I recently spent time working alongside Alice Prenat, the portrait photographer behind the elegant Parisian studio, Portrait Madame. After her talent was discovered by Sue Bryce, Prenat launched an upscale brand and studio in Paris, where she celebrates the "everyday" woman.
During the time I spent in the studio while Prenat was shooting her clients, I spotted some of her easy tricks to know how to handle someone who doesn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera.
Be Interested, Listen, and Speak
Overall, Prenat creates a comfortable and safe bubble that she shares with her clients. I discovered three phases on how to build it: be interested, listen, and continue speaking while shooting.
The welcoming phase starts when her client arrives. I was in awe at how much Prenat forgets about the rest of the world and is focused and genuinely interested about the person she is about to photograph. She asks a lot of questions, but not in an intruding or small talk kind of way, rather in a genuinely interested way. Then, after she has asked the question, she listens carefully and authentically to really build an enjoyable discussion. And finally, while she is shooting, she is constantly guiding and talking to the person she is photographing. She never lets the connection get silent. Like that, the woman she is photographing doesn’t have the time to think so much about the fact that she is in front of the camera and that it could be an uncomfortable situation.
Show, Don't Just Tell
There can be difficulty in guiding a non-model subject into a pose or an expression and despite trying to explain it in the most clear way, it still does not work. Prenat starts with explanations as well, but quickly does something that can be used across any language and throughout the world: she shows on herself what she wants, both posing and expression wise.
She also admitted that French being her first language, sometimes in the whirlwind of a shoot, her brain gets words out in French instead of the needed English ones. So, by showing instead of telling her subject, it shortcuts that kind of energy draining situation.
Fulfill Your Subject’s Needs
Being in front of a camera can feel like an unsafe situation for a person who is not used to that situation. Prenat made a parallel to it with the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
That pyramid is a framework to classify universal human beings' needs. It states that the needs at the base of the pyramid should be fulfilled for a human being to feel the needs placed in the second layer. There are five layers. The bottom one is shelter, food, water, warmth and rest. The second layer is safety.
So drawing a parallel to this pyramid, Prenat shared with me that to make someone comfortable when they arrive on set, you need to fulfill their basic needs first. Offer them water and show them where to get it whenever they feel thirsty. Provide them with the option of snacks. Show them the bathroom. Ask them if they are warm or cold and adapt the room temperature if needed. Then fulfill the second layer of needs, the safety layer, by explaining how the session is going to unfold and visually painting a picture of the comfortable time that will be had. After all those basic, but vital steps, the person will be more relaxed to let themselves be guided by you.
Your Subject’s Energy Depends 100 Percent on Yours
Very quickly after I met Prenat, she told me one of her favorite Maya Angelou quotes that she applies throughout her life: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I realize that this is a key element to why her portrait shoots with non-model subjects leads to stunning portraits. Even if you have some challenges in your personal life, you have to leave all of that negative energy at the door and remember that the way you interact and make your client feel will greatly impact the images.
Images used with permission of Alice Prenat.
Yeah, well said. Beautiful portraits where you've brought the characters out. Engaging the sense of who the person is what draws us into a photo.
Very nice article.
I noticed that it is better to photograph non-models outside the Studio, they feel more comfortable. This idea was suggested to me by the girl from driving courses (https://www.autoecole.ch/) where we went together. I offered her a photo shoot, she had an unusual appearance, and she said it had to be about cars. Fortunately, we had excellent instructors and teachers who were focused on the result - so that everyone knew the rules, knew how to drive and passed the exam. After we got right, we had a very cool photo shoot. These shots are in my portfolio.
Interesting point of view !! Do you find that to be true in the country side or in a city ?
I do shoot as well outdoor and I always find non models more not at ease outside because of people passing by... They feel watched and judged so the bubble I create has to be much stronger. What's your view on that ?
Are you shooting on Gravity backdrops too? That warm one looks NICE!
So actually the cover image is an Oliphant one ... :-) And in the 3 other images, it is a backdrop hand painted by Sue herself a loooooong time ago.
Oh that's awesome! Always nice to have the original :)
Really good article and supporting pictures. Left me wanting much more!