The human expression is, for me, the most powerful form of communication we have. We all remember the looks our moms and dads gave us when we did something wrong, or the look on the face of the person we love when we proposed. These looks are just a few of the powerful ways we can communicate with no words, and it’s this that is the holy grail in portrait photography, whether it be stills or video.
I studied acting for film for 2 years at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. It was an intense 5-6 day a week program that dealt with all aspects of acting technique and applying them to film. Throughout my schooling and long before I was a professional photographer people have always fascinated me and acting school only amplified that.
Sanford Meisner, one of the great acting teachers, was quoted as saying “Acting is living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”. The keyword there is “living”.
When we are born we start off with no emotional filter, the emotions just pour out, as those of you with kids and who photograph kids will likely know. This is part of the reason why photographing kids can be such a joy because the expressions they deliver are unfiltered and honest. As we get older society places rules upon us, and as we age we begin to cover our emotions and speech with filters. Rightfully so, as the world does need these for good communication, however at the same time they hinder the ability to really live truthfully and be truly honest with those around us. Obviously we can learn to change and modify these filters, and even lessen the degree of our emotional filters, but it comes at the expense of occasionally offending people, seeming arrogant, and a host of other social blow backs.
Actors are constantly at odds with this because in order for good acting to prevail the filters must go away, at least for the time that they are working. Most actors of all success levels are very sensitive people. Vulnerable people, who are subjected to daily criticism and rejection more than most of us get in our lifetimes. This is why at times we get the random stories of Christian Bale or Mel Gibson losing their tempers for no “real reason”. Although it could just be that they are going to say whatever comes to their minds because they can’t stand to hold that filter up regarding whatever the issue upsetting them may be. However, it is this reaction that also allows them to be great actors.
So What Does This Have to Do with Photography?
I have always believed that the only thing that truly distinguishes my photographic “style” from anyone else’s is the moment I choose to press the shutter. The moment I consciously or instinctively choose to capture. Lighting, posing and the rest of it can be easily copied, or taught. Learning to see and read expression and emotion is where I believe the true talent in portrait photography comes from. I’m not someone who personally believes that any manual or tutorial can teach you how to “get” great expressions from your clients, actors or not. The ability to see, capture, and read emotion is a talent that must be developed on your own through methods that fit who you are as a photographer and human being. The brutal truth is not everyone will have this talent. I do believe that there are paths, or directions you can take to help you hone those skills, but in the end it’s your vision and each client is going to be different.
Reading good expressions and learning how to choose the images with the best expressions is what I want to hit on with all of this. Keep in mind that it is all subjective, and there is certainly no right or wrong answer. There are more interesting and captivating expressions, as well as more boring or dull expressions. We all know the “deer in headlights” look, and for those of you just beginning your adventure into photography, you will see plenty of this.
I believe the process starts in-camera learning to see “thoughts” or in acting terms “moments”. Most actors will agree that some of the best acting is between the lines when no words are being spoken. It is here that the audience is allowed to form the character in their own minds, with the actor at the helm trying to steer the perception and depth of the character.
Many of you know that I do a lot of my headshot work with actors but what you may not know is I also do a lot of work with people who are not actors. I don’t want anyone thinking that these ideas can’t apply to you and your own portrait work. Actors at times can be more difficult to work with than other people simply because they tend to be very self-conscious people, and are generally trained to NOT look at the camera.
So Let’s Talk about Avenues to Learn to See Thoughts Better
What I mean by seeing thoughts is this - when I look through my camera’s view finder I obviously look at composition and body language, but I ultimately end up going right to my clients eyes and I look into them, not at them. I start trying to see their thoughts, as I perceive them. I know this may sound like a bit of hocus pocus and stuff, but it’s what I do. Obviously reading their specific thoughts is not what I’m talking about. I’m referring to seeing things I perceive to be thoughts, and they come in extremely quick flashes. Let me explain … Part of the joy of portrait photography for me is being able to imagine whatever I think the thought to be, not exactly what it is. So for example, a client might look at the camera with this super sexy look, when in reality I’ll ask her or him what they are thinking about and they’ll say something like “I was just thinking about what kind of wine I want to get for tonight”. Their focus, body language, eye and chin position all can indicate something else. I believe women have it the hardest. Cosmo, MTV, and so many other media sources are telling women what it is to be sexy, and I find this can have an effect on them when they step in front of the camera. They all think they need to be a super model. This is understandable as we all want to be perceived as attractive to others. For me, sexiness is confidence. Confidence in who you are, and being grounded in who you are right now, regardless of weight, hair color, clothing etc. Human beings are always attracted to those they perceive to be confident.
