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Portrait tips: Practice the three Be’s

I’ve heard Joe McNally say, “If you want more interesting pictures, stand in front of more interesting stuff.” I’ve also heard it said, “If you want to make better pictures, become a better person.”

I find that is true whether I’m photographing my neighbor, a longtime client, my own family, or a complete stranger. And I’ve got three Be’s for how you can implement it.

1. Be interested

Being interested doesn’t mean acting interested so you can take a picture. It means changing your mind so that you’re interested in what your subject is about. Ask questions beyond, “What do you do?” and get more into “Why do you do that?” and “How has that affected your life?”

When you become interested, your subjects will begin revealing their true selves. Now, with kids it’s more about treating them like people instead of treating them like pets: make your tone of voice the same as when you talk to your peers and you’ll be amazed at how well they respond.

2. Be complimentary

This goes along well with Being Interested, and it not only breaks the ice but also shows you were listening, which demonstrates that you were interested.

When meeting someone new, complimenting them breaks the ice instantly and opens the door for you to be interested even more. Try, “Wow! Nice shoes!” “That’s a sharp haircut,” “What sparkling eyes you have,” “Terrific tie,” or, “Way to go!”

Head shot of man with curly hair - practice
I met this fellow from Amsterdam when I saw him making a picture of his wife with his phone at a landmark. I offered to take one of the two of them, then complimented his incredible hair. Made with a Lensbaby Twist 60 and a Lumix GX8.

After hearing a story or experience, compliment the person on their handling of the situation. A new friend, John, suggested to me the other day that the perfect place to practice this is in the checkout line at the store. Those people are a captive subject for you to practice complimenting and being interested in, and they’ll probably appreciate someone who’s interested in something besides the cover of the National Inquirer.

3. Be kind

There are a million ways to be kind, but the simplest may simply be to start offering smiles more often. Just plaster a gentle, pleasant look on your face and nod at everyone you pass, then graduate to actually saying, “Good morning.”

You’ll be ready then to start doing more active kind things, things that take just a little more consideration. Holding doors for others, helping someone with their groceries, helping a friend who’s in a pickle, or simply making a picture for a couple with their phone at a landmark. If you start looking around for ways to be kind, you’ll find them, and you’ll have a great day doing them.

Practice these skills

I hope you noticed that I didn’t say anything about making pictures in these three Be’s. You’ll often get an opportunity to make a picture when doing them, maybe not. But when it is time to make a picture, you’ll be ready to utilize these Be’s with your subjects. They’re not the kind of thing you can just turn on at the moment you need them. As with all aspects of your photography, you need to practice these skills so they’re honed and ready when you need them to help you connect with a person through the lens.

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Rafael Jones

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