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Portrait Photography is Always a Collaboration

In a sense, all photographers-of-people are necessary collaborators. I’m stretching the meaning of that word a little bit. What I mean is that the artwork they create always hinges on some uncertainty from the people they photograph. They have to bend and adapt their technique and their vision based on what they learn, or observe, or expect of the person in front of them.

When a photographer has a vision for an image, they have to either adapt their subject to their vision, or adapt their vision to their subject.

Street photographers and portrait photographers could be seen as two extremes of this same spectrum. Street photographers observe others and look for interesting images among the things that are naturally happening around them. They can either adapt their vision to what they see, or they can wait patiently for what they see to match their vision. They “collaborate” with the people they photograph, waiting for the unknown other to add the necessary element to their work.

Portrait photographers, on the other side of the spectrum, use direct intervention to bend their subject to match their vision. They may use social or psychology techniques to help gently bring out the motions and facial expressions they’re looking for. Or, they may be outright authoritarian about it, demanding the subject do this or that, and making people everywhere hate them. Either way, they’re collaborating, trying to coax what they want out of their subject, full well knowing that their subject is free to withhold their cooperation at any time.

On both ends of that spectrum, the photographers who see and appreciate the collaborative aspects of people-photography, will consistently create the most compelling images—and probably feel happier doing it. And those who fail to see the collaborative aspects will have their wins too, but won’t be as enjoyable to work with, will have an awful lot of throw-aways, and probably be consistently frustrated and disappointed.

Likewise, a similar spectrum exists among those in front of the lens. There’s the perfect candid photo at a wedding ruined by a guest who turns and smiles right into the camera—they’re not seeing their collaborative involvement in the process; “ignore the photographer”. After all, if the photographer wanted them to turn and do that, they’d have asked. And on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the subject who expects the photographer to make them look really great, with little or no effort put into following the photographer’s instructions, or bringing the version of themselves they want to be photographed to the session in the first place. They’re not seeing their collaborative involvement in the process; “do your best to follow the photographer’s instructions; do your best to bring your ideal version of yourself”.

Obviously, this isn’t true for every kind of photography, but I wager that it’s mostly true for every kind of people-photography.

So, if you’re hiring someone to take your picture, to take pictures of your staff, to take pictures at your wedding or event, find the photographer who sees the process as a real collaboration. Choose someone who isn’t overly concerned with their vision or your vision, but instead seems mostly concerned with where those two things intersect; someone who respects your ideas, even if they’re naive; someone who has almost as many questions for you as you have for them. And, likewise, if you’re going to be photographed by someone, don’t expect them to be able to pull this off without you. Muster your enthusiasm, and get excited to hop on board their vision. Or, be bold to contribute with your own vision. Even if you’re hiring someone, see the time together as a collaboration and you’ll have more fun and get better results.

Also, if you’re a people-photographer, realize that this is a collaboration, regardless of how good you think you are. Stop barking orders, and stop getting annoyed with strangers who don’t do what you’re expecting them to do for your perfect shot. It’s slowing you down and you’re having an unnecessarily bad time because of it.

People-photography is what we do, and we see every session as a collaboration. If you’d like to learn more about our services, check out our Weddings, Portraits, and For Professionals pages!