Remember when you were at the family reunion as a child, and everyone gets together for the big group photo at the end? Auntie so-and-so gets up and yells out "Now everybody say cheese"! When you saw the picture a few weeks later after it was developed (that's right, developed), half the people in the photo are smiling whilst the other half are making an entire range of different faces.
I remember that.
As photographers, we are charged with capturing people in the best light possible; both figuratively and literally. As the culture has changed, so has the photographer's role in it. Everyone can capture moments and share them whenever they wish, thanks to cell phones. But as artists, we are called to a higher standard. We have to attempt to capture more than just the moment, so our work is set apart. How? Emotion. Let me explain.
I have a very vivid memory of when I was in high school, and I was allowed to go along with my girlfriend at the time to watch her have her senior portraits taken. So I expect a studio, and we arrive at this very well to do woman's house, where my girlfriend and I are then led into a basement studio where she has far too many lights in far too many places. The entire shoot then lasted about 2 hours, and consisted of traipsing all over her few acres of property having my girlfriend sit and lean and stand in the most awkward positions, and the one word she kept repeating before she would take any photos was....
"Just look a tad more pensive" "Now if you could just sit on this wet cement bench here and glare into this flower and just think pensive" "That's lovely, now just pensively gaze over my shoulder"
Now, I am all for suggestions when it comes to helping people feel and look more natural in front of the camera, but let's think for a moment. When was the last time you looked pensive in a photo and thought, "Wow I really love how deep in thought and intensely intelligent I look, I should show everyone this photo"? Me either. Here is an example.
Not a bad photo, but this whole "i am so pensive I want to cry a river and teach underprivileged to swim in it" expression is really pulling the little bit of joy out of what would be a nice two person portrait. This, bear in mind, is only an example and is by no means indicative of this model's truly artistic and expressive nature. It was the end of a long work day.
The idea that this sort of muted and expressionless expression we refer to as 'pensive' would be a desirable and often requested direction given by photographers, is an odd one. Now, there is a time and a place for everything, and pensive expressions are no exception. But, that place is on magazine ads that are geared towards showing off the clothing, where the expression of the model should be as vacant as possible so as not to distract from Vera Kors' latest non-drip hurricane proof mascara/eyeliner combo pen. There are so many better suggestions to give to your subjects, that can truly cause great expressions and bring out the emotion inside that we as photographers are after all along.
I present to you now, the Unnofficial List of Awesome Things to Say to People you are Photographing in Order to Best illicit an Emotional Expression and Response. ULATSPPOBIEER for short.
1. "Stop Smiling, (you are going to break my camera). "
This is a great one to start with, and because I am generous it is indeed a two parter. This generally works welll to quell the continued lack of joyous expression on the face of your subject when used very directly and sarcastically. Great for young guys and shy girls because the negative reinforcement of an act they are not actually doing tends to be even moderately funny enough to get a smile. If not, then proceed into the second part implying they will cause direct harm to your equipment if they smile; quite a lovely stream of inverted logic and reverse psychology, no? :-)
2. "What is your happiest memory?"
This one works. Memorize it. Write it on your hand. Do whatever you must to remember this one, because it just works. Now it does require the proper delivery to get just right, but it is a wondrous thing to watch the flurry of emotions dancing across people's faces the instant you finish posing the question and they are thrust into memoryland. Even if it takes them a moment to think of their favorite, that does not matter. As the photographer, you are waiting for that moment I just described. Not so much the story itself, but the instant you can see the memory on their faces, that is when to push the shutter. A very great photographer whom I learned this from uses it nearly every day, and has some amazing images to show for it.
A street portrait, and good example of using the "What is your Happiest Memory" emotional expression trigger.
3. "Perfect, I love it! Now do everything different"
This trigger is a tad more challenging, but can have great results especially with larger groups of people. It helps to throw in some hand gestures, like employing the comedic use of jazz hands when you say the word 'everything'. Also, it helps to point out here, that the desired outcome of this trigger is to create what is known as an off-beat. The moment when everyone relaxes, the moment immediately after the shutter is pressed. In this moment is where those unique exrpessions and passions live, and you have to try and create it. The moment your subject(s) reacts to what you have said and begin to process it for comedy or not, is when you should be prepared and ready to snap.
It all comes down to being ready for the moment to happen before they even know they're in one. And that is where you can truly capture an aspect of your subjects soul.
What are some cues and suggestions you give your subjects? Comment below!
Next time, I will be going over the top 5 things you should never do in Lightroom.
Until then, stay passionate my friends.