Traditionally (at least according to popular culture) we photographers are supposed to request our sitters “say cheese” when we photograph them, in order to get a smile. Obviously, we all know this is a rubbish technique which is never going to produce a satisfying, natural result.
A few years ago, a designer friend of mine was dating (and later got married to) an officer in the Royal Navy. She showed me a photograph, taken at a summer ball, of her with her chap and several other officers and ladies. I was immediately struck by the natural expressions on every person in the photograph, especially because they all had beaming smiles. I asked her how the photographer achieved this and she explained that it was actually down to her. She waited until he was about to release the shutter and then she shouted a “certain word” and trusted the photographer to capture the reactions, which he did perfectly. I’m not going to tell you what the “certain word” was, but it was a scientific name for part of the female anatomy – not exactly a rude word, but definitely not expected in polite company!
For a brief moment (but just long enough), everybody forgot they were supposed to be having their picture taken and reverted to being a bunch of people having a good time. This is exactly the opposite of what happens when you are asked to say cheese. Or at least what would happen – I refuse to believe any real photographer actually does this!
This got me thinking about how to get the right expression from the people in front of my camera. Not just how to make them smile, as it isn’t always a smile we are looking for. The answer is (broadly speaking) quite simple – you need to engage with the sitter. People look at each other every day. They make eye contact and study each other’s expressions for visual clues during every conversation or encounter. This does not make them feel self conscious. It is when we put the camera up to our eye that everything changes.
I have found that one of the ways that works best for me is to talk constantly, asking questions, saying anything which comes into my head. Talking about the sitter is always good as it is a subject they know about and will soon become absorbed, as long as you can jump in with a question or two when they pause. Silence is the killer.
If I’m looking to get a natural smile, I’ll often ask my sitter not to smile and then, depending on what expression they do adopt, I’ll follow with something like “when I said don’t smile I didn’t mean for you to look like a bulldog chewing a wasp” which will usually get a chuckle and I can capture the smile I want as they relax.
Thanks to my children, I have also found that variations on “say cheese” can work very well. When I say “variations” I mostly mean complete alternatives. For example, “say stinky cheese”, “say smelly sausages”, “shout hairy camels” all seem to have the desired effect, especially with kids who love the opportunity to shout something silly. The technique seems to work pretty well with adults too, who get so tied up in trying to work out if you are being serious and wondering if they sound foolish that they completely forget what is happening and I get natural expressions.
I recently came across a technique used to engage a young child who was refusing to cooperate with the photographer. The photographer told the child that if he watched the camera’s “eye” carefully he would see the camera wink at him. The child became totally absorbed watching the shutter winking at him and the resulting photos were wonderful. I have used this technique myself and it worked a treat.
On the many occasions that the sitter is someone you are meeting for the first time, it is worth building up a set of easy conversation starters. Obvious subjects are holidays, jobs, family, hobbies/interests, why are you here in front of my camera? – pretty much anything, actually.
The important thing to remember is to engage. Talking to people should be easy – we all do it every day without even thinking. And remember that your sitter is probably nervous and expecting YOU to be in control.