I Dare You!

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I am surprised by how many people automatically put on a cheesy smile when I point a camera in their direction.

Please share any tips / techniques / links that might help me get better, more natural-looking portraits.

Thank you!

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I would be interested in answers particularly in the case of people who aren't or don't believe they're photogenic. –  Reid Jul 22 '10 at 16:35
I belive those people are a bit different case, but talking to them and focusing their attention on something else than camera might work. –  che Jul 22 '10 at 16:42

10 Answers 10

up vote 25 down vote accepted

I find the cheesy smile comes out when the subject is uncomfortable.

Depending on the style of photo you're after your options fall into distinct groups:

The "When did you take that?" photo

Sometimes referred as the paparazzi style (although the circumstances are generally more favourable), but the method is very similar -- long lens, wide aperture, and generally from distance, so the subject has no chance to get uncomfortable.

You can also get some closer candids by pointing and hoping for the best (or taking a crafty look at live view) - practice will improve the ratio of good to bad.

Formal portraiture

So things like the family shot at the wedding, it can be beneficial to build rapport with the models, with the odd joke, but maintain the position of authority as a director too. Kids tend to photograph best when they're amused, so a similar idea can work.

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As a related note, I found my photoshoots are always worse when I'm dealing with folks with whom I don't share a common language, unless they know me. Communication is very helpful in taking the edge off. –  r00fus Aug 17 '10 at 20:07
Nice answer, Rowland... though I might perhaps partially disagree with one part of it: Sometimes taking the position of the "clown" (as opposed to the "director" or "authority" figure) can be very helpful to get people feeling comfortable -- by "making fun of yourself", they start laughing at you -- which is incompatible with being self-conscious. So, you get them being them. Even between laughs (in case that's not what you want), this can make for less discomfort for them. Just a thought. –  lindes Dec 11 '10 at 0:20
"paparazzi style" is sometimes also known as "creepy stalker style" –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 11 '13 at 23:24

The most natural looking portraits is usually taken when the subject is not aware of it. To consiously look natural isn't very easy, and untrained people generally can't do it.

One method is to simply "wear them out". After a while they will become accustomed to the camera and stop making a face, either because they grow tired of it, or because they simply don't care. It might however take days or weeks to get there...

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+1, "wearing them out" works with my mother-in-law, actually is the only way ... –  Francesco Jul 15 '11 at 7:08
Wearing them out was the advice I got from an old photographer long time ago, and to save the cost of film (no digital cameras back then) he told me to shoot away with empty camera until the subject is relaxed. –  Esa Paulasto Mar 19 '13 at 23:22

People like to see smiles in photos because that implies that the subjects were happy at the time. But getting photographed does not always make people happy. So getting better photos often means helping people relax, get used to the camera (or forget about the camera if necessary), and actually enjoy themselves. Different techniques will work with different people.

Here's just one idea to add to the others'. If they're physically able, ask them to jump in the air. A jumping shot can turn out well, but even if it doesn't, take another shot after they land. At that point they are probably laughing about how silly it felt and have forgotten to be uptight about getting their photo taken.

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I like the idea of taking their mind off the photo by giving them something to do, like juming in the air. I will definitely try this one! Thanks +1. –  AJ Finch Jul 26 '10 at 9:08
It probably works if you can get them to jump. Margaret Thatcher wouldn't. :) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… –  Guffa Aug 1 '10 at 21:53
Hmm, that link seems to have gotten munged... here's another stab at it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stina_Lundberg_Dabrowski#The_Stina_jump -- hope that one works. All credit to @Guffa. :) –  lindes Dec 11 '10 at 0:23
@Guffa Seems the Ladys not for jumping... –  fmark Feb 22 '11 at 0:24

If you are taking a fairly formal portrait and are using a tripod, stand a bit away from the camera, carry on a conversation, and trigger the shutter with a cable release or a remote. As the subject relaxes, you will be able to get more natural seeming shots.

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Conversation with whoever you're making the photo of is key. Even if it's corny jokes, once you get a genuine smile, shots worth keeping are usually the result. –  Scott A. Lawrence Jul 22 '10 at 22:01
This is pretty much exactly what my reply was going to be. Tripod + remote + casual conversation = good photos. Check out this video about Peter Hurley, and watch how he does it: youtube.com/watch?v=TpKsuP0NlzI –  Callan Jul 22 '10 at 23:14
Yes! I've seen this one work quite well -- from both sides of the camera, in fact. I think part of it, too, is that you, the photographer, are actually more engaged with the person -- you've set all your settings, framed your shot, and no longer have to be thinking about anything other than when to click the shutter. So almost all of your attention is now on the subject, which they'll surely respond to. –  lindes Dec 11 '10 at 0:25

I use this technique and so do several events photography friends of mine. When we are doing group shots we often invite everyone to close their eyes and think of a beautiful memory and happy thought. And then we tell them that we'll count to three and have them open their eyes, and smile for the camera--on three.

