It’s interesting to feel what it’s like to be in the posing seat instead of behind the camera, and a good reminder of what it’s like for your subjects. My good friend and former employer, Don MacGregor, did me a favor today and made this portrait of me in his studio for use here on the new website. Thanks, Don! More about him in a minute.
A couple things to remember about a portrait sitting; nobody can detect a phony smile (or other expression) better than another human being and smiling for no particular reason is phony.
Timing is everything when capturing real expressions and emotions. Even an extended belly laugh or all out crying jag have their great and not-great moments. I was having fun, mostly, with Don but there are times when he, or any other photographer, will be paying attention to something technical or a detail and not being entertaining and engaging. Those are the times when the real smile fades and the phony takes over. Be aware of this and try to get back in connection with your subject quickly. For me, when I’m where I should be, behind the camera, I like to have fun when appropriate (usually) and not necessarily be a clown but use a little humor to evoke a real smile.
Once my subject is comfortable and all the technical details have been set (before they arrive), one of my most time-worn but still effective lines is, “OK, I’m ready, now it’s time for you to manufacture a perfectly believable smile.” Almost anyone will smile at that point so BE READY! Nothing is more frustrating to you and annoying to your subject than missing the moment.
One last thing and this isn’t really about the shooting but the viewing: as soon as I saw my face come up on Don’s monitor, I saw that something was wrong. I knew it instantly and subconsciously. My face was on backwards. The mole on my right cheek was over on the left side of the picture! What’s up! Well, of course, I’m used to seeing myself in the mirror, where reality is reversed. You might think this is funny, and it is, a bit, but it’s something you need to keep in mind, especially when you have a subject that just can’t be pleased. It could be that they haven’t thought it through and just think you’re doing something wrong or even just a back-of-the-mind feeling of unease. Bring it up and remind them they aren’t looking in the mirror. It might be enough to get the shot they really like.
Sitting, standing, whatever, for a portrait is not a natural thing. As a photographer and portraitist, you need to find ways to create a sense of comfort, engagement and entertainment.
Now, here’s the other thing about Don; he also runs a 5 day school once a year called Image Explorations on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. He assembles some of the finest instructors from around the world, all top professionals, and you pick your choice and spend 5 intensive days, breakfast, lunch, dinner and party time with them, picking their brains dry and learning in classroom and real shooting situations. And all this happens in a truly gorgeous setting, surrounded by a couple hundred other photographers, from beginners to masters, for a price that simply makes the whole experience the very best educational value I’ve ever found.
I can hand out little tidbits in these posts, but if you really want to step up your game; Image Explorations is the place to be. I’ll be there, maybe if you see me you can say hi!