How The 4 E's Make For A Great Photography Session...
As with any artist, craftsman, or skilled tradesman, time and experience not only improves the results of your efforts, but also improves the process itself.
I remember when I began shooting portraits, I was laser focused solely on the technical aspects of the shot; I would read blogs, look at Youtube videos, check out photography forums as if it was the end-all, be-all of becoming a professional photographer.
But, what about addressing the client in front of the camera?
Quite frankly, I assumed he or she was inconsequential to the shots' success; I could swap that person out for another and that would not affect the success of the images, whatsoever. I was under the impression that great photography lied solely in the gear and the photographer's technical prowess.
What happens when the technical considerations are taken out of the equation entirely?
Let's use my studio headshot session as an example; my setup has barely changed in 3 years; I use a "box" of soft light and a grayed out, white seamless background, that's it. Although the gear and the setup hasn't changed much, my client sessions have dramatically improved as the years have gone by. Session after session, my clients have trouble choosing their keepers (an amazing problem to have, by the way), whereas in the early years, the pickings were much, much slimmer.
What's been the difference? What has experience taught me exactly?
Rather than assuming that the solution to my client's problems lied exclusively in providing them with a set of technically beautiful photographs, I now realize that's only a small part of the equation; listening, being attentive, and being able to solve his or her specific problems leading up to and during the shoot is what leads to truly successful sessions.
"I've never taken a professional photo before..." "I hate taking pictures..." "Can you make me look 10 pounds lighter?" "Can you make me look 10 years younger?" "I hate the left side of my face, can you shoot me from the right?" "I have a lazy eye..." "I don't know what to wear..." "Im terrified of the camera..." "I hate my smile, it's crooked..." "The camera is too close, can you move it back?" "I have terrible skin, can you airbrush it?" "Can you get rid of all those wrinkles on my face?" "Can you erase the dent in my forehead?" "I hate my face..."
This is a small sampling of problems that clients have shared with me before and during their sessions. If I had a dollar for every time I heard one of these statements, I wouldn't have to shoot for a living anymore! During the my early years, I handled these issues quite poorly by responding with a not-to-worry, it-will-all-be-okay mantra, and foolishly returned my attention to tweaking a light or playing with my camera settings.
I was not very reassuring, and, consequently, was ignoring all of their issues.
Eventually, I realized this powerless, blanket statement wasn't going to cut it anymore. So I needed a plan that could work for anyone who stepped in front of my camera. I had to relate to each client and put myself in their shoes, coach them to combat their specific issues, get them relaxed and their minds off of anything outside of the studio and pep up their spirits when the shoot is still in the process of jelling.
And that's how I came to develop a proven strategy centering on the 4 E's:
Empathize, Empower, Engage and Encourage.
EMPATHIZE - BELIEVE ME, I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL...
If you looked in my shoebox of pictures taken during the first 25 years of my life, I pretty much looked like the picture below in all of them — much to my mothers' chagrin, of course:
Wow, that kid looks miserable, doesn't he? It's because I was...
I hated posing for pictures, and never cared to hide that fact behind a fake smile, or even a vague attempt at looking comfortable. In high school and college, I barely have any photos of me at all because I had more opportunity to avoid snapshots altogether. With the ease of access to cameras today, I'm pretty sure my head would have exploded had I grown up in this era, so, I'm glad I didn't!
I eventually grew out of my fear of taking pictures. And now, with all of the tips I share with my clients, I employ them all myself and am more confident with the process. I take my own professional selfies, as a matter of fact! It's on my homepage if you missed it.
Anytime I have an anxious client, I share my story, show them the above photo, and let them know that I feel their pain, and that I'm here to help them get through this process in a positive and productive way.
If a client trusts me, he or she will trust in themselves, and that leads to a successful session.
EMPOWER - THE TOOLBOX OF SUCCESS
It's not enough to empathize with anxious clients and expect magic to ensue from that alone; preparation and education is a great equalizer to fear and anxiety. It affords them a healthy, and necessary, shot of confidence.
Before they even set foot in front of the camera, I've spoken with them about the session in great detail. We've gone through pre-shoot preparations - including outfit, makeup and hair suggestions, and what to do to prepare the night before - as well as what to expect during the shooting process.
