Buying expensive gear and mastering lighting and technique play an important role in photography but ultimately, these things are secondary in achieving a solid portrait when facial expressions are factored in. No matter the genre of photography, whether it's fashion, weddings or family portraits, connecting to the subject is far more important than any other detail in shooting portraits. When portraying a personality or specific mood, there is a necessity to connect and extract emotions and moods.
Until four years ago, being photographed was something I detested. A lot of this is due to the fact that as a young child, my mother used to take my siblings and I to JCPenny for family portraits. They shoved teddy bears in our face and forced us to smile with the promises of lollipops, toys and everything else under the moon. The experience was awful and I remember my siblings and I leaving frustrated and upset. There is no question that those photo shoots left a bad taste in my mouth for photography.
(All images in this article have been taken by Dani Diamond )
As I found interest in taking on photography, I swore to myself that if I ever put someone in front of my camera, I was going to make sure they have an amazing experience. The problem was that naturally, I am an introvert. It was a challenge because I struggled with getting my subjects to open up and feel natural in front of the camera. With time I was able to overcome this issue. I'd like to share a few tips I found most important when trying to connect to subjects in order to get the ultimate expression.
1. The most important thing I've learned is that it's crucial to make a photo shoot feel like two people just hanging out. The element of the camera and gear can cause anxious feelings in the subject. Personally, I keep my camera tucked away for the first 15 minutes of meeting my client. As soon as I meet the client, it's just me and my backpack. We go for a walk, and I have a list of prepared questions in my head. I look out for the things they show an interest in and I ask them more about those things. People, when they are passionate about something, can talk about that subject matter for hours and hours. We know this because as passionate photographers, we can talk about gear and technique for days on end. Once they open up, casually say "Hey hold that pose or expression, I love it!" while quickly taking out your camera and snapping 2 shots. Look at your screen and no matter what it looks like just smile while saying you love it and you can call it a day already.
2. When doing a photo shoot of children, tell the parents beforehand to relay to their children that they are going to the park to hang out with a friend. Children don't like going on photo shoots and parents promising candy or toys will only help for the first 10 minutes. Once you meet the children, play freeze tag or cops and robbers with them for the first 15 minutes. They will love you and listen to anything you say once you pull out the camera.
3. As mentioned above, it's important to talk about what your subject likes, not "geek talk." Most people, including models, don't enjoy talking about shutter, iso and aperture. Refrain from sharing settings and geek talk during the shoot. Continue the conversation you were having and every once in a while give them directions. Make them feel like they are hanging out with you and it will ease any tension they feel when the camera is facing them.
4. If your subject does something that doesn't look right in the picture, there's no need to tell them that their hand placement is bad. Rather, say "it looks better if you were to do…" Keeping a positive mood will excite your subject and help them be themselves. Being negative will only close off your subject to any constructive critique. Positivity goes a long way.
5. I never ask people to smile. Smiles, if not something that happened naturally can look fake and artificial. When it comes to specific expressions and looks, Peter Hurely's DVD teaches you dozens of techniques to get the ultimate expression. They are worth checking out. He has a few free tutorials on his channel too.
6. If you are going for a more candid/lifestyle look, I find that giving people scenarios to act out is the best way to go about achieving the best expressions. For example, in this photo, I asked my subject to imagine running away from a friend chasing her to tickle her. I told her to look back at me every few steps.
Fellow Fstoppers writer John Schell is a master at this. He creates scenarios for his subjects which help him capture the exact expressions he had imagined.
7. Regardless of the model's experience or your personal skill level, I find that the first few minutes of a shoot are not as "comfortable" as those that happen later on. It takes 50 or so shots until you get into the groove as a photographer and the subject feels comfortable in front of your camera. I find that it helps to just snap away, don't bother looking at the results and make a joke "I never look at the first 50 images, we're just warming up now." Also note that it's best to save your ideas and poses towards the middle or end of a shoot -- once you're both more comfortable.
When it comes to mastering the art of connecting with your clients and subjects, very few people out there have this skill naturally. As time goes on, you will find the right "rhythm" to achieve this. Being aware of the necessity to connect is crucial and will allow you to grow and further hone in your talent.