It’s for this reason that in coaching someone’s physicality, not his or her emotions. I never tell a client to think of anything specific, occasionally I give them a ballpark of the emotion I want to perceive, but it’s never really too specific. This way they don’t get up in their head about trying to show me a specific emotion. To hone the ability to see thoughts and moments I recommend leaving the camera at home and going out for a day of people watching. Go to a park, a bar, a library, talk with people and engage them, but also just watch them and think through creating a story for them and why they are there. This will help you begin to see characters and stories, and isn’t that all we really want to convey with portraits? Another fun trick is staring into your eyes in a mirror. Most people look at themselves in a mirror, they don’t often look into themselves. Stand in front of a mirror about two feet away, and try not to blink, and just look into your own eyes, and as your mind drifts you will hopefully start to see the emotion in your eyes. These are the thoughts, and moments I speak of. It may require losing your “this is ridiculous and silly” filter though.
One of the best lessons in learning to read and communicate with all types of people for me was bartending. Before I was a fulltime photographer I was a bartender for 5 years. This was a great way for me to learn to talk with anyone and begin to read people. I’d watch a couple come into the bar and try to watch their behavior to formulate a story for them and guess how long they had been dating. Is it the first date? Third? Have they had their first kiss yet? Practice watching and guessing at all these things, whether you are right or wrong doesn’t matter. It will begin to train your brain to look for that quick flash of flirtation, or nervousness, or uncertainty, and after a while you will be surprised by just how much this sense can benefit your photography, and the moments you choose to capture. Now I realize you all can’t go out and just be a bartender but you can certainly adapt the principle to work for you. Another great way to help in your study of people is to take an acting class. Learn what it’s like and what it’s all about, it can benefit you well beyond just working with actors.
Body Language Is the Second Most Important Form of Communication
This is where the coaching process begins for me. When you are speaking with someone who is really interesting to you, your body language is generally quite forward which says, “I’m engaged”. Leaning back tends to be much more casual conversation and can also be perceived as apprehensive. Leaning back with arms crossed in a chair, can sometimes read as very closed off, or uninterested. Bringing your clients chin down a couple inches can completely change the emotion. For example, a lot of guys when they want to look tough in pictures fold their arms and stick their chins up, when if they would lower the chin, drop the arms and shift their weight forward towards the camera, it can lend to a much more intimidating character, even if their actual thoughts would not necessarily match this person.
Most of my clients are sitting on a bar height stool with their feet either completely on the ground or close to it (you don’t want them to get too physically comfortable) and leaning very far forward for this reason. People who are not comfortable in front of a camera will often sit straight up and rigid, so counter that by making them come way far forward into your bubble, which will help them conquer the fear of being photographed faster. If you get the body into general positions of engagement the emotion will translate. Leaning forward will generally convey emotions such as "I'm interested in you". This will help those filters we talked about to start to come down a bit and then we can start to look for those moments of thought in their eyes.
The next challenge is learning to sift through the images you take and pick the best expressions. Here’s a hint: we don’t always pick the good ones. Let’s be honest - photographers can be very self-serving when it comes to the images we want on our website or in our portfolio. We want the best image with the best hands, the best hair, and light, etc. There are many times I see images that are all technically beautiful, but I look closely at the eyes - at the expression, or moment, and it just isn’t there. I’m guilty of this myself. I often take several days to find the expression I want to feature from a photo-shoot, and even then sometimes I go back and decide it isn’t strong enough, or I submit it to others for opinions and maybe they see something I missed. Four eyes are always better than two, but you must also trust your own judgment and instincts as well. There are many opinion’s and sometimes you just have to make the choice yourself, and sometimes that image will just jump right off the page for you.
All of the things mentioned above will help you when deciding which image to put in your portfolio. It just takes doing it and having the patience to take your time with it. In this age of super fast internet life sometimes we rush it, so learn to take your time. Go through your images, zoom into the eyes, and start comparing to others you have flagged as possible contenders. Start creating stories, and characters for those eyes, and pretty soon you will start to see what the clear winners are. If I have twenty possible contenders for a featured image from a photo-shoot, I will normally compare four at a time, and from there, find the one I like the most and compare that one to the next four, and so on until I’m down to the winner.
It doesn’t matter how great a photographer is - beginner, or seasoned veteran, we all will continuously struggle capturing expressions simply because we are human, and our moods vary just as much as our clients. My goal is to inspire those of us who may struggle to look at a different approach and instead of focusing on getting a specific expression, focus on capturing the moments and see what comes from that. Often times I find this helps the client feel like they were allowed to just be themselves and not worry about giving me something specific. All of this allows me to almost be a wildlife photographer…but of humans.