Recruit your inner Austin Powers for better portraits

I often sound like a complete idiot when I’m shooting portraits.  With the camera pressed to my face there’s a steady stream of nonsense dribbling out of my mouth almost the entire time.  When I really get into my stride, I resemble Austin Powers at his best:

If I’m taking pictures of people, you’ll rarely hear me shut up, and with good reason.  Imagine you’re my subject, and you’re being faced with a camera, a few large lights, possibly a crew of people, and then a wall of silence.  If you’re a professional model or celebrity, or natural show-off, this will be no problem, but for a lot of people it’s very intimidating indeed, and can make them very uncomfortable.  Being uncomfortable doesn’t tend to make people look their best.  We like to make people look their best, it’s our job!

So, chatting away to your subjects is a good thing.  But what should you say?  Here are a few rules I live by when it comes to portrait banter:

  • First off, you’re not actually having a conversation.  People generally don’t look good when they’re mid-speech, so don’t ask them a question, and then start snapping – you’re likely to get a load of odd expressions.  If you want to chat with them, put the camera down, stop shooting, and make eye contact.
  • Avoid topics that might be controversial – save that for the pub later on – the last thing you want to do when you’ve only got a very small window of time with someone is to bring up a topic that winds them up – an angry subject is not likely to be very co-operative.
  • Always use positive language, or frame things in a positive way.  Don’t say “You’re getting a double chin when you sit like that”, say “Just lift your head up for me slightly, and look off in that direction”.
Austin Powers - group shot
Clear communication is particularly important when dealing with a group.
  • Don’t draw attention to things – people may be sensitive about bald patches, blemishes, bad teeth, double chins or any number of imperfections.  You should have clocked these the second they walked in, and have a plan for dealing with them.  Make sure this plan doesn’t end up making them more self-conscious either – if you have to alter the lighting slightly to get a reflection out of their glasses, don’t make a big thing about it, it might make them very self-conscious.
  • Whilst always using positive language, give useful direction.  It’s OK to use words like “great, awesome, super, fantastic” and generally act like Austin Powers up to a point, but giving someone vague and waffly direction is not going to help.  When it comes to actually requesting people do things, or act in a certain way, don’t ask people to do stuff that just sounds weird and vague – be specific.
  • Act out your directions if necessary – pose in a similar way.  Make your direction easy to follow – I always use “their” left and right, rather than my own (so, reversing my sides) but whichever you do, make sure you’re consistent throughout.
Austin Powers banter
I’m probably in full Austin Powers mode here. Just be grateful no-one was filming any video!
  • Don’t try too hard to make someone laugh.  Unless you have a natural talent for comedy it’s a very tricky ground to get into.  A joke that seems hilarious to you may be offensive to someone else, and if you offend someone, you’re really going to struggle to get a good shot of them.
  • Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself, and remember the golden rule of photographing people – there’s only one ego allowed on set, and it should be the one in front of the camera.  I often start shooting someone by warning my subjects that there will be a steady stream of rubbish, mixed with some bollocks, and a degree of crap thrown in too.  I’m OK with them laughing “at” me – as long as it helps me get the shot I want, how I look is secondary.

Hope that all helps, here’s another video masterclass from the great man himself:

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