[Not an A-Z treatise or anything. Just some thoughts from my last shoot.]
There are times when the only thing you want to say to a client is, "Stay still. Smile. Keep doing that until I stop shooting." Because that's often what's on the tip of your tongue while the clock ticks, the batteries die, and the clouds roll in.
If I ever—for second—felt that these words would get me some better shots, I would try them. But, I'm pretty sure they don't. My mother raised a polite son, and as flustered as I ever get, I have always known that curt photographers don't get a lot of word-of-mouth business.
The best way to get a good portrait? Instill confidence and relaxation in the subject. That's 80% of your job—done. Smiles are natural and easily coaxed, you don't have to rely on sub-amateur words like 'cheese', and when the client eventually shows her teeth, the smile will touch her eyes.
Sounds easy. But at the very time you should be making people feel relaxed—in an environment most humans hate—you are often wigging-out on technical junk that should already be taken care of. (e.g. if I've ever taken your photograph, and you've seen me wince for no apparent reason, it's because I'm imagining the myriad things I have done to sabotage my own shoot, even after the test-shots.)
The internal dialog for me is often: "Okay, can the sensor on the SB800 actually see my pop-up when I stand in front of the softbox? (click) Yes. Shit, what about that slaved rim light? I put it on channel 4, right? (click) Yes. Wait, is f/8 is good enough depth of field for three rows of people? (fiddle) No. What about the shutter speed I picked? (peek) God. Is that rain cloud going to mess up my TTL?"
Meanwhile twenty people are thinking, "Why does he keep shooting even though the baby's crying?" It's because I am second-guessing the stuff I was confident with five minutes ago.
- Have a rough plan and stick with it until there's good reason not to. Is depth-of-field paramount, or is freezing action? Should I use CLS or Pocket Wizards? Figure this out before you even get there.
- Check ALL your batteries and memory cards before you get to the shoot. Top-up the batts, regardless.
- Get there early—or, as Chris Rock says, "There is on-time and late. There is no 'early'."
- Do on-location test shots with the exact lights and lenses that you plan to use for the real thing. Find a stand-in; preferably not an ADHD toddler with his pet cat.
- If you're using wireless flash, make sure it's popping consistently from the camera position you will likely be shooting from, not just when you're in the perfect spot, shooting directly at the sensor at full power.
- Don't trust your LCD.
This last one is kind of like the Q-Tip people saying "don't put Q-Tips in your ears". You're kidding, right? Well, not really. As much as the LCD draws your eye (with powers roughly akin to Swedish cleavage) you should be trusting:
- Your eye.
- You histograms.
- Your blinkies.
Your eye. Look over the entire viewfinder when it's at your eye, not just the focus point. Pause and survey. Don't go full Uzi just because you think you should be ripping frames to impress the client. Now is the time to nail the cropping, to eliminate background distractions, to capture the smile before the blink happens.
Your histograms. If your light is nicely within the 0-255 swath, you're good. (Note: pixophiles will look at each separate channel, because the reds can be out-of-whack, but this is putting the 'anal' in analysis, in my opinion.)
Rule-of-thumb: err on the side of underexposed.
Rule-of-thumb: err on the side of underexposed.
If histograms make you feel like you're failing calculus again, you can generally trust your blinkies. They're distracting, and they scare the tar out of anyone looking over your shoulder, but they're pretty reliable. And, of course, many perfectly-exposed images blink just because the sun is out.
Oh, apropos of nothing... try to avoid shooting a dozen portraits in a row... with a frickin raindrop on the lens. Because that's what happened last week when I got distracted by a crying baby, an approaching rainstorm, and a finicky CLS receiver.
A raindrop. My 6-year-old would have noticed it. Because he trusts rule #1.
So, your equipment is good. Your plan is sound. Everyone's waiting. Now what?
The one thing I have some trouble resisting—especially in a group setting—is the dreaded 'count-down'. "Okay. On three... two... one!" That's what amateurs say when they desperately want people to care about what comes next. What should come next is: a bunch of good-looking people, timing their smiles, eyelids and hands to be in the exact right place when the shutter trips at the unspoken 'zero'.
Except this never, ever, happens. What you get instead are exaggerated smiles, clenched fists and the odd first-grader who says, "Blast off!" Who could blame them, really.
If you can't resist the count-down, try tripping your shutter on "two". Then fire again... and then again. A deliberate screw-up often invites a natural laugh... which then becomes the shot you wanted in the first place. Full point.
For children, the easiest, crassest thing to do for a smile is use toilet-words. (Hey, a smile's a smile.) The best part is, you don't have to be around when little Datona is running around the house, saying "Butthead! Butthead! Butthead!" for the next two weeks. (Just make sure you're paid first.)
And if they're all adults, you may consider raising the profanity bar somewhat. I've always been too scared to try, but my imagination on swear words makes Eddie Murphy look like Eddie Haskell. Have to try that some time.
After I wipe my lens.