Getting intimate.
February 24, 2010 2:40 AM   Subscribe

What do photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Terry Richardson say to their subjects to make them completely lower their defenses? Or, what do regular photographers (like you) do?

I find myself really enjoying pictures where the photographed are clearly having a good time -- usually because they've lowered their defenses and are being completely open (goofy, even) for the photographer.

Obviously, this effect is more pronounced with celebrities, who are generally viewed by the public through a very narrow window -- Annie Leibovitz and Terry Richardson seem to be two of the best at removing barriers.

For photography of non-celebrities, the photographer I'm most impressed by is JR, but there's obviously others.

What do these photographers say/do to make their subjects completely loose? Or, conversely, what do you do to achieve this effect?

I'd like to know so that I can achieve this effect in my photography.
posted by the NATURAL to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
my best shots are always candid, the subject doesn't know, or has forgotten he/she is being photographed.
posted by HuronBob at 3:12 AM on February 24, 2010

I took a class that purported to teach this...
The general idea was to be deft and adaptable when it came to setting up lighting and choosing where to place the subject, so no time would be wasted on fiddling with the arrangement. Then, some amiable chit-chat to make everything seem casual, confident and workaday. For the portrait itself, the class was encouraged to bring up a topic that would cause the subject to go a bit inward and visualize something, like, "Ah, so your son's been riding horses in shows! What's it like to watch him execute a solid jump?" (for a business executive, maybe) Or, "what does your family do in the summer when it's hot and humid outside?" (for a slice-of-life kind of shot with a regular person). Sometimes it might be appropriate to ask (if the photo is for a story) something personal, like, "What was the day of the funeral like?" in order to get a particular tone.

Anyhow, none of this was actually a guarantee. Throughout the semester, each person in the class photographed each other person, and some subjects just would not relax/lower their defenses in the time-frame allowed for the photo. With actors I think one is more likely to get a good shot because they have a certain willingness to be vulnerable and they are cooperating in their own career promotion by posing. Regular people will be more variable.
posted by xo at 4:16 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

One thing I've learned as an amateur photographer when taking portrait-style shots of friends and family is not to fret over the photos I'm taking while I'm taking them. Funnily enough, if, the moment after I take a shot, I look at the LCD and scrutinise the histogram and frown and mutter and tweak the settings on the camera and get generally exasperated, the subjects start to feel uncomfortable and self-conscious. So, I made a special effort to learn my camera well enough that I projected confidence and nonchalance with it. Subjects reciprocate.

The other thing I do is try to talk with the subjects about something completely unrelated, or joke around, timing the punchlines with the shutter. That usually works really well.

And the candid thing. A basic telephoto will do.
posted by bright cold day at 4:24 AM on February 24, 2010

Just keep the camera held up to your face the whole time. Easiest way to make people accept or ignore.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:29 AM on February 24, 2010

Bruce Gilden calls it bedside manner.

is a good way to learn it.
posted by the cuban at 4:31 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

And the candid thing. A basic telephoto will do.

Please dont.

You'll learn nothing lurking in bushes. Approach people and speak to them.
posted by the cuban at 4:34 AM on February 24, 2010 [3 favorites]

I spend some time at parties just lurking around with my camera - if I'm not interacting directly with people there is less chance of them noticing that I'm about to take a picture of them. That wasn't meant to sound as creepy as it did...

I also interact with people while they're posing for me: like I chat about unrelated things and snap away as they respond. It's hard to pose and chat at the same time.

I also take posed pictures, then continue taking pictures in the seconds after they've relaxed out of their pose. Continuous shooting mode is good for this. I've got some really nice candid group pictures that way.
posted by Ziggy500 at 4:40 AM on February 24, 2010

Lord Snowdon took this wonderful wedding photo (you might recognise the subjects) after he had told them "It's all over." They slumped and he snapped the last picture of the day. Apparently, he liked to keep a frame or two in the camera for after the shoot, so this was a well-practised stratagem.
posted by BrokenEnglish at 5:13 AM on February 24, 2010 [8 favorites]

I think with celebrities, they're able to themselves lower their defenses in front of a camera anyway. Plus, Annie Liebowitz is kind of a "name" herself, so there's probably an element of trust already in place ("well, she takes amazing photos, so if she's asking me to get into this tub full of milk, I'll just have to trust that this is gonna work").

Also -- now I'm speaking more from a practical side -- you're only seeing the one finished product, not the 50 other photos the photographer may have also taken that didn't work out so well. Photographers tend to take a LOT of shots, with a couple different ideas, and that takes a while -- and someone who may start out stiff and reserved may loosen up a lot as time goes on. So that one photo you're looking at may be one of the last 10 they shot, and you just didn't see any of the first 50 where they're looking like Winston Churchill.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:13 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Terry speaks well about it here:
posted by monocultured at 5:27 AM on February 24, 2010

Check out what MetaFilter's favorite photographer has to say about it.
posted by MrMoonPie at 5:38 AM on February 24, 2010

This cuts both ways--but Leibovitz is truly a crazy perfectionist. Her shoots can be interminable; I've heard stories of her getting more access to the "soul" of a subject simply by wearing them down over the course of 12, 15, 18 hours. This is probably not a practical route you want to go, but some of those shots are great.

My tips--if you're going really candid, get a fast lens and shoot without flash; flash is really distracting and takes people out of the moment. I shoot a lot with a 35mm lens (on a full frame body); I think this is a good focal length for informal shots, because you can stand as close as you would under normal conversational circumstances (5-7 feet) and not be too tight on people's faces. 50mm is good too, but a bit tighter. Keep the conversation going at all times; I agree with Civil Disobedient that you should keep your camera up and visible, but do move it away to talk--I find that if people have to keep saying "what?" because you're talking into your camera, it takes them out of the moment. The 100 strangers thing is great.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 5:56 AM on February 24, 2010

I've heard stories of her getting more access to the "soul" of a subject simply by wearing them down over the course of 12, 15, 18 hours.

