I did a lot of portrait photography last week. I expected that. What I didn’t expect was that I received a gift from my subjects. And their gift to me has transformed the way I think about my people photography.
I’ve been doing portrait photography for a long time now. Mostly pets. But lately, more and more humans. And as I’ve been photographing more people I’ve become a bit fascinated with what makes the difference between an average photo and a great portrait or head shot. Lighting? Of course. Lens choice? Certainly. Makeup, styling and wardrobe? Yes, yes, and yes. But I know from experience that I can have all those things dialed in and still have a photo that is good, but not great.
Last week I was the “Official Photographer” for the PetSittingOlogy Conference in Las Vegas. PetSittingOlogy is a service for professional pet sitters, and each year they host a conference focused on business development, marketing and other vital business topics. Part of what I did was set up a studio to take head shots of attendees that they could use on their websites, social media, etc. It was planned to be a bit of an assembly line – brief mini-sessions squeezed in between conference presenters and meals.
I expected to take good photographs. I mean hey, I always expect to create good photographs. What I didn’t expect was the emotional experience the photo sessions would create for both my subjects and me.
As a rule, the people I was shooting were not excited to be in front of the camera. They were not actors or models and not especially keen to be the center of attention. It was more of a necessary evil, a need for their business. It was clear from the outset that people were nervous, even panicked, about stepping in front of the camera. Deer meet headlights. Shoulders meet ears. All the classic signs. As each new person stepped onto the set the tension ratcheted up again and I felt it hit me in waves.
But shortly thereafter something wonderful occurred. I would shoot while my great assistant Laura and I would engage and entertain our model. After a few pops of the flash I would invite our new friend to come and see her shots on the computer. And this was the moment, over and over again, that I will cherish forever. Each person would see herself in a way she had never seen before. And she liked what she saw. Sometimes even LOVED what she saw. There were smiles. A few tears. I could see pride. I could see confidence. People saw themselves as the beautiful humans they are. As Laura said, “It was awesome. It was SO awesome!”
And it was such a gift to me. A person willing to step in front of the camera despite their instincts, to overcome fears and anxiety, and to trust me that I will make them look and feel good is a real act of kindness. And the people who were kind to me last week altered the way I view portrait photography. They helped me understand more deeply that making a good portrait is a lot less about apertures and shutterspeeds, and so much more about relationship and partnership. Focusing on the former will yield a well-exposed photograph. Tending to the latter will create rich portraits that express the spirit and beauty of the subject. Laura said it perfectly: “Everyone is beautiful! Everyone shines! You are who you are, and that’s awesome!” Thanks to the wonderful pet sitters at PetSittingOlogy, I was reminded to worry less about the studio lights and to really tend to the light inside each person who trusts me to take their picture.