I’m going to ask you to put your camera down for now. I know it’s a lot to ask, but the secret I’ve discovered to better portrait photography has, in fact, very little to do with your camera.
One of the most common mistakes budding portrait photographers make is to be so focused on getting the technical aspects right, they completely forget about the most important feature of a portrait – the person standing in front of their lens.
I’m not saying that your camera and technique aren’t important, they absolutely are. But even when you have the best technique in the world, you will not have a good portrait if your subject feels, and looks, uncomfortable.
The secret to helping your subject be relaxed and look good in pictures is body language – both yours and their’s.
Body language is how our bodies communicate our feelings and intentions, and it makes up for a majority of how we communicate. Some studies found that as much as 92% of our communication is nonverbal, and experts all agree that, as humans, we rely first on what we see and feel, before believing any spoken word.
Why is this important in portrait photography? Because body language is the language spoken in our portraits.
Within one second of seeing a photograph, we make a snap judgment about the person – or people – in the image, and what our brain relies on to make this judgment is their body language. Big cues like slouched shoulders or crossed arms are obvious, but it’s also the small cues like a fake smile, tense hands, slightly pursed lips, or squinting eyes, that tell our brains on an instinctive level, how that person is feeling. Furthermore, if the feelings are negative, it can ruin your portrait.
So, what can you do? Let’s look at three things you can start doing right now to help your subject settle into relaxed and positive body language.
1. Identify discomfort
It’s pretty uncomfortable for most people to have their portrait taken, even if they are really looking forward to it. This tension appears mainly through blocking and pacifying cues.
Blocking gestures occur when we put something between ourselves and an uncomfortable situation. Crossed or closed arms are the most obvious signs, but the person may also be holding something like a bag or a laptop in front of them, turning their bodies away from you, and even crossing their legs tightly when standing.
Rubbing or pressure movements are called pacifying gestures. You will observe this when she’s playing with her necklace, rubbing her arms or legs, or he’s playing with his clothes, or squeezing his fingers together. Another place to look for pacifying gestures is the mouth. Lip pressing and licking, and tongue movements pressing inside the cheeks or lips show high levels of stress.
When you see this happening before or during the shoot, your subject is feeling uncomfortable and it’s going to show up in your portraits. Let’s look at how you can help them relax.
2. Show, don’t tell
People feel uncomfortable during a photo shoot mostly because they don’t know what to do. It’s really stressful to be in front of a lens and be told to pose or act natural. They have no idea what you want from them, and telling them doesn’t help.
A client of mine shared this story with me;
At my last photo shoot, the photographer asked me to smile. So I smiled. “No! Not like that!” he said “you know, relax and smile!” All I could think is “Damn, I’m not relaxed, how do I relax?” which made me stress even more, and the more he was telling me to relax, the less I was! It was horrible! I look like I’m growling in all the photos. I hate them!
So if telling them what to do doesn’t help, what can you do? Show them! People can easily mirror what you want them to do. Ask them to mirror you, and show them exactly the pose you want them to take. Not only this will help them relax, it also allows you to get them into the right body language for the picture. When working with children, you can turn this into an imitation game, and they will be playing along with you in seconds.
Mirroring is a key bonding behavior in human body language. This interaction creates an immediate connection between you and your subject, and allows them to shift their attention away from the lens and focus on you instead.
3. Be in control -even when you’re not
From the minute you meet your subject, until they walk away from the session, it’s vital that you appear in control by using confident body language, keeping your energy up, using positive words, and never showing any signs of stress – even when you’re freaking out because the settings you’re trying aren’t working.
I know this one is tough when you’re starting out, and you have to think of a million things – camera settings, composition, lighting, backgrounds, etc., and now I’m asking you to also think about what your client’s body is saying! But let’s think about this for a minute. How do you think your subject feels when they are working with a silent, stressed out, and fidgety photographer who is focusing all their attention on the camera or the lights? Not so great right? Guess where that’s going to show up? In your pictures.
They need to know that you’re in control, even when you’re not! This is a, “fake it until you become it” moment in your life. Talk to them. Explain what you’re doing. You might be concerned that they won’t take you seriously, but really, they are just curious about what’s going on. If they feel that you’re in control, that you know what you’re doing, you will keep the connection with them and help them to relax.
The best part is that you’re also going to feel more in control. Recent studies on body language have found that by changing our posture and behavior, we actually change our feelings too. Not only will you appear more confident, you’re actually going to feel more confident.
This is really just the very beginning of how body language can help you with your portrait photography. The choice of body language cues you’re going to use in your portraits will also have a huge impact on the feeling and quality of your images, and your relationships with your subjects.
Understanding body language is not just an option if you want to be a portrait photographer, it’s a vital skill; as vital as breathing is to a singer, or taste is to a chef. You will not be able to consistently create beautiful portraits of people, or create a fun experience for them if you ignore it.
The good news is that this is a skill you are born with, and have unconsciously practiced since your youngest age. However, most of us simply don’t pay attention to it because nonverbal communication is not part of our training curriculum, at school or later. Just like a musician will be more alert to sounds through practice, and a chef to taste through experience, I’m confident that you will soon become attuned to your subjects body language if you put in a little work.
Soon you will have mastered an amazing skill that will not only be useful in your work as a photographer, but also in everyday life.
Do you have another other tips about body language? Please share in the comments below along with any images demonstrating body language in your portraits.