I am surprised by how many people automatically put on a cheesy smile when I point a camera in their direction.
How can I encourage them to act more naturally, and what can I do to get better, more natural-looking portraits?
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.
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.
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...
Using a long lens can help, as that allows you to take pictures from a bit of a distance so that you are not so obvious.
Another method, although not as predictable and reliable but much faster, would be to just waste a frame on the face that the subject wants to show up, and then wait for them to relax and show the face that you want to catch before taking a second picture. Just don't expect this to work more than once for each subject.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Assuming this is PORTRAIT photography (where you have one on one time with no event distractions):
For very natural expressions, the thing I do is aim to make the subject feel SAFE (always). I mean: EMOTIONALLY SAFE. You must demonstrate that you are not judging them and make an effort to understand and appreciate their issues around taking photos. People are more open around people who they feel safe with. Make this a priority. People smile in an unnatural way or pose unnaturally because they haven't created a relaxed relationship with you yet. I also coach them on being present with their body (more on this later).
I tell my subjects/clients exactly how the shoot is going to go so there's more certainty. More certainty creates confidence and the feeling of being safe. They know how it's going to play out. I also ask them some questions that I find super important (because I wish people who photographed me were more sensitive to these topics). As a photographer, I try my best to be a good listener.
Some questions I ask (helps build rapport and helps you know your subject):
- How do you feel about taking photos?
- How do you feel about smiling with teeth? (Some photographers assume people like to smile. This is ABSOLUTELY UNTRUE. So many people hate their teeth, hate their smile, or some other issue)
- What parts of your body do you not like? (They will tell you. And they will probably be relieved that you know this info.)
No matter how beautiful I think they are, I promise them that I will not force them to do anything they aren't comfortable doing. And sometimes they become so relaxed during the shoot (after we agree on the boundaries of our shoot), I actually do get their beautiful smile.
Here's an example of what I tell my clients:
"The shoot will take about 2 hours. And it usually happens in three phases. The first phase is where you and I are going to get to know each other. We'll get some practice shots out of the way. It might be weird because there will be a lot of times where I'm mostly going to be staring at you and not saying anything. If I'm not giving you any direction, don't worry, it's because I'm thinking or trying to focus my lens. I'm totally going to be staring at you A LOT. I might get really close with my camera and it's gonna feel weird. About 45 minutes in, we're probably going to get our money shots and then if we feel like it, we can be playful and we can even try weird things."
SO now that I've told them how the shoot it going to go, I tell them to pay extra attention to their body. I actually talk to them as if this were a job. "Your job is to chill out. When I'm not giving you direction, just keep doing what you're doing because I probably really like it. Also, you might be used to smiling or sitting or standing a certain way in front of the camera, I might give you different directions. So your job is to focus: chin down because I want your eyes closer to my lens. People sometimes tilt their head so I may repeatedly tell you 'head straight'." Just clue your subjects in on the trappings of unnatural expressions and create the expectation that you may give them repeat instructions.
Create confident clients/subjects and make them feel emotionally safe.
I hope this is helpful.
I'm shooting a lot with unexperienced models, and to get them more used to a shooting, I try to focus them on something else than the actual shooting. Of course, not every person reacts the same, but talking with them about whatever comes up to your mind and taking shoots while doing that can help them to ease up.
Getting them to laugh because something is funny and then take the picture makes them more relaxed and seems to take away a lot of pressure regarding their 'I must shine, I must be perfect for this'-mindset. And after a while, the model starts (hopefully) to enjoy the shooting, and a model that has fun is in my opinion the best kind of model ;-)
Do as Elliot Erwitt did! (does? He's 92) Carry a bicycle horn in the pocket of your coat. Use it when you need it!