Dealing With Reluctant Subjects

Pauline walked into my studio and declared, “I don’t know why I’m here”. This is how I responded, and how it led to me creating one of my best-known images.

I create images for our local espresso bar, Little Italy, who use them in their advertising. In lieu of payment, they display my portraits in their customer seating area. This is mutually beneficial, as they get free photography, and their customers get regular exposure to my work. Relationships like these are crucial for local businesses like ours.

As part of this arrangement, Little Italy nominate people for us to photograph. In this instance, it was Pauline, their most senior customer. However, the shoot didn’t go as either of us anticipated – here’s what happened.

Off to a bad start

Pauline’s daughter, Frances, booked everything with us directly. The day rolled around, and they both arrived at our studio spot on time. I’m not quite sure what Pauline was expecting, but she distinctly lacked enthusiasm. That is to say, she looked towards me with belligerence and snapped, “I don’t know why I’m here.”

As you can imagine, not the best start to a portrait shoot. I put my camera down and offered her a drink, which she accepted. We sat down and drank a cup of tea together. Then another.

After 40 minutes of chatting and drinking – a curiously British solution to any problem – her disdain towards me had warmed to trust. Only now did I pick my camera back up and take some images.

Low expectations

At this point, my expectations for the session were low. What I could not have hoped for was what happened next. Pauline by now felt so comfortable that she smiled, laughed and took up each of the poses I suggested to her. She lit up my studio with her charm.

Dramatic low-key lighting like this doesn’t suit every subject but it seemed perfect for this image. I feathered the rim lighting so that it created just the most subtle of outlines around Pauline and her hat. I had to get that hat lit well! It was amazing!

There are about ten images in total – this one included – that I took, any one of which I would be happy to share and display. For me, though, this one is the best, due to the glint in Pauline’s eye. She was nearly 90 years old at the time, yet still full of spirit and energy.

As I was hitting the shutter button, I knew I had caught something truly magical, and so it proved to be. This is one of those images that I have become known for, and I’m very happy that this is the case.

The moral of the story is this: it’s your job, as a portrait photographer, to work through any worries and wariness that your subjects show up with. Stay calm, put your camera down, ask questions and listen to the answers.

Get to know your subject. Use that time as an opportunity to watch how they move, how the light looks on their face. Then – and only then – when your subject is relaxed, you’ll be ready to capture a portrait that truly represents them, and is special because you worked for it.

When working with people, their insecurities, experiences and opinions are part of the job. Persevere, switch tactics and be patient.

And if in doubt, serve up tea.


Camera Settings

  • Focal length: 80mm
  • Aperture: f/8
  • Shutter speed: 1/180 sec
  • ISO: 100