Taking good photos of people is easy, right? You just need your subject to feel comfortable in front of the camera. But who really feels comfortable in front of a camera, outside of professional models? (And if your girlfriend is a professional model, then shouldn't you be going to band rehearsal? Yeah, see you later, brah.)
To help the rest of us mere mortals, I talked to professional portraitists Andrea Martin and Peter Frey of Frey + Martin Photography who work as a team and specialize in making people without a ton of camera experience look like themselves, only better. See Martin above in a picture taken by none other than her boyfriend, Frey — these people definitely know what they're talking about.
Make it fun and put her at ease
"The most important thing, I think, is that she feels comfortable," says Martin. "Make sure she's wearing something she feels she looks good in – and bright red lipstick is always good. It might look a little over the top in person, but always come through in the pictures." Also, make it fun. According to Martin, accessories like hats and jewelry or props like playing cards or even another camera can help.
"Level yourself with you subject and get as close as possible—fill the entire frame," says Frey. While this may very well lead to your girlfriend freaking out a little, diffuse the situation by shooting a few photos, then putting the camera down. But keep talking to her. And keep watching. "As soon as I lower the camera, they almost always exhale and turn back into themselves," Frey says. That's when he says something like this: "OK, I know it sounds silly, but I want you to be exactly like you are when the camera isn't up — just pretend I'm not even shooting photos." Frey says the next set of images are usually miles better.
Distract, engage…and pour on the sugar
So now do that thing you always see the medic in war films do when he's setting a broken leg. DISTRACT, DISTRACT, DISTRACT. Engage her. Project confidence. Show her some of the photos. Pay compliments. (Be totally sincere though. People know when you're being a fake — especially your gf.) Booze? Sure! "A glass of wine will always make you more relaxed and confident," says Martin. But be careful. Too much and it shows.
Shoot as if your life depends on it
At this point you're off and running. Shoot lots and lots—and then some more. Frey estimates hundreds of photos are captured for every portrait you see in a magazine, so don't be afraid to go a little crazy. And don't worry too much about the camera. Technology is your friend, and great cameras are more affordable than ever, but — most important — find one you're comfortable with and work with it.
Martin says, "I was taught to shoot a subject from every conceivable angle to see what worked best." Do that. And try different cameras. Both photographers routinely use both high-end SLR's as well as lo-fi retro plastic toy cameras to achieve totally different looks.
Don't forget, anything is possible
The sky is the limit. As long as you are in tune with your girlfriend, work with her emotions and ask her what she wants to do, you're taking steps to make this a great collaboration. So get snapping. To inspire you, here's a picture I took using Frey and Martin's suggestions.
To inspire you, here's a picture I took using Frey's and Martin's suggestions. Using a 10-year-old digital SLR, I got level with my subject and zoomed in close with a 35 mm lens. As Martin suggested, I had her wear bright lipstick and gave her a scarf to play with as a prop. I turned on the built-in flash and dialed the power up as an experiment, which saturated the colors, put a light in her eyes, and overexposed the skin —smoothing it out.
Want to learn more about photography? Participating in a photo workshop is a great way to pick up new skills from your teachers and even your classmates. The Digital Photo Academy (digitalphotoacademy.com) offers guided photography tours in 26 cities, so you can take a class anywhere you go.
Travis Hartman is a photographer and photo editor in New York. You can see his work at www.travishartman.com.