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Portraits Under Pressure

Lesson 8 of 28

How to Connect with Your Subject

Victoria Will

Portraits Under Pressure

Victoria Will

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Lesson Info

8. How to Connect with Your Subject
Human nature means most people are uncomfortable in front of a camera -- but portraits aren't about cameras and lighting, it's about the person, Victoria says. Learn how to create a connection that will bring out the person in portrait photography.

Lesson Info

How to Connect with Your Subject

Before we get to the set, which we have over here, I want to start with a little bit of a quiz. So you guys in the audience will have to check out over there. So my first question for you is how many lights did I use to make this image? Anyone? Yes, correct answer is one, which I saw there. I was actually using, I'm talking about the number of strobes that I was using. I'm obviously using daylight here, as well. There was one strobe involved in this. How about this shot? Two? It looks like one. Two is the answer. Can you guys see the lights in here eyes? In the catch lights? Two. So catch lights, if you guys know lighting, you obviously understand it, and for those of you who don't know what catch lights are, it's basically a reflection of the lights that are being used in the eye of your subject. And I apologize now, for ruining movies for you because going forward you're now going to just be staring at the eyes of people to try figure out where things have come. So this one...

is two. So I'm just going in reverse here. So we've got one light, one light and a window, two lights. How about this one, any thoughts? This is two. It is not two. It's actually three lights. So sometimes it's a trick. Sometimes you can't actually see the catch light, but then let's, well before I move onto the next one, one of the things about the light in this image is that it's obviously part of the image. It's a character in the image. That's a very deliberate thing that I was doing in this image. And the thing about light is that you need to find the light that's right for you, that sort of gets your opinion across and that fits for you and the mood of what you're doing. And I think that you should learn it, you should execute it, and then you should forget about it. So here's the last of my quiz. How many lights did I use to make this image? Anyone, anyone. The answer is zero. That's a window, that's it. And the reason why I wanted you guys to play this little game with me is because I wanted to emphasize my point that it's so easy to get caught up in the photography of it. It's so easy, I mean, we all do it, and you have to remind yourself to step out of it. It's not about the camera. It's not about the lighting. It's about the portrait. And to me that's the collaboration and the connection that I'm getting, as we create these moments together. I also think it's really important to think about shoots, that it's not actually about what your subject can do for you. I sort of feel like JFK when I say that. But it is about what you bring to the shoots. It's not, oh I hope the subject comes, and I hope they're wearing a great outfit, and I hope they're in a good mood because if you come in and you present yourself and you give good energy, it's automatically going to change the vibe. I've had subjects come in having really tough days and they left smiling, and then you know that you have had an impact on how that shoot went. Also, when you're sitting down with someone, and as we've talked about, making a connection with somebody is important and it's not that easy for everybody. And when somebody comes into your studio and they sit down, and we've talked about how uncomfortable that can be, and it's your job to make them comfortable, you have to think about being present. Being present is really important. And I'm going to sort of explain how I get there. And one of the ways, if this person comes in and sits here, and if I start bombarding them with questions, that's kind of awkward, right? It's also me taking, taking, taking, taking. That's why I say it's important to give first. It's more important to give. If you open up about something in your life, they're going to be more likely to open up about something in theirs. So when you're present, and you're actually here in the studio, and you're focused you're present in the right way, meaning you're not worrying about the light and I hope this fires and this. When you're actually present and you're with your subject that's the only way that a real connection can be made. So the moment I learned this, I'll tell you, I remember it very vividly, was when I was shooting somebody, and it was one of these situations where a subject came in and sat down, and there were three hair and makeup and all these, I don't even know what everyone was doing, but there was 20 people behind me. That didn't make me nervous because I had sort of been used to that, but I was uncomfortable with the situation, the lighting, and I wasn't, I just really wanted to nail it, and I just was super nervous. It was a lack of confidence. It wasn't a lack of, maybe a lack of experience at the time, but it wasn't the fact that I didn't know what I was doing. I just was so caught up, and I'm shooting and I'm like I totally got this, I'm gonna do it. And I'm shooting and I'm shooting, and I'm like oh where are you from, oh that's great, okay. Looking