by Andrew Mason.
I’ve been taking photos of people for a living now for over 10 years. I love the variety of characters that I meet, and I feel privileged to be asked to do something which is often quite a personal and challenging process for most people. Over the years I’ve found out a lot about myself, photography and people, and here are some of the lessons I’ve learnt:
- Nearly everyone hates having their photo taken (me included). The first thing that 95% of the people that walk into my studio say to me is “I hate having my photo taken”. Part of the process of a good portrait photographer should be to make it as enjoyable and stress free as possible.
- I always form a mental picture of what the client looks like based on our email or telephone conversation. That mental picture is always completely wrong when I finally meet the client. You need to be able to quickly work out what sort of lighting and posing is going to work well for an individual, sometimes you can’t tell until you take a few photos, so you often need to adapt your approach as you go.
- You need to develop a repertoire of things to say and ask, just in case your brain freezes or things aren’t going well. If these things make your client laugh or smile that’s a good thing. I’m really bad at remembering jokes so I have to rely on other things.
- As with all photography, I always get some ‘almost great’ shots. These could be great expressions where the eyes are slightly out of focus, or a light didn’t trigger. I don’t dwell on these, and just delete them.
- Always spend at least the first 5 minutes chatting to the subject without taking any photos. This helps to get to know them, and they should start to feel more relaxed. Continue building the relationship throughout the shoot.
- Always play music in the studio.
- If it’s hot, keep the studio cool. Perspiration is generally not a good look.
- You need to give really clear instructions to people. If you ask someone to look to the right a tiny bit, they will basically look to the right as far as possible. You need to be very specific and say things like move your head to the right by one centimetre.
- Ty to give your your subject something to think about which will take their mind off having their photo taken. “What did you have for lunch yesterday?” sometimes works.
- Aspiring portrait photographers always stress about posing people. I only really have one set pose that I ask people to do which works for a headshot. I spend time observing how my clients stand naturally when we’re chatting and ask them to replicate that.
- You need to do most of the talking. It’s impossible to take a good photo of someone while they’re talking. People look better when they are listening.
- Ask your subject to push their chin forward a bit. It does wonders for the jawline.
- Some clients are impossible to please. My wife hates every photo I take of her.
As you can see, none of these lessons are about cameras, lighting or lenses. All of those technical things are of course fundamentally important to master, but the things I’ve mentioned above are what makes the difference between an average portrait photo and a good one.
I teach about all of this on our Portrait Photography Course.