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Professional models know how to produce such expression at photographer command, normal people don't.

Still good photographer are able to get it from famous actors/politicians/sportsmen.

I've been asked to do some portraits for a friend portfolio, what should I ask for? Of course I don't want to ruin our friendship.

This question is related to How can I get my portrait subjects to look natural and drop the cheesy smile?

but it's also different because I'm talking about formal portraits, so I don't want a "natural" expression but a meaningful one.

This is also true for my own self-portraits...

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Wow. I'm glad I inspired such an insightful question! :) –  AJ Finch Dec 6 '10 at 15:16

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

In my experience it's much harder in a more formal studio environment, I've found it much easier in more natural settings. However, in both cases, engaging in a thoughtful conversation may trigger the expressions you're looking for more naturally because, in general, I find that asking people to "look thoughtful" results in a very exaggerated look just as "look happy" will do.

As another suggestion, the angle of your shot is probably going to help this along alot more. If the shot is fairly direct, it won't look as natural, but a shot more to the side with the subject looking off to the distance a little will look a lot more thoughtful. You still want to see both eyes, so it's not necessarily a full profile shot. Something along this line, perhaps:

Serious

That was a candid portrait of my niece back in the spring and, at the time, she was running around with a bunch of other kids collecting up hidden candy in the backyard! I just happened to catch her in a pause that looked more contemplative than excited.

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Know your subject and chat to him about matters that he can relate to. Then ask relevant questions that he needs to consider before answering. You need to show genuine interest in his domain so that he will make a considered effort to reply thoughtfully.

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Back in the silver halide days, if you were shooting roll film, you'd pretty much plan to throw the first roll away (that is, you'd soup it, but you probably wouldn't expect a winner -- and that's a 12-exposure roll in general, either 120 format or a short roll of VPS 35mm). It's not that you'd want to waste film, but that you'd want to waste time, allowing the sitter to get over the anxiety of having their portrait done. The last thing you want is a pose; your job is to capture the essence of the person. Well, it is if you're going for more of a contemporary (say Karsh and onward) portrait than a daguerreotype, at least. These days all you'd be wasting is a write cycle on an SD card.

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could it be that when the sound of shutter become natural, you can really start shooting? –  uberto Dec 18 '10 at 13:56

Taking a meaningful portrait is not easy, because some people are easier to shoot than others. Try to make everything as natural as you can, specially for people not confortable with the camera, which means following labnut's advice to engage a conversation to break the ice, but also to pay attention to every detail in your location that could that could make the subject less confortable (uncorfortable chair, too hot, too cold, too many people, etc.) and try to correct them.

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