects or self-portraits, but you end up spending a lot of time moving things which means you’re not paying attention to your model. And models get bored. Who wouldn’t? I mean I’m interested in this stuff and if I’m sitting in as a model and the photographer is constantly walking away to move a light you’re just left there to entertain yourself. It’s boring. So spend as little time with lights as you possibly can. Just set it and forget it. Once you’ve got your lights in place, leave them alone! Move you model around. move yourself around, but try to not touch the light stands at all once you’ve got your basic lighting set-up in place.
Lastly, take some time to talk to your model about the emotions you want from them. If you can, take some example photos with you that give them the overall mood you’re going for.
If you put the attention on the model, you’ll be rewarded with much more emotional and impact-full images. And an powerful image with lacklustre composition and lighting will trump a beautifully lit and composed image of a person looking flat and dry any day.