If there’s something that always makes me cringe a little bit, it’s when someone I’m working with is continuously and emphatically apologetic about their performance as a portrait subject. I want to tell them it’s okay not to feel uncomfortable with the camera around, that there is nothing wrong with feeling shy with this artist they’ve never met, and that it’s absolutely normal to feel a little self-conscious, especially if they’ve never been the subject of a portrait session before.
Sometimes I do tell them. But sometimes it seems like the only thing that would make them less comfortable, would be knowing that I know how uncomfortable they are. They’re giving it their best shot and largely missing the point in the process. Sure there are camera angles, composition, lighting and posing technique to boot, but all things considered, comfort is the most important factor in creating the kinds of images almost everyone wants of themselves.
If you follow this blog at all, you’ll know I’m an advocate for transparency between the photographer and subject. A photographer who is a mysterious enigma will have a hell of a time making the subject feel comfortable, and a subject who is closed off won’t tell their photographer when they’re not. Photographers need some access to their subjects “spirit”, and subjects need to be able to see enough of their photographer to feel safe and cared for.
About 20% of our clients are very shy, and cameras make them nervous. Most of the time we know this because they’ve told us. Some of the time we find out during a very long and difficult session, which I’m sure does not leave our client feeling as satisfied with the experience as we’d like them to–even if the images are beautiful.
The thing is, when a client is open with us and shares their fears about being photographed, we don’t just dump platitudes on them. We can actively try to adjust ourselves to accommodate a different kind of session, and as many of our shy clients have discovered, it can actually be a lot of fun.
We can take a hands off approach
If you’re very shy when being photographed, that fear probably has something to do with “posing”. For a lot of people, it might not matter how good an image may look to an objective observer, It feels inauthentic and unnatural to create. “Chin this way, step to your right, rotate your upper body to the left…” so on and so on. Nowhere else do you follow instructions like these, and never when something as intangible and emotionally touchy as self-image is on the line.
If these kinds of instructions keep you from being able to connect with your photographer while you’re shooting, it’d be better if we didn’t give these kinds of instructions. Sometimes it makes more sense to accept less “perfection” in lieu of something our subject feels authentic creating.
If you tell us you’re incredibly shy, and that posing has always made you uncomfortable, we’ll try something hands off. We’ll give instructions that sound more like, “why don’t you sit somewhere around [here], and just think about the last time you were completely relaxed”. In this case, we can shoot from a distance and explore some different angles, and all without giving hardly any specific instructions. Don’t worry though, we can give you a few gentle suggestions so you don’t have to make it all up yourself.
We can Invite your best friends to come along and take the edge off
Sometimes our clients are shy because they are always shy when they feel like they have to make conversation with someone they’ve never met, or they have to “perform” for a stranger. Like when a new friend invites you to a party where you will know no one. It’s alright, I’ve had that feeling before too. In the case of the party, what do you do? You ask if you can bring a friend or two. You bring your comfort zone with you in the form of people already in your social circles, so you can more easily explore what is outside your comfort zone.
Depending on the purpose, having portraits made doesn’t have to be any different. Friends can bring smiles to your face that your photographer might find very difficult to elicit. Friends can automatically make a situation feel emotionally safer and more comfortable. They can also help call you out of your shell when all you really want to do is hide until it’s over.
If you need or want to have portraits made, but you’re dreading it, this isn’t a doctors office and bringing your friends for moral support is not weird. It’s smart.
We can take photos while you do something you love
For the very shy, there might be nothing less authentic than contriving a time to go to a park you never visit, to spend time with a person you’ve never met, to create images that are not ‘real’. I get it, and while I think that mindset might not be as beneficial as it feels—not just regarding photography, but in general—I’m not judging. For some people, the concept of intentionally commissioning a headshot or a portrait seems almost tantamount to lying.
If this is you, the images you exist in are probably exclusively the result of smartphones and pocket cameras that happen to be around when something personally remarkable is actually happening. That’s fine a lot of the time, but cell phone pictures are rarely browsed, rarely printed, rarely given as gifts to people who love you, rarely acting as meaningfully in the long run as professionally produced images—or at least, images produced with intention and careful thought about the future. XXXX
If we know this is how you feel about portraits, we don’t have to try and shoehorn you into a session that doesn’t feel right. In this case, we can do something entirely different. We can shoot something real, that is really happening. For example, if you love to surf, we could create a photo essay describing the packing and preparation of your gear, your planning, your pensive waiting for the waves to be just right, and ultimately your time out on the water. And, your photographer can feasibly do this while giving very few instructions about what you’re physically doing or how.
We can shoot in a place where you feel at-home
Some people can have fun dancing in their kitchen, but not in a club. Situational anxiety is a real challenge for a lot of people. Perhaps you’re not shy about this interaction with your photographer, or posing, or any of that. Maybe you’re shy about everyone else watching you.
The location of a session certainly contributes to, or takes away from the beauty of the images. But in portraits, especially portraits for personal use, it is usually the least important factor. If you’re shy, It might be very difficult for you to be working with a photographer on a busy city street, or a park with other families. It’s no mystery that sometimes what looks great in a photo looks a little silly in real life, and some people can’t put that out of their mind.
In this case, we don’t have to pick the “perfect” location for beauty, instead we can pick the “perfect” location for comfort. We can look for places that are usually empty, or we can shoot in and around your own home. Anywhere you feel at home, can feasibly make a good spot, because ultimately no beautiful location can outweigh an unwanted grimace in a photo.