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Photography’s 3 Golden Rules of Engagement

As portrait photographers (beginners or pros) how we engage with our subject as they sit, stand, run or jump in front of our cameras is of utmost importance. Whether you are working with a seasoned professional or a toddler who just wants to get back to playing, engagement is how we achieve highly successful images. Now I want to be perfectly clear on this point, engagement is not a relationship. The photographer/subject relationship is developed long before and after the camera comes between them. The relationship is the reason the subject is in front of your camera in the first place. Well except for the toddler, who just happened to be wrangled into some fancy dress clothes, hair combed and told to be good (or maybe that’s how the model got there). The relationship is everything you have done before you begin composing the subject through the viewfinder. Engagement therefore is everything you do while the subject is in front of the camera. Elements of engagement are directing, story telling, joking around, or explaining technical aspects of the shoot. Engagement is unique to each photographer just as his or her composition or lighting is. Therefore… what’s that you say? “If engagement is unique to each photographer how can there be rules?” Well my answer to that comes from many years of teaching and a few years of parenting “There just are, now accept it and move on.”


Rule 1 – Explain your goal to the subject every time you begin shooting. What you are expecting/needing/wanting from your subject is important for them to understand so they can simultaneously work towards the same goal. It is better to have the subject as part of your team than to leave them constantly waiting for you to tell them whether or not they got “it”.


Rule 2 – The subject is not your best friend (unless they are your best friend). Keep your engagement relevant to the subject and the goal of the shoot. Direction, stories, joking around, technical explanations should all be focused on the subject and achieving a desired response.


Rule 3 – There is no place for negativity. Even if things are crashing down around you, keep positive and focus on the goal. Reassure your subject that they are doing great, and each shot is moving you closer towards the goal. This is what will define the experience for the subject.


Really, as rules of engagement go these are pretty simple. They are also more often than not the first aspects of a shoot to be forgotten. Photographer’s get lost in the technical aspects, don’t have a goal, or haven’t developed their engagement skills. There is a reason we admire portrait photographers who seem to effortlessly produce great images of subjects ranging from celebrities to people on the street. There is also a reason we say “oh, that’s nice” to photographers when they produce images that don’t capture our attention. Successful portrait photography is the combination of creativity, technical ability and engagement to produce an image of a subject that fuels our imaginations.

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