over here and futzing with things, and oh, okay, do you have any kids? Oh that's cool. I didn't have kids at the time, so I couldn't really relate. Talking, talking, oh where are you from? Pretty sure I already asked her that. Kept shooting, she's like, oh I told you I'm from L.A. You know, okay, keep going. And we're shooting, I move her over here, we do some other things, and we're shooting, shooting, shooting. About five more minutes in, I'm like oh where are you from? Right. She was like, yeah, I'm from L.A. And I was like okay, got it. And it was this like, obviously it was embarrassing, but I wasn't sure what the learning moment was there, and I really had to like think about it. Why was I doing that? Like I didn't understand. And I realized it was because I just wasn't present. I was asking her questions just to get answers. I was asking her questions because I was uncomfortable. And I wasn't asking her questions and then listening to the answers. So earlier when a question was asked about doing research, this is my answer, I wanted to give it to you now. I don't do research about people because when I ask a question, it's because I'm genuinely interested, and I want to know the answer. Obviously, I know Brad Pitt has five children, so, because I think you might live in a hole if you didn't know that. So there is obviously information out there that we do know about, but I'm not going to go in and see where this person went to college and where they're from and who they're married to and how many kids and what movies they've been in because that's part of a real interaction. That's how I make an interaction genuine because I literally don't know what's going on. Most of the time I don't even know why I'm photographing them and I don't know if it's because they have a movie coming out or a record or a CEO is taking over a company or a chef has a new restaurant. I don't know. So that's a question. Why are we here? That's a great place to start when you want to connect with somebody. And you know maybe the answer is oh I'm opening a restaurant next week. Well great, well tell me about it. I want to know about it. I'm sure that they want to talk about it. You know connecting with people, it is about being a people person, and we're not all born people people, people persons, but you do have to take steps, I think, if you want to be a portrait photographer, you have to take steps to become that, and again, it's that line I used earlier, you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. And I'm going to give you, people always ask me how I became such a chatterbox, and I can give you, I didn't really know the answer for awhile, but I thought about it, and the two things that I think that really helped me I'm going to tell you about. So, the first was when I was at the paper, and particularly the young, rookie photographer was given this job. I had to do something called a Vox Pop. It was short for Voice of the People. So what they would do was send me out into the streets of New York, and they would say, we just want to get a sample population, so old people, young people, white people, black people, everybody, all ages, all races, sort of, every borough, too, Staten Island, the Bronx, Brooklyn you know, get everybody, and ask them a question. And they would give me the question, and it was, you know, right now, it would probably be, you know, Hillary or Bernie? Or you know, whatever, it might be something political, but sometimes it was Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears? Pick one. So I had to go around and ask New Yorkers if they like Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson better. I mean, it was not my favorite thing. So it was a real struggle, particularly in the beginning because approaching people is hard. It takes courage, and a lot of people say no, particularly in New York because as I mentioned, the paper is a little bit scandalous from time to time, but if you were in the New York Post, people thought it was one of two reasons: you were on Page Six or you were in the blotter, which is where they had a list of everyone who had been arrested. So everyone's like I want nothing to do with having my picture in that paper. And I'd say no, no, no, no. This is going to be in the middle of the paper, it's the Features section where they do fun stories, and it's going to be a little photo and then just your quote. And it was basically, what I think of it now, it served it's purpose for the newspaper, but for me, it was an exercise in just learning to address people. And so if I walked up to people and said, hi I'm with the New York Post and da da da, people were like gotta go, see ya. And so I had to learn, sort of, my pitch. But that quickly got me over the hump of just approaching people because I had to get my job done. So I just had to swallow my pride and get used to just doing it. So that was one thing that really helped me. And as I mentioned before, the fact that I held a camera was to my benefit. It's a lot easier to walk up with someone with a camera than a clipboard. I've never done that, but I know when someone walks up to me with a clipboard, I'm like thank you so much for trying to stop me, but I'm really in a rush, you know, when you see people canvassing. So anyway, the second reason I attribute to my sort of openness with people and ability to talk to strangers is that I have dogs. I don't know if any of you have dogs, but when I bought a dog, and