The allure of the photobooth Vs. portrait and event photography

In my experience as an event photographer of more than 10 years, I have observed a few patterns in how people behave in front of a camera.

During a private portrait session, most subjects will initially feel a little awkward, self conscious and uncomfortable. The majority will comment on how they don’t like photographs and more pointedly, don’t like the way they look in pictures. They will not know how to stand, or where to put their hands. Most will adopt some form of body language that indicates the camera is a threat. They will lean away from the camera, cock to one side, or lean back. The challenge of every portrait photographer is to help the subject quickly move past these natural insecurities and find their confidence zone, from which their real inner beauty emanates. Only then do good portraits begin to emerge.

Standard event photography presents different, but related behaviours and challenges. The photos that result from covering a live event are roughly 80% people in solo poses or groupings of two up to 10. The remaining 20% of shots will be room/scenic shots comprising overviews as well as close up details of the decor. Occasionally, and depending on the stage of the event (i.e. before or after the first round of cocktails have been consumed), you will have images of groups of people doing something a little out of the ordinary, maybe throwing their hands up in the air, or kicking out their legs like can-can dancers. But normally it is more of a documentary style image. The event photographer roams around the venue, snapping a few scenic shots of the room design, the food and floral arrangements and other elements of decor, while concentrating mainly on the people. If the room affords it, you may have a few aerial shots of the crowd but the bulk of the images will come from standing in front of one, two or larger groups of people standing together. Rarely will these images yield more than a simple visual description of who was in attendance and what they were wearing, though the skilled event photographer will also bring out out a sense of how they were feeling and the overall vibe of the event. It is the photographic equivalent of expository writing. The non-fiction account of who was there and what happened.

By contrast, photobooth photos are the poetry, or creative short story of an event. They are different from any other kind of photograph. The closest form to it would be a fashion shoot. Except in the case of photobooth style photos, there is no product being sold and no attempt by the photographer (subservient to the advertising executives who’ve ordered the shoot) to promote a specific message visually. In photobooth photos, you are literally creating your own photograph and the photographer is there to enable it and capture it for you. There is no other kind of photo where the subject has as much creative input–and fun–as in creating a photobooth photo. The photobooth image represents a real symbiosis between the photographer and the subject where the subject is directing the shoot, designing the look and articulating through the props they choose to wear and the scenes they choose to create, what the image is about. The photographer’s job is to capture the image as it unfolds in real time, knowing when to press the button and exactly what to keep in the frame.

Having taken tens of thousands of images in photo booth setups, I have observed a few interesting things going on. The photobooth is physically and psychologically a playspace where inhibitions and fears can be instantly shed. In the photobooth, people present a different version of themselves to be photographed. Sometimes it is perhaps the way they wish to be seen – the extrovert inside the introvert enjoying, for a few brief moments, the experience of being someone else. The shy person becomes the butterfly – sometimes literally if the right prop is at hand. Men seem to enjoy wearing bras over their suits for example. The “pimp/whore” motif is also quite popular as is playing with toy guns, either pointed at the camera or each other. (Personally, I don’t like the gun games and have edited them out of my props). Larger than life sunglasses are very popular as are wigs, preferably an unusual colour. People also really like throwing fake money up in the air. Age does not matter and older people in their eighties enjoy doffing a top hat or wearing a cat mask just as much as 2-year olds. Ultimately what the photobooth is, and what makes it such an enduring and alluring sensation at parties, is a space to play.

Regardless of age, status , gender, occupation, ethnicity, size or shape, given the right space and enough playthings, everyone just wants to play. And in times like these (worldwide economic crises, rising anxiety), having playful, harmless fun in a photobooth is something everyone can use more of.