There was a time when people didn’t smile for portraits. You’ve seen those old 19th Century photos where stiff poses and blank stares was the norm. Of course, the reason why people looked so expressionless in some of the oldest photos is because an exposure could last minutes; a portrait sitter had to remain absolutely still for quite awhile. Imagine trying to hold a smile for three or more minutes.
Fast-forward to the 1970s through the 90s. Plenty of smiles, but if you take a look at everything from family portraiture to school formals to local shopping mall glamour portraits, any of us who were around back then are probably guilty of participating in some silly-looking pictures. When I say “silly-looking,” I’m being kind.
Portraits of Our Time
Now? Well, you can find plenty of duck lips and butt-forward shots on Instagram these days. It’s the year 2020, folks. We don’t have flying cars yet, but apparently everyone is their own best portrait photographer now. And we take those awesome portraits with our phones! Who would’ve guessed? But the poses and expressions that we think of as normal and natural now…let’s just say, they’re going to look pretty silly to someone someday.
That’s how it goes.
As photographers, we want to create portraits that our subjects are going to value, not just now, but as the years go by. At the same time, we want to give people what they want. And people often want what they see as the contemporary look. Some of those looks won’t hold up very well over time. But what are you going to do?
“Timeless” portraiture is all good and well, but it’s not always possible. And I’d argue, it shouldn’t always be the desired look; we live here and now, and whatever that looks like should probably be represented in portraits of people from our time. If all portraits were timeless, then how’d we be able to make fun of our 1980s selves?
Professional Photographers Still Need to Make Good Portraits
Let’s face it, professional portrait photographers bank on their ability to make people look their best in front of the camera. That’s number one. That’s what increases orders, gets that repeat business, and encourages referrals. I teach photographers about portrait lighting, but I don’t spend a lot of time on basic posing and expressions. And my reasons for that have to do with my approach to posing in general.
Now, there’s a whole industry built around teaching posing techniques, because there are so many of us who struggle with directing our subjects; how to stand, where to place the arms and hands, which way to tilt the head. Many of us just want guidance, or better yet, some formula or system or method that we can plug into any portrait session. But by applying a formula, might we end up with obviously formulaic results?
It’s quite possible that we spend too much time worrying about the “right” or best way to direct people into poses. Maybe the goal shouldn’t be to conform to some photo guru’s notion of what makes a well-posed, modern portrait. If we’ve learned anything about modern portraiture, we’ve learned that it isn’t modern for very long. Not that that’s always a bad thing, but it’s true.
Perhaps a better approach might be to strive for realness when it comes to pictures of people. A real, unforced expression. A real and relaxed pose. I mean, you can find all sorts of instruction from portrait gurus about how to use tricks and techniques to get people to look “better” for pictures. But I think I’d much prefer a lesson in getting people comfortable enough in front of the camera to just be themselves.
Yes, you absolutely have to know how to setup and use your lighting, but learning how to build rapport and make your subject feel comfortable and confident in front of the camera is just as important. That’s what I try to work on with each portrait subject or model, and if I work with them again, it’s easier the next time, but I still make an effort.
The best-looking portraits, in my opinion, are the ones that don’t look posed at all.
I talk about working with portrait subjects, models and otherwise, pretty often in my videos. Here’s one that comes to mind as I finish out this post: