WARNING! This post contains pictures that may be distressing to anyone of a nervous disposition!
The human face is fascinating; it can convey so much before even a murmur is heard. It’s the first thing our baby eyes focus on, so no wonder that we learn to read facial expressions so well. And we can still never know everything that’s hidden behind its ever-changing mask.
Portrait photography should try to capture at least an impression of the true person, even a genuine expression of something that makes them who they are. Revealed perhaps by the nervy sparks that pull the face into awkward contortions and facsimiles of smiles.
It’s the photographer’s job to switch on the lights in the eyes, warm up the smile and enable the sitter to put aside perceptions of their own frailties and look the camera in the eye. When we see someone’s humanity in a picture we can relate to them more easily, it’s openness and honesty that allows a camera to capture it.
Having seen hundreds and hundreds of smiling faces in photographs I’ve realised while there is a vast range between faintest curl and rictus, they often fit into a just a few categories.
Types of Smiles
The Full Beam
It’s spontaneous and uncontrolled, a genuine response from a sitter. It’s lovely to see doesn’t often make a good picture just because it causes the eyes to narrow leaving the smile entirely in the mouth.
When you can’t tell what the sitter is really thinking or feeling. The enigmatic smile is not common because not many people are confident enough to hide their real feelings in front a camera. But it can be sexy look.
The Film Star
Some people just have it – when you ask for a smile and they can give it to you as if at the flick to a switch. Apparently genuine, bright and open. It’s a smile that starts in the eyes, then invades and occupies the face. The film star smile is a gift for both the sitter and the photographer.
As, ‘in the headlights’. There’s tension, fear and suspicion. Glassy eyes holding back a supernova of panic. The ‘rabbit smile’ is little more than a grimace and sadly it’s the best that most of us have to offer a photographer and the unrelenting, judging, betraying stare of the camera lens.
Types of Sitter
Of course the type smile the photographer sees often relates to the type of sitter. Most people assume the characteristics of one of them when they become the subject of a photograph.
Not only willing but positively pleased to be asked to step in front of the camera. Sometimes the greatest challenge is to stop them posing, but there’s no doubt you’re going to get a good picture.
The reluctant subject, the person who does not like the attention or respond to the photographer. They’re in imminent danger of giving ‘the rabbit in the headlights’ smile.
This person loathes having their picture taken and appears to physically shrink before the camera. They can’t smile and should they try their face goes into a spasm of pain. The best thing to do is move very, very slowly so that their self-consciousness is gradually eroded by boredom.
This person doesn’t want to be photographed, can’t see the point of it and would rather be doing something else. They’re unlikely to compromise and it’s not worth spending too much time on them.
Summoning Up a Smile
Most people want to be nice, they try to help the photographer by standing up straight and smiling when asked. But while they’re willing, they’re not necessarily able. Smiling to order is very hard for most of us. For many it’s impossible to get past the barrier of self-consciousness or across the chasm that should be filled with self-esteem. It’s up to the photographer to help, to distract, amuse or flatter. So many people will say ’oh I don’t photograph well’ but I tell them they simply haven’t found the right photographer, because there’s a great photograph of everyone waiting to be taken.
You get an immediate sense of the person as they walk in to the studio, and the type of sitter they’re going o be. Some eye you suspiciously, some look at you pleadingly, some come in to the studio with a forced smile set across their face.
Whichever it is, I try to get them to ‘reset’ their face by asking for a dead-pan, passport-like expression. I want them to relax all the muscles of the face and let it sink into repose. I’ll press the shutter release a couple of times to get them used to the clunk and the flash. Then I might ask them to imagine themselves somewhere else and feeling gently content, quietly satisfied. The mouth should stay closed; this is just an incipient smile. A few shots of that and then I ask them to think about going home at the end of their working day, the taste of the first glass of wine, beer or g & t. If that’s not enough to draw out a nice, natural smile then I offer them the rest of the week off, or suggest that their boss should stand there and take the picture, naked.
During the process I take them back to the state of facial repose a couple of times to prevent the muscles getting ‘stuck’. But no matter what, some people find the whole experience so excruciating that you can see the tension rising with every click of the shutter.
Even then it can be worth inviting them to close their eyes and imagine themselves lying in the sun on a beach, listening to the gentle lapping of waves – someone’s been to the ice cream van to get them a double 99. Now open your eyes and say thank you, with a smile!
Trevor Aston works in Richmond, Southwest London and Surrey as a portrait, event and editorial photographer.