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Dealing with Difficult Subjects

Sooner or later, you’re going to run into some difficult subjects – people who don’t like having someone take their photo. Here are a few ideas to help you deal with them.

Difficult Subjects Abound

I have to confess something. I’m a difficult subject. I don’t like having my photo taken because, quite honestly, it’s rarely flattering. I’m not just talking about a candid moment at a bad angle. A professional photographer took my portrait a little while ago and I honestly didn’t care for it. There are those who absolutely love the camera, but I’m not one of those people. There’s a reason I chose to be the one behind the camera.

If you want to have an easier time dealing with difficult subjects, it helps to understand things from their perspective. Here are a few reasons that may cause someone to be a little less than cooperative when you want their portrait.

1: Use Some Empathy

Don’t just write them off as a difficult subject. Think about why this person isn’t cooperating. Maybe they don’t like photographs of themselves because they’ve never seen a flattering image. Snapshots are particularly unflattering to many people due to poor lighting, awkward angles or candid moments when the subject didn’t even know you were taking their photo.

It’s your job to make this person look their best. If they’re uncomfortable about a photograph, there’s a good chance that it’s due to body image. That’s where your knowledge of photography can really help create a flattering image.

2: Practice Your Posing

Don’t use the same pose for every person. One of the reasons I didn’t like the portrait taken of me is because the pose accentuated my weight – not what I wanted to see.  I put my trust in a photographer and felt let down. Had I been on the other side of the camera, I would have moved my chin forward and up a bit to bring out my jawline, rather than leaning my body into the shot (as instructed) which left me with a hot mess. I already know I’m overweight, so I don’t need a photo to remind me. I would have been more impressed and pleased with a few posing changes.

Your subject has to trust you. If they’re a difficult subject, you need to earn that trust and reward it with a flattering photo. The worst thing you can do is reward their trust with an image they won’t like.

3: Light and Shadows Can Be Your Friend

Over-lit portraits are usually boring portraits. Nothing stands out if you blast every part of your subject with even light. Use shadows to conceal and a splash of light to carve out the interesting features of your subject. Light the eyes and face. Don’t be afraid to let some features fall into shadow. You’re telling a story about the person.

On the other hand, be careful about using shadows in a way that may accentuate features they dislike. Older folks may like like a reminder of the lines on their face, so a harsh sidelight wouldn’t be the best choice.

Use your empathy to choose your lighting style. If you were in their skin, what features would you want to accentuate and which ones would you downplay? Give it some thought and choose your lighting strategy accordingly.

4: Keep a Positive Attitude

Shooting a difficult subject isn’t always about their body image. Sometimes you just run into grumpy people. Doesn’t matter what caused it. They have other things on their mind, but the person pointing a big lens at them can seem like a good outlet for their anger, frustration or even petulance. Don’t worry about it. Be happy. Not sappy, just be in a good mood and stay positive. Sometimes it rubs off. They realize that you aren’t their enemy and become more cooperative.

5: Don’t Waste Their Time

If you’ve ever shot a portrait of a celebrity or other person with a lot of demands upon their time, you learn very quickly that they don’t have much time for your portrait. Know what you want to accomplish. Be ready and prepared when they show up. Have a plan. You may only have a minute or two, so be ready to make the most of it.

Being respectful of their time constraints can put them at ease so you get more out of your limited time with your subject. On the other hand, fumbling around with your gear and not knowing what shot you want to get may try their patience and cause them to walk out even sooner than you thought. When the time come to shoot, be ready to shoot.

Darth Maul

Talk about difficult subjects. This guy never stands still. Doesn’t say a word. Always looks pissed off, too. OK, so that’s his strength. He doesn’t want to look like some laughing monk. He also doesn’t want to spend a lot of time posing for you. He just wants to look like a badass, so that’s what you give him. A photo that could scare his Mom.

Difficult Subjects

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About William

Author, Photographer and IT Manager. I have a fondness for chocolate. I also own Suburbia Press and Aperture vs Lightroom. Follow me on Twitter at @wbeem.

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