Expression Trumps Everything in Portrait Photography

Seeing my first portraits often makes me cringe. I’m not even afraid to admit it now. I always aimed to be a competent portrait photographer, but I was incredibly shy and didn’t know how to engage with people in front of my lens. I was always somewhat dissatisfied with my results, as I was never able to connect with my subjects on a level deep enough for them to let their guard down.

After a long period of trial and error, in addition to paying close attention to the work of other photographers that I admired, I finally found a method that worked for me. However, many of my early portraits looked like test shots with no trace of life, as my only goal was to make sure the photographs were properly lit and composed. In other words, capturing authentic expressions in a photo shoot didn’t come naturally to me. At all. Not even a little. But once I finally had the courage to look at my work with a critical eye, I realized that I had to turn my weakness into a strength.

I believe this is a common problem for many working photographers today. Many photographers focus so much on lighting, composition, styling, etc., that they forget they are photographing a human being and not a product. Don’t get me wrong, these ingredients are absolutely important for the success of an image, but I would say that a portrait without any trace of emotion is dead on arrival. Besides, I’ve seen several portraits of celebrities published with a bit of motion blur or a little misfocus that are totally successful because the person is animated. Interestingly, this was more common back when film was the photographic norm, and perhaps more spontaneous or candid moments were prioritized over an obsession with perfecting the still image as we’re so used to today’ today.

Two photographers I greatly admire are Peggy Sirota and Ben Watts for their superhuman ability to get the most out of their models and to elicit emotions no one else has. Seriously, look at them. They have the secret sauce, there is no doubt in my mind. Better yet, watch behind-the-scenes videos to see how they work and interact with their subjects. It is precisely for this reason that their work is found month after month in the biggest magazines.

So how can a photographer get the most out of a person in a portrait shoot you might be wondering? I won’t claim to be an authority on this, but here are some methods that have worked well for me so far:

  • This first point is going to sound counter-intuitive, but trust me on this. Don’t engage too much with the model in conversation until you start taking pictures. Be polite of course, but I’m trying to say the bare minimum until I’ve taken some lighting test shots and I’m ready to shoot. My main goal is to get to know them as the filming progresses.
  • Put them in a pose you like, then speak their ear. Talk about where they’re from, their school or work, their ambitions, their favorite music, their food, their love life, whatever. The goal is to get the person in front of you talking about whatever they’ll be getting into with you, in order to distract them from what they’re doing at that exact moment, which is your photo shoot.
  • Leave your ego at the door. I’m not afraid to be silly or tell embarrassing stories about myself to make the person feel more comfortable. It may seem like a lot of work, but well worth the extra effort in my opinion. For the record, it took me a long time to feel confident with this technique. I also try to avoid self-deprecating humor, as it can actually have the opposite effect if not done carefully, and yes, I know that from experience.
  • Energy is important and music helps. I always have a high energy photoshoot playlist ready to go and often ask the person being photographed if they have any music they would like to listen to while we take pictures. I also try to avoid being too caffeinated so the high energy doesn’t turn into jittery energy.
  • Keep an eye out for candid moments and be ready to capture them like a sniper. I’ve seen too many behind the scenes photo shoot videos posted online where the model has great expressions splashed throughout the video but the final images are kind of lifeless because the photographer wasn’t watching for natural mannerisms of the model.

If you’re willing to tell me I’m wrong, let me get ahead of you by admitting that there are of course some exceptions. Fashion photography is a prime example of a genre that doesn’t necessarily need to prioritize vivid expressions to be successful. One could say that the person photographed in a fashion photograph is just an accessory to the garment, but I will leave that to others to determine.

Someone like the great Dan Winters is another exception. Not only does his images light up masterpieces, but he always seems to capture subtle yet quite powerful expressions that perfectly complement the overall mood of the photograph. He’s not the only one, but he immediately comes to mind when I think of calm emotions done right.

Not every image in a photo shoot needs to have a happy expression, but I firmly believe that a photo shoot is more successful with a wide variety of expressions in the bag. I am always more satisfied from a personal point of view and the customer likes to have options. Remember that everyone is different and everyone expresses themselves in a different way. Ultimately, the variety of expressions of photographing different people will naturally add variety to your portfolio that viewers will be drawn to. And this is a good thing.

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