Photography Friday: Building Rapport with Subjects

One of the reasons that I love photography is because it involves many different disciplines. It is equal parts art and science and then, on top of that, making an interesting photo means knowing something about the subject you are photographing or the audience you want to see your photo. Good photographers are lifelong learners and have at least some knowledge of a wide variety of things. This quality is great when you are trying to make a connection with subjects and build rapport, or relate with them.

One of my first big opportunities once I decided I was a “professional” photographer was to photograph a very talented NFL player coming off his first Pro Bowl. I only had a few days to prepare. The first thing I did was research. I wanted to know everything about him—where he grew up, where he played in college, his stats as a pro, where he lives, his charity work, and his interests outside of football. I looked for anything that I could make a connection to. It turns out I had done some volunteer work at his high school, had spent some time in his current city, and shared a common interest in painting. There were three things to build a common bond around that we both could relate to.


Now I don’t know much about football. I couldn’t tell you what a good rushing average is or who won the division title last year. I don’t know the difference between a tight end and a tailback. I could have tried to talk football with this guy but he would have known I was trying too hard from a mile away. So I stuck with what I do know. And during the shoot I learned a lot about professional football by asking questions and not acting like a psychotic fan. Asking questions also makes your subject feel good about their skills and importance and it inspires confidence.

Since then, I’ve photographed other interesting people with skills that I can relate with. I know plenty about soccer, so professional soccer players are easy for me. I know a bit about music so musicians are also easier to relate to. Even still, if I have the opportunity, I will research my subject so that I will have the best advantage when it comes to building rapport.

In addition to knowing your subject there are a few other things that help with building rapport.

1. Know your equipment.

It’s difficult to engage with your subject when you are fiddling with your gear. Don’t let the technical stuff cause you to miss the perfect expression.

2. Look professional and approachable.

Most people still judge a book by its cover. If you want your subjects to trust you with a portrait start by looking the part.

3. When it comes to photography, speak authoritatively and give clear direction.

Share what you want the person in front of the camera to be doing. Direct hands, feet, posture, head, and facial expression.

4. If you are photographing a celebrity, get to know their PR person, publicist, best friend, or whomever they brought on set with them.

Having a buy-in from someone they trust is helpful with anyone who is concerned with their image.

5. Smile.

It’s disarming and lets your subject know that you are on their side and intend to make them look good.

rapport with photography subjects

Peter Hurley, a successful headshot photographer in New York City, says that he is “90% therapist and 10% photographer” when his clients walk in the door. You have to figure out what is going to get each person to give you a natural and authentic expression of themselves, despite big lights and heavy equipment pointing right at them. The best way I’ve found is to be friendly and talk it out of them.

What are the best ways you’ve found for building rapport?

For more tips on portraiture photography check out how to take great headshots and natural light portraits.

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