Learning to be a better photographer is not all about learning photography. Especially if you want to photograph people.
Don’t get me wrong, you still need to read your camera manual, learn about exposure controls, Depth of Field and the dreaded Inverse Square Law. Let’s face it, there is no way to really master photography without learning the physics behind it. This is a conversation about the intangibles of learning to photographing people, the things that you need to learn that don’t have anything to do with the science of photography, but have everything to do with becoming a photographer who can make consistently great images of people.
If you are reading this, I hope you understand that I try very hard not to teach as if I were an expert — because I am not. In the world of photography, there are no experts. I try to share my experience to motivate you and to help you avoid some of the mistakes and obstacles that I have encountered in my last five decades of photographing people.
The seven tips that I am sharing with you are things that during my career, I have learned from my subjects. These are lessons that have made me a better photographer. Now you may be thinking, wow, that sounds easy enough. Joe says I should just ask my subjects how to be a better photographer. Sorry, but that is not exactly what I mean. It’s not that easy. It is never that is easy.
I want to share these tips with you in reverse order, with the most important one last. Be sure to read until the end and I just might share a bonus tip! :-)
7 Things My Subjects Have Taught Me About Photography
#7. My work is a collaboration
I photograph people and people are not objects. People are animated, they think, they react, they have emotions and I can’t create my images without them.
I began my career as a photojournalist and as a teenager and young twenty-something I really did think that my photography was all about me. Even though I was too young and too dumb to realize it, my best images and most of my awards came from stories where I was collaborating with a writer.
Even photographing a portrait, or a wedding, or a model, all of these are collaborations between the subject and the photographer. You can’t make the picture without the subject.
Collaboration did not come naturally for me. I was an only child, so I will blame it on my parents. The value of collaboration was learned through many failures and realizing that the work would have been better if I had help, if I had a collaborator. The value of collaboration was also learned by looking at the photographers that I admired most and learning that they worked with teams of people — not just by themselves.
Collaboration makes the work easier and more efficient. Collaboration helps to solve problems and lead to unique and creative ideas. Collaboration helps people learn from each other. Collaboration forces communication.
By following some of the other lessons that I am about to share with you, I have learned that I can make my subjects willing collaborators and even contributors of great ideas in all of my work.
I began to really learn about human behavior while working as a newspaper photographer and even though I didn’t understand the value of that education at the time, I am fortunate that the things I witnessed stuck with me and as I matured, they became the foundation for a lot of realizations about people and how they respond to stressful situations.
As my career evolved and I began shooting portraits and weddings, I learned very quickly the importance of good interpersonal skills. This time period was my real awakening that my subjects and objects are not the same thing. This was when I discovered that human subjects require much more attention and communication and direction and understanding than objects do.
#6. It’s not all about the photographs — Personality matters
When photographing people, exhibiting the right personality traits will make your job easier and your work better.
Certainly research has taught us that people tend to gravitate towards outgoing and extroverted people, and those types of people tend to be more successful in life. But, I have found as a photographer that there is an even more valuable personality trait.
As a young newspaper photographer I generally met people as they were experiencing the highest of highs or the lowest of lows in their lives. I learned from watching peoples reactions to my arrival at these moments how I needed to respond. Sometimes it required being as unobtrusive as possible. Other times it required inserting myself into the chaos that they were experiencing to be able to photograph it in a way that the readers of the newspaper would feel as if they were experiencing it too.
The lesson I learned was that the personality trait that I needed to lead with was empathy. I realize most of you know what that word means, but I think we can all use a reminder from time-to-time. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As a photographer, I came to realize that I needed to imagine myself in my subjects shoes to have a better sense of how to interact with that person.
Fortunately, I am naturally curious. That curiosity and my efforts to apply empathy to the people and situations I was photographing, led me to realize that even the shyest of people like to talk about themselves, even when asked difficult questions. Provided that the questions are asked with genuine curiosity and empathy for the person’s situation. Making this a habit led me to realize that a few simple and sincere questions are actually the same way that relationships usually begin and indeed, photographing people is a relationship activity.
This lesson continues to apply to all of my work and sometimes in not so obvious ways. Photographing portraits or shooting models, it is important to understand that nobody wants a bad picture of themselves. Everyone has at least a little anxiety about getting in front of a camera. Understanding that reality, changes the way we communicate if we have empathy for our subjects situation. When posing models, I work very had to understand what it will take to hold that pose. Especially when it is a pose that I know I could not do myself.
So in short, put yourself in your subjects shoes and treat them the way you would hope to be treated.
#5. Communication is everything
Being able to communicate effectively is an incredibly important life skill and a skill that is required for most aspects of life — not just photographing people.
Unfortunately this is not a skill that comes easily to most people. Many creative people tend to be shy or introverted, so this is a skill that can require a lot of effort and practice.
You should understand that communication is more than just the words you speak. The tone of your voice and how you say your words impacts “HOW” they are received. The intention behind your words — the “WHY” will impact how the message is received and how it makes your subject feel. “WHEN” you say something has an impact and sometimes what you don’t say will speak volumes. In addition to your words, your body language which includes your facial expressions, gestures and postures will speak volumes about your intent as well as your respect or lack thereof for your subject.