started walking around my neighborhood, everyone started talking to me. People all over the place. Oh my god, hey, your dog's so cute, can I touch your dog? Where's your dog from? I'm thinking about getting a dog. How old is your dog? Just question after question, people run across the street asking if they can take a photo with my dog, and that still happens, he's nine years old, I mean it happens all the time. When people do that, when somebody approaches you and says, hey man, that's a really cool dog. That's a way of them engaging with you and acknowledging you and immediately we have a connection. We're connecting right then about a dog. I have had fifteen minute conversations with complete strangers about my dog, and what it's like to be a dog mom, and now I have two dogs, and at what age did I get the second dog, and oh, you're thinking about getting a second dog, oh well let me tell you my experience. And you go on and on and on, and I tell intimate details about my life to a complete stranger. That is really important. If you can do that on the street, you can do that in your studio, for sure. You just have to deconstruct what it is that's happening. You have to find, when somebody comes into your studio, you have to find that, hey, nice dog, your dog is so cute, what is that? So when I, when Sarah came in our first shoot, the first thing I noticed was her nails, and I really like to get my nails done. So, I was genuinely curious if she knew what the color was because I could start rattling off colors of nail polish all the time. That's an immediate way that I connected to a stranger. That's definitely not everybody's approach, right? I know nail color is not for everybody, but with every person in your studio, you have to connect, and the easiest way to do that is to think about things that effect all of us as humans: our love for animals, our love for our children, our spouses, are we getting married, or you know, do you have a boyfriend? Obviously you have to be sensitive to these things. You have to gauge it, but people tend to like to talk about those things. I can tell you I talked about when I was getting married a lot. I was dying to have somebody ask me about my wedding. I was so excited about it. And everyone has that, and I'm sure you do, too. You should think about what it is if somebody asks you about your dogs, I know you've said that your dogs are like your children, and immediately, look at her right now, you guys, she's glowing. We already have a reaction. That's what you're going for. So here's another window, daylight shoot, sorry, where I used natural light. There is a reflector that my assistant's holding to fill in, and this, just another example, where it has nothing to do with the lights. It's not about what very impressive lighting situation that I can set up. So the thing about connecting, what we were just talking about, engaging with strangers on the street, the thing is when it goes beyond connection, and it's about acknowledgment. Everyone wants to be acknowledged. Everyone wants to feel like they are being taken seriously, their point of view matters, or you know whatever it is, and I think how we react to homeless people on the street, and you can ask yourself how you react to that, is very telling. And I can tell you that when somebody, it happens all the time where I live, people come up and ask me for money. My reaction is to look at them in the eye, and then I respond. And I'll say I'm very sorry, I cannot help you today, or you know what, let me check my pocket, look you know, or whatever the situation. I'm not saying that because I'm a better person. That has nothing to do with it. I'm acknowledging him because I want to be acknowledged. And it's that simple. I think that you definitely have to look at your, how you handle things like that, and sort of ask yourself some tough questions, and it's about are you willing, if you want to be a portrait photographer, are you willing to step out of this comfort zone and start taking those steps, making yourself uncomfortable, and getting comfortable being uncomfortable. I was just thinking about this right now, you know, when I get on an airplane, do you talk to the people next to you? Well, first of all, there is talking too much to the person next to you, I totally agree, but when I get on an airplane, I always say hello to the person next to me, and maybe I introduce myself with my name, maybe I don't, but I'm acknowledging who that is, who that person is, and then I sit down. But what I was asking, I was thinking about this last night when I wanted sort of going over how I wanted to deconstruct this for you, when I was thinking, well why do I want to talk to the person next to me? Because it's not the same thing as in the case of perhaps a homeless person, where you know, in a situation, where I really want to be acknowledged because sometimes when I'm on an airplane, I don't want to be acknowledged at all. I'm sure you all do, too. You just want to put your hat on and go to sleep, or put in your earphones and watch a movie. So I was thinking about why I do that, and I think it's because when I acknowledge people, it kind of gives you the freedom to then be a little bit of a detective. You've already met the person, so you sort of start noticing the things around them more, and that's what I think is important. If you acknowledge somebody, I'm sort of just repeating this because I think it's, I might be talking in