With portraits we often see the subject in an expression that seems…well…unnatural. Sometimes the face is twisted in the typical “cheese” grin, or other times the subject simply has the deer-in-the-headlights expression. Why is this?
Most of us are not professional models and we communicate both in words and expression with other people, we are not used to having a camera pointed at us and staring into the “unblinking eye”.
Also we are too self-conscious. When in front of the camera, the subjects do not have the types of feedback when naturally engaged with another person. Does our belly show? Does our nose show too prominently? Is our grin too cheesy?
These two issues combine into a serious case of nervousness.
We are out of our comfort zone. We are trusting this person, who we may not really know, to not make our defects prominent in the photo. With tension comes physical rigidity which ensures that the poses look awkward and the smiles look fake.
To combat this problem I discovered a trick early on; once you pose the subject, get the subject talking. Get him to talk about his classes, his job, his favorite move. Get her to talk about her friends, her college major or her family. Find what is important to the subjects so that you connect with them. While they are talking make sure you are shooting pictures. Yeah, this method produces a lot of wasted shots, but more likely than not, you will get some definite keepers. With the tension drained out of the situation, people will start looking more like people and less like mannequins.
Also, when people engage in conversation they give glimpses of expressions that are truly theirs. The hand reaching to brush away their bangs from their eyes, a smirky half-smile, a laugh that causes their eyes to glint are moments that are hard to capture when simply posing people.
It takes time to build up the chemistry, the trust and the energy so plan to spend more than a few minutes shooting pictures. It generally takes at least fifteen to twenty minutes for me and the subject to “warm up”.
Following this advice you should get more natural looking portraits. But be forewarned, using this method on some people (like my four-year-old son) can lead to some zany results that cannot be predicted.