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Friday, September 11, 2015


Last week we talked a little bit about a favorite subject of photo enthusiasts — sunsets. This week we are going to talk about the favorite subject — family. Everyone has a family photo album, whether it’s on their computer, their mobile, their coffee table, or in their wallet or purse. (Remember those wallets with the photo holders? There even was a photo print size called “wallet.” I guess there still is, but I doubt if too many people use them now that mobile devices are ubiquitous.)

And what is the most often spoken words before a family photo is taken? No doubt, “Look at the camera and smile!” Or perhaps, “Say ‘Cheese’!”

The result? More often than not a pleasingly bland photo of someone with a fake smile on their face.

I know a photographer who once shot a Chinese wedding in New York City. The parents and inlaws flew all the way over from China for it. It was a traditional ceremony. When it came time to do the group portraits, the photographer said, routinely, “Look at the camera and smile!” Instead she got a bunch of perplexed looks. At first she thought it was because they didn’t understand English, so she asked one of the English speaking New York members of the party to translate, and was told, “It’s not a language problem; it’s what you are asking them to do — smile.” According to this photographer, she was told that Chinese traditionally don’t smile in wedding portraits.

So this weekend, take some photos of your family and friends, and do things a bit differently. Here are some suggestions.

First, don’t ask them to smile! If they are smiling, sure, take the picture, but don’t ask them to.

And Why the Head?

And remember, they are real people, not disembodied heads. There are other parts of their body that are interesting: hands, for instance. I took a nice photo of my wife’s hand holding a wine glass. Very evocative. Remember, a good photo gathers meaning as it ages. For example, take a photo of your son’s feet in his baseball shoes. I bet that photo will have more power in 20 years than one of him saying Cheese.

But if you are going to take “headshots,” do it with power also. Why always the front of the head? Why not the back — the way the hair falls on the neck.

And if you are going to do the front, why always the full head? Try cropping off the top of the head in the photo. The TV show 60 minutes routinely does that in interviews. The reason? Creates intimacy.

The Eyes

And the eyes — do they always have to look at the camera? Why not place an object out of the frame — an object that has meaning to the subject — and have them look at it. Soon you will have a wonderful expression on the subject’s face.

And if you do have the subject look at the camera, have them really look at the camera. Ask them to peer into the lens and see if they can see you through it. You’ll get a wonderful penetrating gaze.

They say that the eyes are the windows to the soul. Could be true, but not if someone is good at pulling down the windowshades, which, unfortunately, we all get good at in time. When you photograph, you’ve got to find a way to pull the shades up.

Richard Avedon, the fabulous portrait photographer, once photographed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. They of course had the blinds fully down, as famous royalty is good at. So just before he snapped the shutter, he asked them about their dog that had just died. Up go the blinds, and Avedon had his portrait.

Another famous person, Marilyn Monroe, definitely knew how to keep the blinds down. But, once again, Avedon knew how to roll them up.

The Environment

In both these portraits, the subject is isolated — nothing surrounds them. But often, especially with family portraits, “environmental portraits” have lasting power if you use the surrounding environment effectively — posed or unposed. Think of what is meaningful and related to the portrait subject, and place them near it. Of course most of us don’t have this kind of environment in which to take a portrait (photo of Queen Elizabeth by Annie Leibovitz).

So this weekend — Have fun! Shoot outside the box! Make some meaningful portraits that will have lasting power. Leave the cheese behind.