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Personalities and Portraits – and Getting Them to Mix

Portraiture can be a lot of fun; capturing entertaining characters and drawing out quieter personalities, but sometimes it can be a challenge as those ‘entertaining’ characters can soon become too much to handle and getting the shyer folk to even look in your direction can be like getting blood out of a stone. So here are a handful of tricks, tips and techniques to use when dealing with four of the most problematic personality types.

Personalities and portraits . . .

©Natalie Denton 2013

©Natalie Denton 2013

The loud ones – identified by volume and wise cracks

You know the type; the person who is constantly wise-cracking and trying to make everyone around them laugh, usually at the expense of you, the photographer. You’ll tend to find this person when you take group shots, and there’s always one at a wedding.

Often these people are only acting that way because they are deflecting their own insecurities and are actually really uncomfortable with having their photograph taken so they go overboard and say very witty things like “I’m ready for my close up now” or “If you sell these images to Vogue I want a cut.”

In these situations, it’s better to go along with it rather than get prickly or confrontational. Smile, and have a joke. A splash of playful banter will probably put them at ease, and you’ll soon notice real smiles on the faces of the people around them, which helps to make the resulting shots look much more genuine and natural. If you’re photographing this person as part of a group, it might help you to break off into smaller groups first and photograph this person with their close friends or family first, helping them to relax. Better still, try and get a portrait of them on their own, away from others which will soon bring them down to earth and ease down their barriers, especially if there’s no one for them to entertain. That way when it’s time for the group shot, they’ll be more relaxed and have more respect for you and your work. You can even use them to your advantage in getting them to round people up and getting others into line.

The shy ones – identified by nervous laughter and lack of eye contact

Having photographed numerous shy brides over the years I’ve realized there are a number of ways you can put those who aren’t comfortable in front of the camera, at ease. The first thing to do is to test the water. Take a few shots and see how they respond. Some slowly relax into it, and these first few timid frames can often make for stunning imagery (especially in black and white) – and if this is who they are as a person they may embrace the resulting pictures. The problem is, while a few frames of the model looking away from the camera can be charming, after a while the lack of diversity and eye contact can become awkward and restrictive.

©Natalie Denton 2013

©Natalie Denton 2013

Put the camera down and take time to talk to them about something else, like the scene around you or the clothes they are wearing. Making them laugh can always help to break the ice and commenting on how great they look as you reap the images can help to settle their nerves. I usually then take a little time to show them a few of the images collected so far, on the back of the camera, and explain how they look stunning in them.

Ultimately the trick with the shy ones is ‘slowly, slowly, catch the monkey’. There’s no point rushing them or being over the top with them. Keep your manner calm yet confident and reassure them that they are doing well. Start with them in a group and then move them away on their own, after a while they’ll start to relax and the images will shine as a result. Then move them back into a group and you can bet your bottom dollar the second round of group shots will be ten times more sincere, relaxed and memorable than the first.

The wannabe model types – identified by pouting and uncontainable enthusiasm

Usually this type of subject has watched too much model-focused reality TV and thinks they are the next undiscovered talent. Normally these (tends to be younger females in my experiences, but not exclusively) people are pleasant just extremely excited and want to try a whole portfolio of expressions and outfits, in a catalogue of scenes and scenarios. If you’ve got the time and they’ve got the energy then great – this is surely a recipe for success.

©Natalie Denton 2013

©Natalie Denton 2013

Yet when you are restricted by time, or if this individual is overshadowing a group shot, then you might need to step in to calm things down. Furthermore if the images are looking too posed and fake, there’s a risk the client won’t be happy with them. So the key is to tame them, without killing off their enthusiasm.

For most people, having your picture taken is a novelty and as such after a few frames they will usually start to relax, settle and tone the drama down. It can help to praise others (usually younger siblings or the parents) in the group; pulling them out of the wannabe’s shadow. If things get too ‘posey’, suggest some more natural poses and reference famous celebrities who are known for more subtle trademark looks. Distract their attention by having the family or group interact by doing something fun together –  as though you weren’t there; such as a game of catch, piggy back races or if weather permits – a water fight, and catch them off guard. Often people look much more attractive in these candid exposures than the posed ones. Show them evidence of this on your camera and you’ll soon have them acting like a professional rather than a wannabe.

The fellow photographer – identified by taking their own shots and eagerness to divulge camera trivia at every turn

Enthusiastic or secure fellow photographers- great. Know-it-all or insecure photographers – bad. It’s this latter category who can be the hardest of all types of people to photograph, because ultimately they think they can do a better job than you – usually to the disagreement of the client, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired you.

©Natalie Denton 2013

©Natalie Denton 2013

The best thing to do is to indulge them, if time permits, and throw a little peacocking into the mix. Take the time to discuss their gear, find out what they like to shoot and let them impart any pearls of wisdom they wish to share. Now comes the fun part, you get to show how talented you are by giving them advice and taking their image. Show it to them and discuss the lighting and exposure values you’ve used and explain why you used them. They are sure to be impressed (again, they would have been hired if they were better than you) and they’ll probably back off and let you do job, but may hassle you for tips or a discussion on something incredibly geeky such as hyper-focal distances, after the shoot.

Bottom Line

At the end of the day; as humans, we share similar quirks and personality traits but everyone is different and that’s what makes portraiture so appealing. It’s the chance to capture these little idiosyncrasies in a beautiful visual representation. So go on! Embrace the ‘loud ones’, excite the ‘shy ones’, flatter the ‘wannabe models’ and indulge your ‘fellow photographers’, as long as you’re having fun doing it, then where’s the harm?

For more help on doing portraits and relating to your subjects try these:

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Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)
Natalie Denton (nee Johnson)

Natalie Denton (nee Johnson) is the former editor of Digital Photographer magazine, and is now a freelance journalist and photographer who has written for dozens of photography and technology magazines and websites over the last decade. Recent author and tutor too.

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