Do you remember high school? How did you act around adults? Were you confident in how you looked and dressed? If you can think back to that time in your life, you may begin realize why shooting senior portraits is a challenge.
If you take nothing else away from this tutorial, please remember this: when you are working with people, it's important to keep the momentum of the shoot going and keep everyone's interest on the task at hand. This is especially crucial for young adults. In this tutorial, I want to focus on tips and tricks for keeping the energy up during your next shoot.
Inject Your Clients Needs with Creativity
The biggest thing that slows down any project is not having a game plan. Showing up and saying to yourself "what now?" is a sure-fire way to kill any chance of having a smooth shoot. For a recent shoot of a baseball player, I had talked with the senior about what he wanted from the shoot.
He wanted photos in his baseball uniform, his letterman jacket, and shots of him playing his trumpet. I came up with a quick shot list of what I wanted to hit to call it a success. This list included: a clean headshot for the yearbook (kids often forget about this one), action shots in baseball uniform, a fashion catalog-styled shot in letterman jacket, and nostalgic jazz shot with his trumpet.
We decided to shoot at the baseball field near his school. I knew in that one area, I could find a diverse assortment of backgrounds to get everything I needed for the day. In addition to this pre-planning, I showed up 15 minutes early to look around the area, and see what caught my eye. When he got there, we were off to the races.
"Hi! I have a bunch of ideas for our shoot today. First we'll go over here, then over to the walkway, then ..." My enthusiasm and preparation kicked us off into high energy mode. I made sure he understood that not only was he was getting the looks he asked for, but a great deal of thought went into what we were about to do. The job for the rest of the shoot was to keep that up, for both yourself and your subject.
Blow Their Minds with Your First Picture
A discount photo studio may have had him bring his uniform then shot him in front of a cheesy backdrop staring like a deer into the camera. Certainly, guys are a little more apprehensive to have their photos done than girls, so for starters I told him this isn't going to be like any shoot he's ever done before.
During our planning phase, I knew he wasn't excited to get his pictures done, but mom wanted him to, so he did. When your subject isn't excited to be there, you're going to have a hard time getting their cooperation, and the high level of energy that leads to exciting shots. So I whipped out the big guns on shot one, and used an Einstein strobe with a softbox and battery pack. Off camera, I had Mom pitch him lobs just out of reach, and I made him jump for them.
This type of approach certainly isn't going to work on every shoot, but getting his blood pressure up with a little workout set the stage for the next two hours. When you try something "crazy" like this (even if this is the norm to you, this will seem ridiculous to your subject), be sure to show them the best shot from the series you just took.
If you rocked the shot and can get their confidence up with your very first picture, you can convince them that your crazy requests will actually look great. You can make even more requests later because you have their trust.
Not shooting someone sporty? Find your own attitude and approach to making creative requests from your subject. Even if that photo never gets printed or shown anywhere, the act of showing them you are in charge and making them look great is what is most important thing.
The previous photo wasn't in his final print order, but that isn't the important part. High energy equals a happy client experience.
Don't Fake Action, Do Action
For the shot above, it certainly would have been "easier" and probably quicker to get the shot set up, tell him to pose, take the picture, then move on. Instead, I had him actually swing for the fences.
This served two important functions. First, it kept the energy up. More importantly, it kept his confidence up. Everyone feels silly in an awkward pose (which this most certainly would have been if I asked him to hold it) and that will lower their energy and confidence that you are doing your job.
Lastly, having him swing gives me options. If he strikes a pose, then I have one option for my photo: the pose he gives me. If I have him swing, then I have more options. You can wait until that perfect moment to click the camera and find the exact finessed pose you had in mind.
This certainly took a little longer, but it got a better result. His feet and body were perfectly positioned, which would have been difficult to balance. His arms are at the perfect point of contact with the ball, which may not have been the case with a pose.
There may be a little coaching involved to get the action perfect. For this photo, I told him to relax his face since he tightened up during the swing. But all that natural movement gets a natural looking pose without looking "posed."
Let's say you are working with a girl in studio. Tell her to put her hand up to her head like she was going to pull her hair back. Then tell her to actually slowly pull her hair behind her ear. There will be a huge difference in the final outcome, as well as the confidence of your subject.
Silence Isn't Golden, It's Deadly
Silence kills energy on a shoot, especially with young people. Whether you are engaged in conversation, telling them a story or even playing music, it's imperative you keep silence at bay.
You don't ever hear silence in a mall retail shop. There's always music. And just like a store, if you let silence in to your work space, it kills energy and kills sales. Have speakers and your phone or iPod ready. If you are in studio, having background music is an absolute must. If you are location, bring portable battery operated speakers. It's not that expensive and does a lot of heavy lifting for you.
This shot was inspired by the images of great jazz musicians. If you both really want to get in the zone, the pump some tunes that work for you and your subject.
The following image is a test shot from my camera while I getting my settings dialed in for a new natural light setup. Since I didn't care if my test shots have him mid-sentence or not, I just started a casual conversation.
Your subject may feel awkward if you ask them the surface level questions like "what do you like to do?" or "got any plans this summer?," or worse yet, "crazy weather we've been having." It's obvious that you're trying to make small talk and don't really care about the answer.
Try and make a connection to your subject and have a genuine conversation. Something like "any reason you prefer playing first base over other positions?" That sentence shows first that you know a little about them, and second that you are engaged and not trying to make awkward small talk.
I think I asked him how many girls cheer for him in the stands. Notice how I didn't say "smile!" Real connection plus energized subject equals genuine reaction. That beats fake smile every time.
You can't run the whole shoot having a conversation with your subject. When I first started out, I tried that. You'll find most of your shots are awkward mid-sentence things, and you're wasting time not getting what you want. That in turn slows down your shoot, and lowers the energy in the room.
Once you've established a connection with your subject, you just need to talk at them. By that I mean just keep the conversation going, but don't really ask them any questions. Or if you do, make it rhetorical and don't expect an answer. It doesn't matter whether you are telling them about your crazy vacation last summer or the time you played baseball and broke your arm. This part is up to you to get reactions from them without them talking.
Make jokes, have them imagine things, tell them to laugh awkwardly. That last one works because they laugh awkwardly, then it's so awkward, they laugh for real. All of a sudden you're both laughing and you don't know why.
Take Time to Hit "Reset"
All of our energy levels naturally go up and back down again several times over the course of the day. If you're getting fatigued by your shoot, that's okay. You just need to find a way to hit "reset" and get you both pumped again.
For my senior shoot, I had him stand at the opposite side of the walkway and stroll towards me. Using a 200mm lens meant that I was far enough away we couldn't talk. I had to shout if I wanted to give him directions. That gave me time to collect myself, get a short rest, and go back to our close up work with renewed stamina. The 200mm lens also gave the fashion catalog look I had wanted from our planning stage.
When we came back after my quick "reset," he asked for an unplanned shot with his cowboy hat. Instead of being burned out, I was high energy and had the creative juice to finish our shoot with the same intensity and direction as when we started.
Photos Are Supposed to Be Fun, Not Feared
As long as you connect with your subject and turn it into a time to hang out instead of another chore in your daily checklist, then your shoot will yield enthusiasm and great photos.
Somehow when you put a camera between two people, we forget the tendencies we have when we usually interact with other people. Take having dinner with friends. The restaurant knows to have background music playing. Silence is avoided and table is full of great conversation.
High energy makes happy, excited people, and that makes for happy, excited clients with great photos. Use these tips to keep the energy high on your next shoot. What else do you do while shooting to keep the energy level up between you and your client? Let me know in the comments.