How do you make real people look so good?
How do you make real people look so good?
January 12, 2021
What do I mean by “real people”? I mean non-professional talent, i.e., anyone who is not a hired model. An actual college professor, not someone pretending to be a college professor. An actual nurse, not an actor posing as a nurse. Real people can be surprisingly tricky to capture in a way that feels authentic - they may feel embarrassed to be the center of attention - but I usually manage it and you can see it in my pictures. Here are a few of my favorite tricks.
Physics professor Zohar Nussinov. I asked him to describe the model in his hand, then to pause for a moment and just look at Kristina (art director standing just out of frame to my left), which felt awkward, which made him smile.
Rule 1: Be welcoming.
My first goal is to make our subject feel welcome in Photo World. We may be shooting at their office, in their space, but when there is a camera in your face and crew standing around, things get weird. Most people don’t feel natural in this setting, and some freeze up. My job is to unfreeze them. To make them feel (or at least look) as comfortable as possible.
People ask me all the time: how do you do that?
I don’t know. I don’t know how I do it. I don’t know because I am totally present when I’m photographing a new person. I'm so focused on the space between us that I'm not able to stand outside myself at the same time and observe. My full attention is on their energy and body language and tone of voice. What’s the vibe when they walk on set? How are they feeling and how can I coax that emotion to a good place?
Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival Corporation. I made some crack, probably about how annoying it must be to sit for a photographer.
Rule 2: Keep things moving.
The real people I work with are often busy professionals. They’re taking time out of their schedule to sit for pictures and sometimes they’re not thrilled about it, which is understandable. So be prepared. Take extra time to set up in advance, and when the CEO walks on set, don’t waste their time. But don’t rush either. Often once they start the process they’ll warm to it and become willing to invest more time to make something good.
Some people exude warmth. I just make it clear that that’s what I want. I asked her to lean a hip against the sofa and kick one leg out to relax her stance. Having someone on set to style the clothing also does wonders here.
Rule 3: Keep it light.
I make jokes if it feels right. I make fun of myself. I try not to take the process too seriously. I say:
This won't hurt a bit.
This is the easiest thing you’ll do all day.
I'll tell you everything you need to do.
Which brings me to:
Los Angeles County fourth grade teacher in her classroom.
Rule 4: Make stuff up.
Sometimes when people are uncomfortable they don’t know what to do, and they appreciate it when you tell them. If you’re not sure, make it up. Something will work. I often sound something like this:
Ok, just calmly look at the camera. Now look away to your left. Lean forward. Put one hand on your hip and the other down. Ok that’s not working, do something else with the hands. No. No. No… Yes! Hold them just like that. Ok now don't move your hands at all and tilt your head a little to the right. And turn your nose this way... right, like that, but move your eyes back to me, here. Perfect. Yes. Oh man that looks great now DON’T MOVE. *Clickety click* Ok now forget everything I said and just drop your arms and look at [name of their colleague].
And so on.
Michele, continuing education graduate student. You can tell in 20 seconds when someone isn’t a big teeth smiler. Good. That’s an opportunity to create a different kind of connection, but there can still be warmth here.
Rules 5 + 6: React genuinely and don’t force it.
My approach depends on the personality in front of me. I tend to smile and laugh frequently on set, but I don't force a smile, and I don’t want my subject to either. That will look reliably terrible. Often we don't need them to grin, but rather to relax and focus: either sit calmly and look into the lens, or do the work they would normally do: teach the class, put hands on the patient, etc.
This teen is happy to be in class, right? Sure. But she’s also smiling because there’s a photographer inching closer, and her friends have noticed, and it’s a little embarrassing, which makes her laugh.
Rule 7: They don’t need to feel natural, they just need to look that way.
I encourage people to be themselves, and if they can't do it I tell them exactly how. 😁
And then there are people who just have something special and there’s no stopping it.