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As any photographer will know, getting a person to relax enough around you to get a few decent shots of them is no easy task. It seems like no matter how laid back someone is, the minute they see a camera they snap into posing mode – making it difficult to get a photograph that tells a story and brings out someone’s true nature and natural features.
Getting people to relax around you also has a second benefit: people who are relaxed are more willing to take irrational risks. This is why we do things with our friends (like making a funny face) that we don’t do with strangers and that moment of irrationality can make some of our most memorable captures.
This is why, to me, the difference between a good photographer and a great one is their ability to interact with and relate to people on a human level, without passing judgment or causing awkwardness.
But here’s the problem: Humans are strange creatures and no two subjects are ever exactly alike. Putting people at ease in your presence involves more than just memorizing a few basic steps and following them.
Having said that, know that all is not lost if you’re not the most social of all people. Because there are a few things you can do that will increase your perceived friendliness – even to strangers – in a couple of minutes flat. It’s only a matter of understanding a bit of how the mind works.
Understanding The Power of Questions
It’s easy to get flustered or nervous during a photo shoot with a stranger but the pros know that you should never let your insecurities get the better of you. If you are stressed or uptight, your subject will feed off that energy.
It’s a phenomenon called “mirroring” and it’s an involuntary response that all humans are subject to. We mirror due to a part of our brain called “mirror neurons” – and these neurons are activated simply because of our observation.
Mirror neurons are also why you should never try to be someone you are not. You may have perhaps seen other photographers using a humorous approach with their models; cracking jokes or laughing about mishaps – if you aren’t naturally funny or spontaneous, it can take years to master the art of natural humour.
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A (much) faster route is to simply be a good listener and encourage your subjects to talk about themselves – and trust me when I say that everyone loves talking about themselves.
Now I know being a “good listener” is a bit of a cliché and most people simply stop there with their advice.
Going a level Deeper
Being a good listener is NOT about your listening skills. It’s about making the other party feel understood. Read that again.
To create that “long lost friend you never knew” effect, always remember the 3 basic questions: the what, why and how – and relate each of those questions to whatever the previous reply was. So for example, if the other party said she has 3 children, you can ask about how it feels to raise 3 children. If she said it’s always hectic yet surprisingly fulfilling, ask her what she means.
Don’t even talk about yourself unless prompted. If you’re prompted, give your subject a short, succinct answer and direct conversation back to them.
Now some of you are thinking what a creep you’d be if you were to do that. That’s where this second advice comes in: display interest triggers.
There are certain things people do that signals how they feels. If your spouse yawns when you talk, you know they're not interested. If your friend shakes her leg when talking to you, you know she’d rather be somewhere else.
“Interest triggers” are things you can do that signals you’re interested. These include:
- Lean slightly forward if you’re sitting on a table.
- Say things like, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” Or “What made you say that?” or “No way! Are you serious?”
- Maintain eye contact – and if you’re thinking, don’t look down because that signals guilt or boredom. Look to the side instead.
- And before you reply to any questions, always pause for a second to show that you’ve thought about what he/she just said.
And once the conversation has gone on for about 10 minutes, tell your subject you’re sorry for taking up so much time and allow him/her to go back to do whatever he/she was doing. Before letting him/her go, however, slip in “do you mind if I take a few photographs of you?”
Naturally, if you are working with someone who would rather not share personal details or talk very much at all then you should be willing to accept that. And that’s where the next part comes in.
How to Set the mood
The environment we are in has a strange grip on how we feel. We all intuitively know this yet few of us ever manipulate our environment to change how we feel. Certain places make us nervous, while others make us feel right at home.
What environment you’d set depends on the type of portrait you are trying to create. Are you working towards a bubbly and happy portrait that exemplifies your subject’s outgoing nature or are you hoping to capture a model’s more serious side? There is no one right answer – and that’s the beauty of it. It’s your art. Create it.
There are 5 factors of the environment that you can manipulate. I will include a basic guide for each and I will assume you want to make your subjects relax:
- Visual – This is a strange one: plants. That’s right. Plants have been shown to make people relax, which is why a walk by the park is such a great stress-buster.
- Sound – The sound of subtle running water or rain has been shown to relax – probably why they are often present in meditation CDs.
- Temperature (feel) – Your muscles only relax when you’re warm so keep your environment warm. Note: don’t confuse “cool” with warm.
- Smell – Aromatherapies work great in this instance. I won’t even pretend to be an expert on this because I get someone else to do it. Note: The smell of aromatherapy will disappear after a while but that doesn’t mean the effect is gone.
- Taste – The effect of taste on relaxation is small, in my experience. So I’ll suggest an alternative: a glass of wine.
Give clear and useful directions
Not knowing what is expected of them can make people insecure and unsure of themselves, so take some time to discuss what you would both like to get out of the shoot and exactly what will happen next.