Q&A: How to Make Portraits of People Who Don’t Like Being in Portraits

 A client asks: “For people who are uncomfortable taking pictures — how would you make them feel comfortable to get the best pictures from them? For example, if someone’s smile tends to be very forced for posed pictures, how would you get them comfortable to elicit a natural expression?”

Answer: I may try for more unposed photos, such as where people are walking or interacting. I’ve found that people tend to look more comfortable and natural while they are walking or interacting. It is when things slow down and go into a more camera-aware posing mode that they start to show their discomfort or stiffness. 

For example, I’ll often have couples walking together, whether on the wedding day or for engagement photos. I may also try to get them interacting, whether it’s hugging, kissing, holding hands or talking. That way their attention is on each other rather than on the camera. For engagement photos, I’ll sometimes photograph one of them individually, while the other stands near me and distracts the person being photographed any way they can think of. That usually works!

If someone’s smile tends to be very forced for posed pictures, doing more unposed pictures will tend to produce more natural expressions. Although I may suggest a smile, I probably won’t. A smile is not really needed for a good portrait. Very few of the great portraits in history have the subject smiling.

People don’t necessarily have to look happy, but they should look like themselves. Also, if the photos are more romantic or more contemplative in style, a serious expression can work very well. For couples, I’m more likely to suggest a kiss or a hug than a smile, preferring that any smiles come naturally when they do.

People tend to smile naturally when they are happy. So when my goal is to get a smile, I may suggest something that will make them happy.  I may make a joke or say or do something silly — whatever it takes to spark a reaction that is real rather than pretended or forced. Each couple is different, so I try to see what works and what doesn’t.

Most people and most couples are not fully comfortable taking pictures. So I sometimes start by actually mentioning that picture taking can feel awkward. It may seem counter-intuitive to highlight it that way, but I think that mentioning that fact puts me on their side and shows that I appreciate how they are feeling. I’ll also emphasize that the discomfort tends to wear off quickly as we take more pictures and get past the first few minutes.

I also have to judge how much direction to give and how to give it. Sometimes more is better, sometimes less. The risk of giving too much direction is that it will feel like role-playing, more like acting than just being themselves. The risk of giving too little direction is that the pictures will feel haphazard. For example, I’ve found that romantic style photos often benefit from more direction than less. The reason is that people are not romantic on cue, especially in public and in front of a camera. So a little direction may be needed to make those photos work — if that style is desired.

Sometimes it helps to know when to get out of the way. If someone has been uncomfortable taking pictures, but is suddenly being very expressive and natural, I remind myself to just shut up and take pictures! At that point, it’s best to just let them be themselves and not give directions that would remind them of the camera.

At family photo sessions, I sometimes notice kids who have been trained to smile for the camera, and their smile can look very forced. They are essentially just baring their teeth, conforming to a seemingly required behavior. In such cases, no smile can look better than a forced smile. While there isn’t a quick or reliable way to get them out of this behavior, I may try to distract them with talk about some TV show or activity, or I may try to create a fun moment that generates a real smile. I may also take the forced smile photo, but then take another photo after they think I’ve stopped and they have reverted to a more natural expression.

Keep in mind that the psychology of a photo happens at the same time that I’m thinking about composition, background, lighting, camera settings, etc., so it’s a bit of an imprecise process, but these things usually do come together.

Finally, it helps if we are not feeling too rushed. Whether it’s a wedding day, an engagement session or a family session, extra time allows for more trying and experimentation.

 For an interesting perspective on this topic, check out the opening of the official trailer for Annie Leibovitz’s Master Class:

“There’s this idea that in portraiture it’s the photographer’s job to set the subject at ease. I don’t believe that.”

— Annie Leibovitz


 

 

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