Once they get in front of the lights and camera, all of that preparation comes to life.
In addition to the material we covered before the shoot, I am now tasked with directing and guiding my clients on how to effectively present their face and body to the camera, explaining how posture, head angle, hair positioning, and jawline accentuation best frames and presents the most important aspect of the image - their facial expressions.
In between rounds of shooting, we review every single shot that has been taken to analyze what is and what's not working. This is the most important part of the session; clients see with their own eyes how employing certain techniques can drastically affect the overall tone of an image; how a hairline move left or right, up or down, can change the effectiveness of the expression.
I offer suggestions and compare shots to further the points. I often see and hear the lightbulbs go off in their heads and back at it we go, but, with much more confidence, excitement and joy, which, of course, charges me up, as well.
This type of guidance empowers my clients to let their personality shine for the lens, not only for this particular session, but anytime that they're ever in front of a camera again. These lessons lead to a better understanding of themselves, and it lives within them forever.
ENGAGE - WE'RE JUST HAVING A CONVERSATION...
If there's one thing that I am not, it's the quiet type.
During a photo session, awkward silence is silent death to a successful photo session. Banter, conversation and joking around keep the vibe upbeat, the mood fun, and the client's mind off of the shoot itself - yes, I play some Jedi mind tricks, to be sure. I want his or head out of the room, away from the lights, the camera, and into whatever we're talking about.
Now, if one way worked for everyone, that would be awesome, but, of course, that's not the case; everyone is wired a little differently, so, it's important for me to get a sense of what they will respond to most. Silly jokes? Questions about their career? Playing word association games? Talking about their weekends? Favorite teams? The list of options is endless.
With 9 years of daytime talk show producing experience and hundreds of photography sessions under my belt, I've become adept at what will work best with certain individuals, and able to figure it out rather quickly, too.
Along with all that talking, I've also done a lot of listening, too. That's certainly part of the secret sauce when looking to capture the best results from your client sessions.
ENCOURAGE - SOMETIMES WE NEED A PEP TALK...
...or a kick in the butt — whatever works, right?
I remember when I was on my high school bowling team (yes, we had a bowling team!), and I'd be that energy guy who was hi-fiving everyone, having sidebar, pump-up sessions before the games, and help people shake off their mistakes. I also loved running to the bowling alley jukebox and play Queen's "We Will Rock You" to get the team going beforehand. Cheesy, but, fun, nonetheless.
I relished that role then, and, I relish that aspect of my job as photographer now.
If my client's energy is low, their shots will reflect that. If they feel out-of-sorts, their shots will reflect that. I'm charged with figuring out how to break them out of their rut and get to delivering some impactful and authentic images.
Begging and pleading with a client isn't going to work; if they feel like the session is going poorly, I often point out what is working and applaud that effort. It never hurts to have a cheerleader in one's corner.
Encouragement, however, takes several forms. In addition to the "you're doing a kickass job," role, encouragement also take form in unqualified honesty.
As I mentioned before, clients obsess over certain "problem" areas, which often leads to their anxiety and low-level performance in front of the camera. Rather than dismiss their concerns altogether, I address each one directly in an honest and encouraging way, and let them know from the outset whether this is a noticeable or unnoticeable issue. Sometimes, it helps them hear an opinion from an objective source that is not their friends, family, and especially, themselves.
I remind clients all the time that they've been staring at their face their whole lives and it's natural to get hung up on certain things, but other people aren't in the business of studying their faces in the same way, if at all. I let them know that there are several ways we can minimize this issue or simply shoot around it entirely if the problem is glaringly obvious.
Being honest and open is the best way to encourage a client and let them feel comfortable about the process.
Over the years, I've learned there is no magic recipe that works for every client; some people respond more to being empowered than engaged; others immediately react well to a healthy dose of empathy, while others kick ass after a couple minutes of some rah-rah encouragement.
In order to provide clients with a successful photography session, I need to be in tune with their specific set of problems and issues leading up to the shoot and lean on my past experiences to define the 4 E's formula that will work best to get those authentic images from their sessions.