Feel Like Your Portraits Are Missing Something? Five Tips On Creating Work You Love
Do you feel like your work is missing something and you just can't put your finger on it. You go into every session with a game plan, a vision in your head and then when you get home and take a look you realize you somehow didn't get that vision to come alive. Even worse, you go online to look at what others are doing and recognize that OTHER photographers work has something special in their work. Something you don't feel you have yet, and you have no idea how to get that magic to happen for your photos.
If this sounds familiar, it's OK. I have been there, so many times. Let me explain what exactly happens (or isn't happening) and how you can go about making a few simple changes and start seeing that magic happen in your work.
I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I'M DOING
You start out as a photographer, you have your nice camera, and then someone finally hires you for a session. You're over the moon happy about it, and although you're a nervous wreck in your car waiting for your clients to show up, you're excited to create beautiful photos for someone else. You push all that anxiety aside, put your photographer hat on, step out of your car and do your very best to look like you know exactly what you are doing. You want your clients to feel comfortable and look at you as a professional, and that means throwing out pose after pose after pose. You did your research, you have your list, and you know exactly what post you plan to do next. You memorized where every hand has to be, and exactly how much their head has to tilt to one side to make this pose look good.
You stick to traditional poses and feel so on the spot as your clients smile at your camera for every single shot.
This is what my sessions at least used to feel like. I was so incredibly worried about pausing, and taking the time to look, see and think. I felt like my clients would look at me like I didn't know what I was doing so I stuck with speeding through poses and not taking even a few seconds to stop and see what I was creating. If I'm 100% honest, I was worried that had I made some time and wasn't taking shot after shot after shot, my clients would take that as a sign of not know what to do, and that it would make me look unprofessional. I stuck with traditional poses because I thought that made sense to my clients as I explained them. But in reality, the work I was creating was missing something so important. It was missing that in-the-moment, real-time emotion.
That's the magic I wanted. That's what I wanted my work to look like. Here's what I did next;
1. TAKING TIME TO SLOW DOWN
Then something interesting happened. I started to slow down. I took the time to direct, then see, then document, then move, and a lot of my sessions now look like I'm in my little world, seeing portraits unfold that only I get to see. I no longer feel the need to rush through my sessions, and my clients don't look at me going slowly as me not knowing what I am doing. Instead, they see an artist who sees something special that they want to document and I think they know it's going to turn out pretty by merely seeing the look in my eyes. They trust my vision and my direction and enjoy the process.
2. DON'T POSE, GIVE YOUR CLIENTS SOMETHING TO DO
I realized I needed a new game plan. My state poses weren't creating what I wanted to I decided to try something new. I started giving my clients actions, little phrases I would use to get them to do something in their natural way and suddenly, my work started to change. I started seeing more of that realness. From then on I no longer put the focus on traditional poses and instead built my sessions around movement.
For fun, I'll post a few samples below so you can see and give you some ideas.
Here I told them to walk towards me side by side. AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE.
Here they realized that walking super close to another person is actually a lot harder when you're not taking steps at the same time. I directed them in walking towards me, but what came after was real, it was funny, and in the moment and I love how they turned out.
3. TELL YOUR CLIENTS TO FOCUS ON EACH OTHER
I start every session telling my clients this; "During our session I want you two to focus on each other. I promise you that when you look back on these portraits you'll love the ones where you're looking at each other a million times more than the one where you're both looking at me". It sets the tone from the second we start and honestly, I think it puts clients at ease knowing they can fall back on focusing on the person they love. Special happens, you start to see that special look a fiancee has for his future wife, or the love in a mothers eyes for her newborn child, or the look in her eyes after celebrating 50 years of marriage with her love. That look isn't something you can force, or pose. That's the magic you're looking for.
Of course, I take the time to get those shots where they're both looking at the camera, BUT most of the other shots it's just them focusing on one another. I'll post them side by side so you can see.
4. KEEPING IT SIMPLE & GETTING CLOSE
I have a lot of people contact me asking me how I go about creating natural lifestyle portraits with clients who are comfortable. The trick here is to keep it simple. SO simple. As simple as a simple, meaningful hug, or slow dancing in the woods somewhere. Directing your clients during a session does not have to be complex. You can create the most meaningful portraits with the simplest direction.
Not only can you create these beautiful portraits by getting your clients close, but you got to be right there too. Sometimes it feels little weird to get THIS close to your clients, but learning to move your feet while you're shooting is so important. Work on taking far away shots, and those super close by ones too. Don't shy away from it!
5. LOOK FOR THE MOMENT AFTER THE MOMENT
I will never forget the advice my father gave me, shortly before shooting my first wedding. He looked at me and said, look for the moment AFTER the moment. I wasn't really sure what he was talking about because surely I would be doing something wrong if I was focusing on the moment AFTER the moment, but I realized that he couldn't be more right. So what was he talking about? The moment AFTER the moment. The moment AFTER the kiss. That's the one you want. Often you can give your clients direction and photograph that. You say "Ok, now a kiss!" and you photograph the kiss, and then you move onto the next thing. And then the moment is over. Here's the thing though, something magical happens in that blink of a second after a kiss, it's real, it's raw, it's the most in-the-moment photo you'll ever get. It's one I never even noticed or realized excited. So when you want something like that, look for the REAL moment, after the moment you directed. Images below to show you what I'm talking about. These two shots are SECONDS apart and somehow completely different. Both beautiful in their way but to me there is something amazing with that "moment after the moment". Maybe because I know just how real it is.
I hope this helps some of you out there who are looking for ways to create more emotion in your portraits.
My best advice is to go into every session with the need to create magic. Create something you love and focus on documenting your clients. Don't worry about what's popular, or what other photographers are doing or not doing, or what is considered right or wrong. And most of all, don't you ever feel unprofessional for taking it slowly during a session so you can really create the vision you have in your head. I WISH I had a full behind the scenes video of me shooting a session because you'd get a kick out of seeing how incredibly simple I keep it and how much my clients enjoy the process.
As always, questions are welcome!