The Unpoular Practice of Backstage Photography
Updated: Sep 15, 2019
We’ve all seen the happy, grinning faces in advertising materials everywhere. You’ve seen college students smiling during a lecture in brochures, a patient about to get a root canal laughing with the dentist in a postcard mailer, or a billboard for a mattress company featuring a woman waking up with a huge grin whose hair and makeup is on point. There are millions of examples, so just play a montage of stock photography in your head.
Sure, all these images are aesthetically pleasing and make the statement that “If you buy this product or service it will make you happy.” However, there is a huge flaw that is coming more and more into focus: Lack of Realism.
The use of imagery online attached to taglines and content is imperative today in the realm of digital marketing, even still with traditional, print marketing. With stock images so widely used of staged situations and expressions, such as neatly organized corporate people, unnatural emotion on people’s faces, and the photos with a light bulb floating over someone’s head. Online users find it offputting and see it as a pure advertisement instead of a helpful, great experience that the product or service can offer. One that real people, just like them, use and find success with too.
In my several years as a photographer (this can pertain to videography as well), I have worked alongside other experienced photographers during shoots and noticed something: A lack of comfort on the client’s part and forceful direction from the person behind the camera. This observation bothered me because when I was younger, I thought this is the way I was going to have to work with people; the so-called “right way” by aggressively taking charge of a shoot, pushing the client toward anxiousness and awkwardness, not only before the session but during. I realized this must be one catalyst to the bunch of unrealistic imagery so many companies use in their promotional products and I didn’t want to work this way.
I thought about it for a bit: I don’t like the stock photos when I see an ad. I can see right through the fake smiles. I want to be comfortable when being photographed. Customers are human. The owners of businesses are human. Photographers are human. We are all human and desire, whether consciously or subconsciously, to see life as it is: real.
After several shoots on my own, I developed a certain style as every media producer does. However, I wanted my style to be on the complete opposite end of the spectrum from other photographers I worked with in the past. I refrain from the using the oh so overused term “act natural.”
“Be Natural. ”
Here are the steps to the unpopular practice of backseat photography:
Meet With Your Client Early
Take the time to get to know your client before the start of the session. Many photographers show up 5 minutes before or even late and get right into shooting. This causes anxiety with the client. Most people find a camera pointed in their face intimidating. Therefore, a fake grin ensues when the photographer shouts “Smile! Big Smile! C’MON BIG SMILE!!!” By this time, the client’s cheeks are ripping across their face and you, the photographer, end up with an overly expressed, unnatural stock image you paste on a brochure where customers are aware the client seems like they were not having a good time during the session. Lose the fakeness and let the client meet you, not the lens.
Make Your Client Feel Comfortable With You
Your client is a person. Make them understand that you, the photographer, are a person too and that you are simply using a tool to capture them naturally to bring out their best in whatever capacity. Sit down and talk about the interests you both share, your families, your dreams, your passions, what have you. Remember, the photographer is just as human as the client, not above, not below, but equal.
Refrain From Aggressive Direction
Like I said, I previously worked with many aggressive photographers who spit out direction at the client who was nervous at first, but is now even more anxious at the fact that they might not look good in these pictures they are paying mucho dollars for and fear the overly processed, photoshop work making them look like a fake, porcelain doll. Again, make your client comfortable with you. Don’t power-trip and act like the director in movies who is the butt of the joke for being a pushy, assertive artiste. It’s all about the photographer taking the backseat while the client drives the action.
Nothing is worse for a client than to hear “act natural.” It immediately puts a person in freeze mode; to forget who they are and start doing something that well, isn’t natural for them at all. I disagreed with one photographer on the tactic of “make the client smile at all times, whatever it takes.” ‘Whatever it takes’ meant blurting out not-so-humorous phrases and making flatulent noises with your mouth, especially with kids (It rarely worked on kids). Odds are, your client knows what the f$%* to do. For example, a dentist you are photographing for a promotional mailer knows how to talk to their patients, knows how to perform the procedures, and knows exactly how to move around the office without smiling and laughing the whole time. Naturally. The client naturally does these things daily, so I always wondered why photographers messed with it. Let the client do what they know and you do what you know To both of you: be natural.
Capture The Action
Is a smiling face great to show in a promotional photo piece? Absolutely, as long as it’s genuine. Again, it’s amazing how online users today can differentiate between a staged smile and a real one. Actually, it’s not that amazing. Why? Because they live life enough to know what is real and what isn’t.
Here are two images. In Post A, the client’s students were told smile. In Post B, the client’s students are smiling while performing an action related to the tagline. Which one do you think conveys reality better with the promotional tagline “Our Student’s Serving Our Community” example?
Obviously B, and if you chose Post A, then you’ve been drinking stock photo Kool-Aid too long and probably have a preference for staged photography. In all seriousness, Image B with the tagline “Our Student’s Serving Our Community” demonstrates how powerful actions shots are. Even though Image A is very nice with the forced smiles, it’s too passive and no action is being taken to compliment the tagline as the students in Post B looked up at the camera when working.
I practice backseat photography because I empathize with the client. I experienced what it was like to have a big shot photographer yell in my face to smile bigger or do this and do that. I’m sure many others have experienced this too. I also experienced the other side where I actually saw clients become upset, frustrated and/or anxious about staged photo and video sessions. I found I achieve better results and form more connected, trusted relationships with my clients after talking with them and giving them the comfort they are seeking before, during and after a shoot. Don’t give the client assertive direction, give them guidance to being natural on camera.