circles here for you, but when you acknowledge somebody, it gives you the ability to start really seeing what's really going on around them. So for example, the person is sitting next to you, maybe it's a couple sitting next to you, I'm making up an example, but I know that I would start looking and you start paying attention, like I know this person, this is Brad and this is Angelina, great. So happy to be sitting next to you on an airplane. And I look and there's a book that they took out of their bag, and it's a guidebook to Australia. Okay, well so I'm piecing these together. Maybe they're honeymooners. I'm sort of inventing a persona for who these people are, but I'm using the data that I'm seeing to kind of pull these things together. That's how when someone sits down in your studio, you have to behave. You're sort of like a detective because somebody's married. You acknowledge their ring. You know that they're married, then that gives you the freedom to then talk about you know, tell me about your wedding. How long have you been married? You do have to navigate these things, carefully, of course, and with respect, but. You don't want to just ask these questions to ask the questions. You really need to connect with them on something that speaks to you, too. So if, you know, noticing someone's ring and talking about the relationship isn't interesting to you, you connect on, oh are you reading any books right now, or you know, are you really enjoying anything? What is it? Oh tell me about it. Whatever speaks to you, you have to then, you know, find that connection. So, being a detective a little bit, there's two parts. There's reading body language, which is really important, and then there's piecing together that data that I was just talking about. So maybe that couple who's reading that book, maybe over the course of the flight you start noticing that they're snuggling, and they're holding their hands, and it's like, I bet that they're doing really beautiful things. That's really gorgeous body language. They have intimate connection, and you're witnessing it. So you need to see that, and when you're in the studio, or when you're with a subject, you want to recreate those moments. They're already happening, they're already natural, they're already the things that people are going to do anyway, and you just have to get them there. Dorothea Lange, when she was teaching, her first assignment for students was always the same. And it was to send out her students to take a portrait of somebody without putting them in the photograph. It's very similar, it's a very intriguing idea, and it's the sort of collection of data that I'm talking to you about, and sort of this being detective is sort of the same thing. We're piecing together all of these pieces to tell, to inform us as the photographer of who this person is. And by doing that we can connect. So, when you talk about body language, there are gifts that people give you. Just like I was saying if the couple's holding hands, you know and they're just naturally interacting, and that's how I start with people. I really think you should look at what people are already doing. So for example, tell me your name again. Sheldon. Sheldon. You see how Sheldon is sitting right now? He's very relaxed, it's very honest. And so I would start right there, and I'd say Sheldon this is really great, but can you turn your head to the right? Can you just like really, don't turn it, actually just like, yeah, and maybe lean forward, and you know, it's this, I would walk through a situation, but I'd start with the things that people are actually doing. So, if you guys have any questions, let me know, but I wanted to take all of these ideas and apply them into our next shoot, which is over here. And this is where we're going to be mimicking window light. And the reason I chose to sort of illustrate this is because I get asked about it all the time. In fact, Range Finder Magazine contacted me a couple months ago and said, we want to get a quote from you about a piece we're doing about natural light and how it's sort of a new trend in photography and advertising, and they put up a bunch of my photos from one of my Levi's shoots. And I said, great, I would be happy to comment, but the problem is that those are all lit portraits. None of those are a window. And they were like, wait what? But I had to say thank you very much that is a great compliment because that's exactly what I was going for. I really, I like to shoot very naturally. I don't like the light to be a character in my images, like the Ben Stiller, unless that's what I'm really going for, unless that's the mood of what we're working on. So this is a set up where we're sort of mimicking exactly how I approached that shoot, which was obviously a commercial shoot for a client. We were trying to sell jeans, so I'm going to do a little bit of that today, and so we have our studio set up. And as you can see, we have windows here, but they are completely shut, and there is no ambient light coming in. So we're making a window, basically. And there are a lot of ways to do this. There really are. You can reinvent the wheel as many times as you want. And people do say, when they call me on a shoot, and they'll say, we want you to make it look like daylight. Okay, what exactly does that mean? Because there's a lot of types of daylight. Do you want high noon light? I can do that. Do you want sunset light? So people have to be very specific.

