It’s not WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say it that makes a big difference in your portrait shots

Above: I photographed actor and comedian Rhys Darby for Foxtel Australia’s “Whose Line Is it Anyway”

The energy you bring to a shoot is going to have a huge impact on the person you are photographing so it’s really important that you check your mood, body language and tone during a portrait shoot. It’s not what you say that matters. It’s how you say it and here’s why.

Have you ever been served in a cafe by a waiter who would rather be at home watching Game of Thrones? Or a shop assistant who has memorised the shop assistants’ generic greetings but just forgot to care about what she was saying along the way?

The waiter is polite, gets the coffee order correct and even smiles at the appropriate times. As far as serving coffee 101 goes, this guy has totally nailed it. The problem here, and it’s nothing he said or did, is that the energy or care factor isn’t there. He did not go out of his way to make you feel special.

The shop assistant also ticks every box in the “How to serve a customer guide”. She greets you with a smile and asks you how your day is going, then asks if she can help you with anything. The problem here, is that her delivery is flat, she doesn’t look you in the eye and checks a message on her phone as she is speaking to you.

Now, I don’t need to feel special to enjoy my coffee or the new shoes I just bought but I do remember the people who serve me with positive energy and show a genuine interest in me as a human rather than another sale. The other upside of a positive experience is that when the waiter or shop assistant go for the upsell, I’m more likely to say yes because I like them and liking them makes it easier to trust them.

So, when it comes to photographing people, I believe my language, tone and energy are more important than my camera settings and lighting. I can nail the exposure and lighting but the image will always fall flat if I can’t get the right pose or expression from my model.

Here are my 5 essentials when giving directions in a portrait shoot


Above: A farmer, photographed in Sicily for www.sicilianfoodtours.com

1. Be Authentic

Always ensure the words you are speaking are yours. Just because you once heard a photographer say a certain phrase that always worked, doesn’t mean it will work for you, particularly if the style, language and tone isn’t similar to yours. The most important thing to remember is to be sincere and authentic in everything you say. Don’t say, “OMG, you look amazing in that dress” if you don’t believe it. There will be something in your tone or body language that will give the lie away and your model will lose trust in you.

Try looking for something that you truly believe. It may be that you love the colour of their eyes, the way they laugh or their shoes.

2. Lower your voice, speak clearly and confidently

Okay, this is harder than it sounds. I can still remember trying to stop my voice shaking with nerves when I was a young inexperienced photographer. The only way to get through this was to shoot, A LOT! The more shooting and directing I did, the more confident I felt and the easier it was to control my voice. Oh, and the other thing I noticed was the louder I tried to speak the more shrill my voice became, so the simple trick of lowering my voice made it easier to control and I sounded more confident.

3. Slow down and breathe

The biggest mistake new photographers make is they tend to shoot and speak too quickly because they are afraid of making people wait. I know I did this a lot when I was starting out because I thought if I went too slow I was wasting people’s time and they would think less of me.

This isn’t the case, getting the shot right is the most important thing here. If Bob is looking awkward at the back then ask Bob to move and get the shot right. It’s better to take a few extra minutes during the shoot than waste everyone’s time by not getting a good shot in the first place.

4. Forget about what everyone is thinking about you, they aren’t

Okay, this would have to be the best advice I’ve heard in the last 10 years. Seriously. I wish I knew about this when I was a teenager. We spend most of our teen years and half of our adult life worrying about what people think about us. The truth is, they don’t think about us at all because they are too busy thinking about themselves.

So the next time you’re feeling nervous or intimidated about speaking to someone for fear of how you will be perceived, know that the other person has exactly the same reservations.

Instead of spending the majority of the exchange trying to be interesting, try to be interested instead. Genuinely and sincerely noticing, and listening to another person is one of the kindest and most generous acts and the easiest and quickest ways to develop a rapport.

5. Keep your energy positive

I know this sounds a little “woo-woo” but your energy levels are really important. By energy I don’t mean you need to slam back 20 espressos and bounce off walls to be effective. Good energy means being vibrant, and loving what you do, sincerely. This can’t be faked and the results are mirrored in the faces of the people you photograph.

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Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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