5 Simple Ways to Capture Authentic Expressions in Portraits
There are many things I enjoy about being a photographer, but the best part of being a photographer for me is the opportunity I get to interact with a large variety of people. When I take portraits, I have the opportunity to learn about a person. As an artist, I get to create a likeness of them at that point in time. Photographing people takes a level of focus, and delicate balance between interacting with subjects and remembering to take the technical actions necessary for capturing the perfect portrait.
Over the course of several years, I have had the opportunity to meet lots of different people and create portraits of them. The following suggestions are strategies that I use to help me connect with my subjects, and to elicit authentic expressions out of them when they are in front of the camera.
People love it when they feel like someone is interested in them. After I’ve set my subject where they need to be for the ideal lighting and background, I start asking questions while I test the lighting, get my camera settings dialed in, etc. In this first part of the session, I do what I can to take their minds off of being uncomfortable in front of the camera.
I love finding out about people, their stories, their hobbies, and what makes them unique. There are a few benefits to asking my client questions: I learn about my subject and connect with them on a personal level, and I’ve also discovered that different questions bring out a variety of different facial expressions that I can work with when taking their portrait.
For thoughtful expressions:
- What was your favorite activity to do as a kid?
- What do you want to be when you grow up? (This question works for all ages!)
For surprised expressions:
- What do your favorite socks look like?
- What is your social security or ATM pin number?
For happy expressions:
- What do you love doing in your free time?
- When was the last time you were happy, tell me about it?
- Tell me about your wedding day, what made it special?
- What has your child done lately that has made you laugh?
As you are talking to your subjects, try to think of questions that will give you honest expressions, and be ready to capture those expressions.
As you are asking questions, make sure you stop and listen. Don’t be afraid of silence. Allow time for your client to answer you. The most emotive portraits can come when a client is thinking about how to answer a question. After I ask a question, I silently count to 3 allowing time for an answer.
Some general rules to consider:
- Allow time for thoughtful answers.
- Ask follow-up questions that relate to their response to show you’re listening.
- Don’t be afraid of thoughtful silence.
I alternate between shooting while I ask questions and lowering the camera down from my face between shots to make eye contact with my subject as they answer. I have found that eye contact and checking in with the subject visually lets them know you are invested in them as a person, listening to what they have to say, and eager to hear more.
Say Something Funny
I am horrible at telling jokes, but I have discovered that laughter truly is contagious. I always have a joke handy; even a silly knock, knock joke can make the toughest adult crack a smile. For example, here’s one of my favorites:
“What do you call a bear with no teeth?…A gummy bear!”
With children, I ask them if they can show me their best laugh. Most of the time, the laughter starts out quiet, but once they get going and you join them, the real laughter starts. The laughing photos always turn out looking like we were having a great time together, even if the laughter is staged. Real or fake, laughing is a fun way to get people to relax and start showing true expressions.
Even the best-laid plans may not work out perfectly. Part of being a photographer is being able to adapt to different situations and personalities. The creative challenges that arise in portrait sessions are what keeps the job exciting and fun. If something is not working, whether it be lighting, posing, or interactions, don’t be afraid to change plans and try new things. If you start to feel like you’re struggling, it is time to make a quick change.
For most people, having a portrait taken can be a pretty nerve-wracking experience, especially if the two of you have never met before. One sure-fire way to create an honest and beautiful portrait is to get your client feeling confident and comfortable. As the photographer, it is your job to get your client to feel comfortable as quickly as you can, so you do your job, and do what it takes to capture those honest and beautiful portraits. When you act calm and confident, your subject will relax and trust you. The motto, “Fake it until you make it,” is a good rule to follow as a portrait photographer. If you look down at the back of the camera and your photo isn’t exactly perfect, try saying something positive such as, “Wow, you have a beautiful smile.” Or “The lighting is really beautiful right here, let’s try a different pose.”
Remember, a quick fix while shooting can make an uncomfortable subject relax, save you valuable time in post-processing, or (especially in the case of film), save you both time and money. When you are confident and calm, your client will mirror the same sense of calm and confidence, and that will be evident in the photos.
I begin every session with the intention of engaging in honest interactions, creating beautiful and unique portraits, and building lasting connections with my clients. By building real connections, I am forging business relationships that often lead to repeat customers and referrals.
As a bonus, sometimes I am lucky enough to end the session with a new friend. The strategies outlined above have helped me build personal connections with my clients to help me capture real human emotions, and create photographs that are unique, honest, and that help tell my subject’s story.