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If you do portraiture of any kind you are probably used to people giving one look when the camera is away from them and another when it is on them. This is the unfortunate game of the portrait photographer.
For my own work, I find that many of the most poignant portraits of people are the ones in between the actual ‘portraits’ taken during a session. These are the moments when your subject is at ease, in their element, thinking about something, and when they have the most interesting expressions.
So how do you capture these and take better portraits?
There is an important reason for taking your time to do a portrait session. It gives your subject time to get comfortable with you and the way you work. You can go through multiple backgrounds and ideas, and it is common for subjects to get over the initial portrait trepidation as the time goes on. That deer in headlights look will often (but not always) go away as they get used to how you work and what you want from them. This is the reason that you do not want to start off right away with your best idea because that will often be at their most uncomfortable moment. Wait until they seem comfortable and in the right mindset.
Give them direction, especially at first. When people do a portrait session they want to be told what to do, even if you want them to just be natural. Talk to them about what you’re doing and what you want from them. Do you want them to give you an emotion? How are their hands and arms? How is their posture? Where should they stand? I personally prefer to engage the subject and get them standing and interacting in a natural way, but often I will pose people at the beginning just so they feel confident that I know what I’m doing. Then over time I will start trying to get them to pose in ways that feel the most natural for them, as they get more comfortable with what they are doing.
The main key to this is that you want to get them interacting with you. Some types of shots are better posed of course, but you want them in some sort of moment. When they feel something, or think about something interesting, that feeling will shine through in the photograph.
Talk about the person’s life. Get to know them. Ask them questions and get them thinking introspectively. Tell them this is part of the process so they don’t feel uncomfortable or unsure of what to do when they are talking. This is one of the reasons that I sometimes like to interview people as part of portrait sessions. Then, within the interview, right after they have finished talking about something interesting or emotional, I will stop them and ask them to stay just like that and I will take their photo.
Sometimes you even have to fake people out. Tell them that you are just taking a few shots to test the light and to relax for a moment. Some of my best images have been taken that way.
There are ebbs and flows in a portrait session. Sometimes it makes you feel like a boxer, bobbing and weaving with what they give you. Other times you will feel like a psychiatrist, trying to bring something out of them. If someone starts to look more and more uncomfortable, don’t keep photographing them hoping they’ll start to get better. Break them out of it by asking them to move to another location or take a break. Keep them on their toes and engaged.
All subjects are different and will react differently to you, but the key is always that you must find ways to get through to them . Then to have the wherewithal to be able to catch the moment once they finally give it to you, because often the best moments are quick and fleeting.