What happens is the smile is more natural, less forced. And with a little practice you can explain the instructions without flaw, everyone can do it and everyone is curious to try it out. So it's an easy sell.

Bed-side manner is very important as a portraiture or events photographer (to say nothing of other equally challenging specialities), rapport is important as many of the previous entries have made. Get over the idea that you are in the peripheral and you aren't 'part of the celebration or event'. You are very much a part of it. It's embarassing perhaps, might bring on anxiety, but acknowledge your role to play early on and direct. The results will make it all worth while.

Be kind, use tact, always take every opportunity to practice your bed-side manner with your subjects on easy or hard situations. It gets easier, more fun, and less stressing each time with every practice--and the results are well worth it. It's also ultimately a really good life-skill to have, that can pay off dividends in other aspects of life and work.

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+! for "Be kind" ... although I'm not sure I like "bedside manner" - makes me sound like a doctor! ;) –  AJ Finch Jul 26 '10 at 9:11
@AJ Finch, or you're doing "that sort" of photography... ;) –  cabbey May 10 '11 at 3:20
@cabbey good point! ;) –  AJ Finch May 10 '11 at 9:22

I have a relative who behaves like that. The only methods I have found so far basically try to catch him unprepared by:

  • fast surprise snapshot
  • photographing without raising camera to an eye, either using live view or just trying out luck
  • using a telephoto from somewhere outside immediate visibility

Of course, none of that works for staged portraits.

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good advice. all stuff to add to my toolbox! thanks :) –  AJ Finch Jul 26 '10 at 9:12

I always tell people to make the ugliest frowning face possible and make them hold it for a while. After about 30 seconds I say "ok, now you can smile" and the smiles that come out are usually great. But you have to be quick, the smiles will revert back to the fake smiles within seconds. This works on almost anyone, it must be the novelty of frowning in front of a camera, I don't know.

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This also works if you ask them to do a really big smile, take a photo, and then tell them you're done/it'sokay/somethign like that and then take another quick photo as they relax. –  user7226 Dec 7 '11 at 10:33

If it's for a staged portrait, just shoot and keep giving directions. In order to not embarrass the subject, snap a picture with the cheesy smile, say "Great!" and then follow up with "Now let's try a soft smile" or similar.

If they get a serious look because they're uptight or trying to figure out your instructions, just say "Try to look like you don't hate me", that should loosen them up.

Keep it light, keep affirming what you like, and if you don't like something, don't point it out. Just shoot and move on to something different. Your subject should have fun and if you keep your cool you'll end up with usable shots.

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+1 for "Try to look like you don't hate me"! Love it! –  AJ Finch Jul 26 '10 at 9:09
I'm going to have to use that line with my wife... she always gets an uptight unhappy look on her face when I point a camera at her. –  cabbey Mar 4 '11 at 22:37

A trick I've had used against me (I hate being infront of the camera) was to shoot a shot, then say, "ok, let's see how that came out..." and trigger another shot mid sentence with a remote. It didn't bypass the cheesy smile, because I didn't have one on my face to begin with... but it did capture a much more relaxed image.

I've started to use that against my toddler, who DOES ham it up as soon as you point a camera at him, fire off a shot, then immediately fire another one when he relaxes thinking you're done. Lately I've had to take that second shot without looking through the view finder, as he doesn't relax until I start to take the camera down from my eye.

Which leads me into a trick I've used a number of times to get a candid shot of my wife. I call it "shooting from the hip". Basically any shot that's snapped when the camera is not at my eye. A perfect case in point from last year, we were out geocaching on a bike trial with her parents, I was 10 yards or so up the trail... set the focus for about that distance, set exposure, holding the camera by my side (I use a hand strap, so it's literally the same position as if I wasn't using it at all.) I called over to them to ask a question and fired off a handful of shots as they were turning to answer.

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One thing to consider when shooting a photo while not looking thru it, is to have your subject look well past the camera, not just a tiny bit off. Example photo where my two-year old daughter looks me in the eyes, and I am looking at her over the camera. In the resulting photo, her eyes are focused just a bit off, and I don't like it that way. I should have told her to look at the camera lens or the snail in front of her. –  Esa Paulasto Mar 29 '13 at 6:11

I agree with Rowland. When people feel uncomfortable they try to put on a happy face or "cheesy smile". When I am doing portraits, especially with kids is I say something funny but something to break the ice. If you continue to talk and have a conversation that always helps.

Also, if you you are in an open environment it relaxes the subjects as well.

I find that adults that don't want to have their portrait taken are the most difficult. I tell them a funny story from my past that give them an opportunity to laugh at me a little bit so that I am not just a someone taking a picture, I am after all human as well.

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+1 for the open environment tip. Thank you! –  AJ Finch Jul 26 '10 at 9:10

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