It is a common mistake for a photographer to begin using technical jargon that can only serve to confuse or intimidate a subject. A great photographer is going to remember NOT to communicate as a photographer, but as an empathetic person. Remember those anxieties we talked about. Telling your subject which light is the key light or “Make sure you look at this light is not good communication and it is not good collaboration. If you include the “WHY”, everything changes. Explain to your subject which is the key light and tell them that they key light is the light that is providing the main light for your face. Let them know that if they look towards it the light will make them look their best and that it will accentuate their best features. By sharing this information you are educating your subject, you are reducing their anxieties, you are empowering them with knowledge and you are making them a willing and eager collaborator with a vested interest in the outcome of your photograph.
Short partial directions like more your hand or til your head or my favorite — “SMILE” rarely produce good results or put your subject at ease. Be sure to communicate with specific — “move your right hand just a bit.” Or “Tilt your head slightly to the left.”
It is worth noting that hiding behind something makes it difficult to communicate. That big full frame camera with the six pound 70-200mm zoom lens that you are so proud of — is not only intimidating for someone to look at, but it completely blocks your face so remember to get out from behind the camera to communicate. The more you remove the camera from the conversation, the more you will put your subject at ease.
#4. Be an active listener
This is actually a part of communicating but it deserves its own bullet point. Being an active listener makes you a better photographer. How well you listen to your subjects will have a major impact on the quality of your relationships with your subjects. Sounds like something a marriage counselor might say. Hmm, maybe they’re onto something.
The simple fact is that if you are speaking, you aren’t listening. I will admit that this has been a challenge for me and it is a skill that took years for me to appreciate and master. Listening is something that you need to do even when you haven’t asked a question. Actively listening also involves the listener observing the speaker’s behavior and body language.
#3. Pay attention to body language
Both your subjects and your own. Non-verbal messages including body movements, facial expressions, vocal tone and volume, and other signals are collectively known as body language. Having the ability to interpret a person’s body language helps you develop a more accurate understanding of the persons message.
It has been said that knowledge is power. I like to think of knowledge as understanding. Meaning if I pay attention to my subjects physical and verbal cues — body language — I am able to achieve my goals with less friction because I can alter my behavior and words to help achieve my goals. By being an active listener and by observing body language I am also able to demonstrate to my subject that I am indeed listening to them and considering their comments, concerns, ideas and questions.
As a younger photographer I had too many “aha” moments after a shoot or even during a shoot when I finally figured out what was wrong with my subject or why I wasn’t connecting with them. They were the moments after a subject told me they were cold or really nervous, or straining to hold the pose I have given them. Moments that I realized — they looked cold or nervous or like they were in pain and I should have paid attention and changed the situation.
#2. Never stop learning
There are always new skills to learn and techniques for photographers to adopt. This is a lesson that has been taught to me both by my subjects and by the world around me.
If you are following the first 5 lessons that I shared — meaning you collaborate, communicate, show empathy and practice good listening skills, you will realize that the world evolves. People evolve, things change. Trends come and thankfully go. All of this means that you need to evolve as well. This is not a gear statement. Of course gear evolves. I am talking about people and the fact that people and their values and priorities and anxieties and fears all evolve. So pay attention. Don’t become a dinosaur. We all know how that worked out.
Author and Pastor T.D. Jakes has been quoted as saying: “The world is a university and everyone in it is a teacher. Make sure when you wake up in the morning, you go to school.”
I don’t know about you, but I do know that the day I feel there is nothing left to learn about photography is the day that I put my cameras away for good. My cameras have been my ticket to the world. To the most fascinating people and the most incredible experiences. My cameras have given me the opportunity to experience a lifetime of learning. And that is why I am so eager to share what I have learned with you.
#1. Trends are cheap
The most important thing that I have learned from my subjects over the last 5 decades. . . Trends are cheap. Trends are contagious so they invite and encourage competition. Competition makes it harder to stand out in a crowd and is almost always a loosing battle. So why compete? Don’t follow trends!
Zombies are mindless creatures who follow a crowd without knowing why. Look, trends become trends because they are cool and different and creative. But from the moment the trend begins, it grows thanks to Zombies. Thanks to mindless creatures who lack creativity or the desire to learn and grow.
So how does this make a trend cheap? When everyone does it, your work will likely not stand out. For every trend that comes and goes, there are handfuls of photographers who are best known for the trend and everyone else is just a cheap copy. If you are trying to make money as a photographer, this means that the perceived value of your work is dramatically lowered. The result is that it is harder to set prices that will support you or your business, because there are always cheaper options — other photographer doing similar things.
Heck, even if you are just shooting for fun and hoping to maybe win a few awards or build a following, you will run into the same perceived value issues if you decide to go with the crowd.
My subjects have taught me that they want me to be me and that I have a responsibility to them to do what I do, the way that I do it and to NOT follow the crowd and do the same old thing.
Bonus lesson from my subjects
I have never had a client comment about my camera or ask why I use the brand or model that I do. What did this teach me about photography you might ask? It taught me that gear doesn’t matter to my subjects or clients and that lesson confirmed that the other seven lessons that I have just shared with you were solid observations.