Sunday, May 10, 2009

Camera Shy Subjects - The art of dealing with photo portrait nightmares

A camera shy subject can be a very frustrating ordeal for a photographer trying to take a photo portrait. There are a many different reasons why a subject reacts to the camera in a certain way. Some people love having their photo taken, some feel a serious wave of anxiety roll over them when someone starts pointing a camera in their direction. The latter is where it sometimes becomes a difficult situation for a photographer, or anyone who would just like to get a snapshot of a family member or friend.

I am sure the vast majority of people who will read this have come across an encounter where someone has held a hand in front of their face so you could not get a clear shot of the moment you were trying to capture. It could be that they don't find themselves to be physically attractive in general, or they don't feel presentable for a photograph at that particular moment, or they even have a genuine fear of cameras. I don't know if there is an actual phobia for fear of cameras, but I do know that there is a phobia called Ophthalmophobia. That is the fear of being stared at, and that could easily be a reason why someone would react negatively to a big giant lens pointing at them and making noises whenever the shutter is clicked.

It's pretty safe to say, that if you can not help the subject overcome this temporary, or permanent, bout of camera shy behavior, your photos will suffer as a result. A good photo portrait requires a relaxed subject, in other words, a scenario that doesn't appear to be forced. Even when people pay a portrait photographer for photo portraits, coming across a case of camera shyness is not uncommon. Regardless of the elements creating the tense moment, it is important that you find common ground with the subject.

Finding common ground is using communication effectively to find something you and the problematic subject can relate to. Telling your subject to relax and smile, or begging them to give you the look you want is not going to work to your advantage. More often than not, it will make the situation worse. Trying to help someone, who is uncomfortable, feel relaxed can be quite rewarding at times. Striking up light conversation, and not over-communicating, will often get you the results you're looking for.

Here are a few tips I can offer up to help in this situation:

1. Put down the camera. That's right. Put down the camera and talk to your subject. Take a few minutes to get to know your subject. Find common ground.

2. Find common ground. I usually ask a subject what they like to do in their free time, what hobbies they have, or mention a current event in the entertainment world (almost everyone enjoys television, music, or going to the theater). Try to keep the conversation on an upbeat keel. You want your subject to smile and laugh. Talking about negative things like death or politics won't work as well as the lighter side of things like Jon Bon Jovi hosting Saturday Night Live or a referrance to a scene in the movie Meet the Parents starring Ben Stiller and Robert Deniro. As long as you can get them talking, and fuel the conversation with questions that don't obligate the subject to provide you with a yes or no answer, you are well on your way to winning their trust.

3. Pick up the camera and wait. Once you have your subject motivated to speak openly without being nudged, pick up your camera. Don't immediately point it at your subject. Make sure he or she is continuing to converse with you while you are holding the camera. Keep the conversation going while holding your camera (this is a great time to double check your settings). You should be able to tell when the subject is starting to relax.

4. An animated expression is your green light. Once you have your subject expressing themselves beyond standard conversation, there's a pretty good chance that your subject is a little more comfortable than they were minutes earlier. Make sure to show the same level of appreciation for the expression they are exhibiting and point your camera. It's very important that you continue to talk to your subject while the camera is hiding your face. Keep the conversation going, and take a couple of shots. Tell your subject they are just test shots to check your settings if you feel the need, but keep them talking!

5. Reward the subject for their trust. Once the subject has heard the shutter click a few times during your conversation, you should be able to start suggesting subtle direction. Compliment them for their participation (i.e "dip your chin a little. Great, yes just like that. That looks great"). Once you know you have their undivided trust, you can get into more complex direction. Make it fun.

I realize the above tips may not be a sure-fire method every time, but they have proven to work great for me when needed during portrait photography sessions. I also think it's fair to say that some stones are harder to turn than others, so you may have to use other methods that will help you get to where you want to go, and don't take it personally if you fail at all your efforts. The only one truly missing out on the opportunity is the subject. There will be other days with other subjects.

Stay tuned for my article on tips for better portraits of children. It will cover generating trust with kids and keeping their attention.

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