Hard as it is to believe, portrait photography is considered to probably the hardest of the many specializations in the profession. That moment of positioning a subject in front of that plastic fake background to sit on an uncomfortable chair and make a smile they would never use in any other setting is legionary and not one that you look forward to. And you can tell the subjects, especially the men, are enjoying this about as much as they like going to the dentist.
So how to take some of the teeth out of the process. For some portraits, you cannot get away from the formal “seating”. But even then, there are ways to relax the subject so the smile you get was one they really wanted to give you.
The optimum portrait is one that is not a portrait. If you can get the subject talking about their favorite subject, interacting with someone they like or love and using their sense of humor, that sparkle in their expression and gleam in their eye is absolute portrait gold to you the photographer.
Now, you cannot lie to the subject. So if you explain that you are going to be over here working on this stubborn camera, then just gently guide the conversation, they will begin to get used to hearing the shutter to off and seeing the flash but they may be able to not tense up.
Some of the finest couple portraits I have captured happened when I got the couple having a loving chat or mild argument with some teasing and that natural flirtation came out. When you can snap that moment in time, you will have a photograph they will treasure for a lifetime.
Obviously, the key to any photograph is to capture the personality and the “soul” of your subject. I was photographing a boy scout in his uniform for a very important photograph to the family because the boy had achieved the Eagle rank, which is a high honor. But I knew this kid had lots of personality so I wanted the “formal” shot but I wanted this kid’s heart in it too. So I told him I would be snapping a few shots to test my shutter and I got him talking about boy scouts and camping. As I got him to tell me about the funniest moments he experienced camping, that smile came out and boom, I had my shot. It hangs in my lobby now as one of my finest moments as a photographer.
If you can get the couple to do the portrait at home, in a restaurant or at some familiar setting, you can get that kind of rapport going much easier. This requires that you, the photographer must be not only a skilled artisan with your camera but somewhat of a politician, a psychologist and a hypnotist all tied up in one. So polish up some good “charm” that you will use to ease those personality shots out of your subjects.
And perfect that charm for different personalities. You may need to flirt the smile out of a young girl or tease it out of a child. You may need to get some “man to man” humor out of that burley construction worker or make an off the cuff crack about a politician to get Mr. Business Man to chuckle. And for the babies, well, they will almost smile for their mommy and almost certainly smile for daddy so use them to the hilt.
By combining your skills as a photographer with a generous portion of people charm and grace, you will make memorable portraits that will be better than the uncomfortable, stiff looks that so many accept as ok. Your customers will be happier and you will enjoy a pride in your work that you well deserve.