Yes, I think a lot of good photography comes when the subjects are exhausted.
posted by jayder at 6:00 AM on February 24, 2010

...and not all of her shots made the subjects happy.
The Blues Brothers shooting ended with one of the two storming out of the room because he was ticked off with having to wear that ridiculous face paint etc. etc.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:06 AM on February 24, 2010

I learned everything I know from Edgar Lee Masters.

Seriously, I just talk to people. I generally shoot from my shoulder, so they can see my face and there's a certain change in a person's eyes when they start to relax, and I just wait for that. I imagine photographing celebrities is very different, as they tend to have their guard much higher up and be more aware of their persona, but for friends and family, I just have to get them to ease up a little, for strangers I usually ask them to tell me a joke.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:09 AM on February 24, 2010

Here's some tips:

* Engage in the scene as a human, not a "photographer"
* Talk to folks about what makes them happy.
* Use a smaller camera, it's less scary.
* Don't use flash, it's annoying.
* Don't act like you're hunting wabbitsphotos.
* Practice "don't notice me" kinematics. Move gracefully and fluidly.
* Wear loose-fitting, non-distracting clothing and soft shoes.
* Put the camera to your eye for only a second or two.
* You are not Terry Richardson; keep your fucking pants on.

But most importantly: smile, goddammit, in all walks of life. A million minor affronts (like having a picture taken) are forgiven in an instant by a genuine and friendly smile.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:24 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Annie Leibowitz spent a lot of time on the road with rock bands while working for Rolling Stone. She takes photos constantly, even when she's not working, so they eventually just got used to her taking photos and let their guard down. So piece of advice #1: Take photos constantly.

The Edgar Lee Masters advice gets at the idea of directly & overtly working with emotions, or at least the physicality of emotions.
Here's what I told her: you hate mathowie. He strangles puppies. He kicked your cat. Both of them. Twice. Now give me your I-hate-mathowie face until the count of three. She protested. It was an unreasonable request to make of a most kind and decent person, but I yelled at her drunkenly (although good-naturedly) and she complied and tried to look hateful, or indignant, or something. The results were comical. I also recycled this gag throughout the night -- for instance, you can see agropyron's Fist of Rage unclenching in this photo of agropyron and janell.
This type of thing is sometimes parodied as "look down, look down, look down, look up." (as seen here, and here). Emotions are a tough bugger to fake. The muscles involved in creating a genuine smile aren't really under our control - at least not for most ordinary human beings.

(That said, there is evidence that test subjects that held a pen between their teeth - forcing their lips into a smile - self-reported themselves as being happier than test subjects who filled out the survey with no pen between their teeth - the simple act of smiling can encourage happiness.)

There was an ad for a newscaster that involved them staring at the camera and smiling for about 5 seconds, which is about 3 seconds beyond where it started to get creepy. You just can't hold a genuine smile for more than a couple of seconds. Which is why the "look down, look down, look up" thing works - you push the opposing emotion with your physicality and then catch the moment of relaxation - which will be genuine. It might not be genuine happiness or genuine joy, but it is genuine relief from clenching your muscles or whatever negative thing you were just doing.

Getting rid of the flash & getting yourself out from behind the camera is another.

If you work in a studio, get a constant light source rather than a strobe based light source. It will also help you compose the shot, since you'll see the light as you manipulate it rather than have to think about what the lighting will be in the instant the camera flashes.

If you can, put the camera on a tripod and get a remote control for it. Put an "x" on the ground where the subject should stand, or put them on a stool or whatever you need to to get them to stay in the right position & then interact with them & use the remote control to take the pictures.

For less controlled shots, get to know your camera & learn where you can trust the automatic settings, and get out and talk to people. Use the techniques above & invent your own to avoid the "smile for the camera" plastic thing.

As for how to get people to be goofy in front of the camera, I suspect a lot of it comes from being goofy yourself. Nobody likes to be judged & if you're "the professional cameraman" then people will act like they're with "the professional cameraman" but if you're goofy, people will be willing to act goofy.

I may do the 100 Strangers thing - sounds like fun.
posted by MesoFilter at 8:47 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Philippe Halsman did a set of portraits where he would have the subject jump in the air. He said, "When you ask a person to jump, his attention is mostly directed toward the act of jumping and the mask falls so that the real person appears."

Richard Nixon even did a photo jumping!
posted by phrygius at 1:42 PM on February 24, 2010

I'm not a pro, not even close to it, won't pretend to be, but when I've shot both couple-y and individual portraits, I've encouraged the subjects to first close their eyes, then invited them to think about the best most delicious sex they most recently had -partnered or not, then I let them be still with their thoughts a few seconds longer, then I asked them to open their eyes. Click.
posted by mcbeth at 12:07 AM on February 25, 2010

seanmpuckett wrote:
* Put the camera to your eye for only a second or two.

If you have an LCD viewer, I'll go farther, and say:

* Don't put the camera between your face and theirs. People like to look at faces; it's more relaxing & normal than looking at a camera with a head lurking behind it.

* Turn off the camera "click" sound, to remove one more uh-oh-he's-taking-my-picture distraction.

I have a flip-out LCD, which is just perfect. I can take pictures before people realize I'm shooting, as they realize it, and after they assume I've stopped. Candid doesn't get much better without actually hiding the camera in a briefcase or spy pen!

But seriously: these tips aren't just for candid work. The closer the photographer can come to being just someone in the room, or half of a dialog with the subject, the better.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:55 PM on March 1, 2010

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