Lighting, Locations, Portrait, Tokyo
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What to say when photographing people

Here’s something that I’ve never really thought about all that much – what exactly do I say to people during a photoshoot?  More importantly, what’s the right thing to say? I shoot photos of people for a living and I think I am confident in winning the trust of my subjects, but to this day I’ve never really sat down and tried to break down my process for approaching my subjects and – essentially – getting them to do what I want before my time is up.

So let’s begin at the start of this whole process – I’ve arrived (hopefully) early at the location, and set up my gear.  Next is usually the painfully long wait for the subject to arrive/get interviewed/finish getting ready, in which every possible excruciating thought passes through your mind: ‘what if he/she is in a bad mood?’ ‘what if the lighting I’ve set up doesn’t work for them?’ ‘what if they take a look at the setup and don’t like it?’ ‘is there a better spot I could have chosen to photograph at?’. And inevitably, this thought enters your mind: ‘what the hell are we going to talk about?’ What, indeed?

Take the photos from July 4 last year when I shot these portraits of award-winning J-actors Mirai Moriyama and Hikari Mitsushima. (As a side note, Moriyama is actually in one of my favourite J-movies Sekai no Chushin de Ai wo Sakebu, which is a tear jerker about a guy who loses his highschool sweetheart to leukaemia). Anyway – there they are, and for some reason I’m having a bit more trouble connecting with them as I do with other subjects. Who knows, maybe they’re tired from a long day of interviews,maybe they’re a little thrown by this guy who speaks slightly weird Japanese. Either way, I’m not getting much of a reaction from either of them, and I can literally hear their managers watching us thinking ‘what kind of guy have they sent us here?’ Never a healthy thing to have going through the back of my mind. So – I decide to bust out the big guns.  I tell them it’s my birthday. Which, it in fact was (July 4 baby!).

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Moriyama Mirai Mitsushima Hikari

Anyway, I don’t know what kind of reaction I was expecting but they flipped out and actually started singing happy birthday to me, which was pretty amazing. I mean, how often do you have two actors, both of whom you’ve seen on screen, singing happy birthday to you?  The rest of the shoot, we basically just talked about, well, me; where I am from, how I first came to Japan, etc. They relaxed and did everything I told them to, and most importantly, everyone had a good time.

Funny thing was, after the shoot once we had left the building, I was talking with the writer from the magazine that I was with about how she thought everything went, and after telling me she thought the shoot went well also asked me this: “Is it really your birthday today?” Of course on that day it was, but the question kind of led me to wonder what I would and would not say to get a reaction out of my subject, if my photoshoot was really in a nosedive. At the time she asked me, I thought it was ludicrous that she thought I would straight out lie, and I still don’t think I would, but how far would I actually go to save my skin (and the job)?

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Actors (1)

On the whole though, I’m usually pretty good with engaging with subjects.  I do my research but don’t come across as stalky. I can usually keep their attention with some banal but vaguely involving chatter while I shoot or adjust my settings. I bring other people into the shooting process by telling them to stand where I want my subjects to look (often leading to some hilarious moments), or talking up how much I like the job the hair stylist did, etc. Usually I find, especially when shooting celebrities, that keep the focus of the chatter away from them works best, because the last thing they want to do after promoting their new venture on TV/radio/print/press conference is to rehash it for you again.

Here’s something I started doing out of sheer boredom, but I find (I hope) it helps my ability to come up with idle smalltalk throughout the duration of a shoot. Here it is: whenever I meet someone new, I make it a personal challenge to see how long I can talk to them  without having to ask or be asked the 3 OBVIOUS QUESTIONS. They are:

1. What job they do.
2. How they know our mutual acquaintance.
3. Where they are from.

I used to dread meeting new people because these stupid questions inevitably come up in the first 10 seconds, and there is literally a 93% chance the answer will be BORING. So I stopped asking them, and now I try to prevent the other person from asking them as long as possible. Which means I need to find distracting things to talk about, for as long as possible, so the person I’m talking to doesn’t have to fall back on the 3 OBVIOUS QUESTIONS to keep the conversation rolling. Also, it’s more fun for me, although probably not good manners from a social interaction perspective.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong - Japanese Actors (3)


Anyway, that’s my fairly disorganized take on the art of engaging with your subjects. Hope you enjoyed reading it and at least now have some idea of what goes on in my head while I fumble around with my camera settings.  Hope I can stay on this posting streak that I’m on lately! See you guys soon.



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