Friday, 7 August 2009

"I hate being photographed."

Someone asked me to expand more on the previous post 'Photographing People' (see below). In it I said the majority of British people I shoot opened with "I hate being photographed" but never follow it up with "how can I look good?". What's this all about? Some of it can be put down to that famous British reserve. "I hate being photographed" is a way of saying this is all a waste of time because I always look dreadful in photos. It can also mean I feel really uncomfortable being photographed. It may mean I don't want to appear vain by default. Or it could be a way of saying let's get this over with quickly, though several people actually say that to me anyway. It all adds up to the photographer, on the receiving end, as this is as bad or even worse than a visit to the dentist. I've been tempted to wear a white coat to shoots.
Very occasionally some admit to not minding it at all, and a tiny tiny few say they enjoy it.
Some of it has to do with the equipment photographers use. If I lift a camera to my face to shoot, then I hide my face, which is not a good thing if you are trying to connect with someone. If I shoot with an old plate camera, it's a different matter altogether. Firstly, my face, when not focusing, is not hidden. And the process of shooting with a large format is much slower. Which is nice for me.
It's the same with a camera on a tripod with a viewfinder that one looks down into, but can look up towards the subject whilst shooting. That's nicer than obscuring the face during shooting.
Being photographed can feel like a very critical process. Close scrutiny makes most of us feel uncomfortable, not because our best features are being studied, but more because we fear our faults or weaknesses are being revealed. This may well be true, though it is the photographer's job to emphasise the subject's good features and hide the not so good features. That's as long as one is trying to make the subject look their best. Most of my work falls into this latter category, because it's taken for editorial, which is glorified PR really. This shouldn't be confused with personal work, where I am photographing for me, and not a client. What is written here concerns commissioned work.

With this work, a shot full of 'character' may well end up emphasising someone's not so attractive features. Perhaps this is where the brief is important. Is the priority for the photographer to make the subject look 'their best' or look 'most interesting'? The two are obviously not always the same, though they could be on occasion. One is asked to create all manner of looks. "Make her look sinister" was a recent brief. Often there is no brief, and one is expected to produce just an 'interesting' portrait. That's the brief I like best.

"I hate being photographed" could also mean I'm feeling nervous or shy, though there are a myriad of other ways this reveals itself. Much of what I do goes towards relaxing the subject, if that's what I need to achieve. Tension reveals itself more often than not around the mouth which doesn't look great, a bit like the look of a bear chewing a wasp. There are ways of overcoming this. But what it really boils down to is this. Most subjects will look their best in photographs if you get the light right for them. This isn't necessarily formulaic, though most photographers evolve a system of lighting that works for them (and presumably for their subjects too, though I sometimes have my doubts). I have photographed people who have taken one look at my lights and adopted a position that makes the most of that light. And then they don't waver from that.
On one occasion, the subject, Barbara Cartland, provided her own light. Which I overode with my lights. Her light, had I used it would have been awful. Still it's a lovely eccentric touch.

More importantly is if the subject has a positive attitude towards being photographed and not to look at it as a necessary evil. Maybe overcome that reserve, engage with the photographer. Ask about the light. Ask about which features the photographer thinks are their best.
I once asked Spike Milligan what he didn't like about his appearance, and he said his nose. Well you can always cover it up I said.

There's more, lots more. One could write about some people being photogenic; whether everyone has a good or a less good side; the angle of view from photographer to subject; the position of the subject; the lens one uses; different light, and so on. Some other time though.

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