Class Description

Short on time? This class is available HERE as a Fast Class, exclusively for Creator Pass subscribers.


  • Leverage new techniques for choosing the light and locations for a successful portrait
  • Know how to build a rapport and utilize clear communication with your subjects
  • Set up a developed concept as well as how to light on the fly
  • Use successful strategies for marketing yourself as a photographer and how to get your work in front of editors


Portraits require more than just great lighting and equipment. Sometimes a shoot doesn’t go as planned. The location is drab, the client isn’t in the best mood, or you forget to charge your camera batteries. Great portrait photography artists are able to think on their feet, connect with their subjects -- and capture great images under pressure. The best portraits often come from portrait sessions that didn't go exactly as planned, when challenges turn into assets.

Celebrity portrait photographer Victoria Will shows you how to use your environment to capture a unique, sharp image that reflects the person in the portrait. She’ll also highlight how to quickly evaluate a less than perfect situation and make it work for you and your subject. Take your portraits from amateur to near Mona Lisa gallery worthy by learning how to shoot portraits under pressure.

You’ll watch Victoria photograph real people in limited settings, discovering multiple opportunities in a limited space. Learn her three portrait musts for preparation, point-of-view, and connection. Gain insight into how to make every frame count and how to get the shots the editor requested, as well as those that speak to your vision. Learn how to make your subject feel comfortable in only a few moments while capturing exquisite photo collections in Portraits Under Pressure.


The photographer looking to improve their portraiture through thoughtful lighting, creative techniques and leveraging the environment around you to get a consistent appearance.


Victoria Will’s background as an American photojournalist and celebrity photographer has helped her to develop techniques on editorial assignments to quickly connect with a subject. Her career began as a photojournalist for the New York Post and grew into a sharp portrait photography focus that opened opportunities to photograph celebrities. She continues to work in New York as an artist specializing in portraits and commercial work.

Class Materials

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Gear List

Bonus Materials with Purchase

Reference Guide

Ratings and Reviews

Student Work

Related Classes


Helena Sung

This was a great class and I learned a ton! It was amazing to watch Victoria Will in action -- shooting portraits under pressure. I learned a lot watching her walk into an unknown situation -- not knowing the location, what the natural lighting situation would be, and only knowing she had 15 minutes for the shoot. I loved watching her problem solve on the spot with lightning and tight, dark spaces. She also taught a lot about how she interacts with her subjects -- always putting them at ease (like you're the host at a dinner party -- gem!) It's much easier for a photographer to take pictures in their studio, but this course was not about that. This was watching a photographer handle real world situations under time pressure and think on her feet. Loved it! I also loved the parts where she culled her photos afterwards and picked out the ones that caught her eye. In most instances, I found myself agreeing with her!! When she gets subjects to stand up and sit back down, it is the in-between moments she is looking for, or the moment right afterwards -- genius!! Oh, lastly, I loved how she went through stunning images she shot of celebrities like Brad Pitt and Janelle Monae and gave us the backstory of how she creatively problem-solved to get the shot! Hello, showing up two hours before a shoot and knocking on random hotel room doors for furniture?!! Of course she could do that because she has a lovely, warm personality! Oh, and by the way, the bits she shares about her early career path is very inspiring!

Robert Negrin

Great course! And the best part was the honesty. I was an executive in a fortune 500 company and what the critics watching this course missed is that there are a lot of talented photographers, actors, singers, accountants and even landscapers, but there are very few that are successful and accomplished. Yes, part of it may involve a certain degree of luck, but most of it is the drive and desire to suceed. It is obvious you have both. I used to beleive that a true image could only be captured by styling the shot, metering light and controlling the subject. (Yes, I shot film...complete with developing and printing all my images) Then, one day I realized that, if deliberate-shooting was the right way, why then most of the great images I have were the result of quick, rather than deliberate reactions. I get it Victoria. Love your style and how you get there. Three things I learned today are that the conditions... even the background, do not have to be perfect if the image is strong enough to carry the message. Second, setting up to capture the perfect image, misses all the imperfect, epic moments. Third, I disagreed with almost every image you picked until they were isolated from the rest. Then they made perfect sense. Well done. :) Robert Gabriel

Meredith Zinner Photography

I really love Victoria and her work. She's something suuuuper special and showed me a fab new way to look at portraits. I love her openness, honesty, the whole 'you're at my dinner party' intimacy, care and respect for her clients and am SO impressed at how quickly and reliably she's able to transform any location to suit her needs. She's super impressive, professional and inspiring thank you!