The heart of the matter

How to capture the essence of your subjects

By Monica Cubberly-Early, M.Photog.Cr.
Images By Monica Cubberly-Early
First published in June 2005

By getting in touch with your heart before the session and letting go of your own distractions, you are free to see another’s inner beauty, and that is the key to capturing your subject’s essence.

Early in my career, I heard photographers talking about capturing the “essence” of their subjects. That’s what I wanted to do. Almost anyone can record a person’s outward appearance with a camera, but the subject’s very essence? To do that, you need to look below the surface, to see the subject with your heart.

First you need to create an environment where you and your clients feel comfortable enough to be yourselves. Start by tapping into the senses. How does your studio look to others? This is your home away from home; would you feel comfortable entertaining your friends here? Is the space welcoming, uncluttered, and pleasantly lit?

Sound plays a powerful role in creating ambience, and it’s something you can easily control. Soft background music can be more relaxing than utter silence. In the camera room with children, happy music can animate the session with smiles and giggles, and lullabies can slow things down when you’re after tender, sweet expressions.

Smells can have a strong subconscious effect on people’s moods. But be careful not to overdo it. For people with allergies, a bowl of lavender potpourri can have dreadful effects. Go for pleasant natural scents such as cinnamon and peppermint over artificial ones.

Introduce pleasing tastes by offering coffee, tea, soft drinks and cold water, and even some yummy treats—such a nice touch! Sometimes our clients have been racing around, trying to get ready for their session, and haven’t taken time to eat. Non-messy snacks and, for us girls, something chocolate, are very welcome when a client is feeling famished and harried. For the little ones, also have on hand a stash of cheerios, cookies and juice boxes.

Even touch plays a part. Soft quilts and fluffy throws do double duty in our studio. In the camera room, which we keep cooler than the rest of the space, chilly clients enjoy the warmth of a throw between photographs, and the throws themselves can add color, texture and depth to an image.

Senses appeased, the next step is to get in touch with yourself—the real, feeling, loving part of you. Find a quiet moment before the session and calm your mind. Set aside your personal troubles and the things on your to-do list so that you can give your whole self to your client. When you’re in a positive frame of mind, it comes across to clients and puts them at ease. Don’t forget to share your smile, and to look directly at your clients when you speak.

Your time and focus belong to the client before you. That person should feel that you respect him, that he is important to you. Clients need to feel they can trust you; they’re counting on you to give them what they really came for—an image that speaks to who they are. Ask yourself these questions: What is my vision for this session? How can I give them my very best? What can I observe and say about that person, family, couple, bride, child?

By getting in touch with your heart before the session and letting go of your own distractions, you are free to see another’s inner beauty, and that is the key to capturing your subject’s essence.

Monica Cubberly-Early works from the Westerville location of Cubberly Studios. Learn more about Cubberly Studios at www.cubberly.com

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