100 STRANGERS TIPS PART 4: EXPRESSION / by Arnab Ghosal

Part 4 of my series of 100 strangers tips is finally here! In Part 3 , I described 3 elements that make a good stranger portrait. However, I left out one crucial element as it deserved a post of its own. By far the most important factor in a street portrait (or in any portrait for that matter) is your subject’s expression.

Celebrity portrait photographer, Brian Smith’s advice for improving your portrait photography is to “go out and find 50 strangers, introduce yourself to them and shoot a portrait that says something about who they are, not just what they do”. This obviously resonates well with the 100 strangers project.

The key line in that sentence is “that says something about who they are.”  There are many times where your subject might give you the dreaded “Chandler Smile” (Friends fans will know what I mean, but for others it’s normally a stiff fake smile).  This is not ideal and so I thought I would share some tips on overcoming this and getting some more natural shots that conveys your subjects personality.

Note: Click on the pictures to read more about each encounter.

DON'T SMILE

The simplest way to avoid this “Chandler smile” is to simply ask your subject to look directly into the camera and not to smile. Interestingly enough, I haven’t employed this approach that often, but when I have, I was pleased with the results and Verena’s picture below was a great example. In reality she was a lot of fun and gave me some great light-hearted portraits. However, I chose this portrait where I had asked her not to smile as it felt more unguarded.

Stranger 43 - Veronica

Stranger 43 - Veronica


I don’t always insist on a non smiling portrait and if I see that they are a naturally smiley person then I go with it. Otherwise I usually see how they are in front of the camera first and take it from there.  I do, however, sometimes ask them tactically to not smile as a precursor to making them laugh, which brings me onto my next point.

MAKE THEM LAUGH

Rather than requesting a smile from a stranger and better tactic is to make them laugh. This way you elicit a reaction and therefore a more genuine expression.  One trick that I have found to work well is to ask them not to smile (as above) and then “tell them off” for looking miserable. No one wants to look miserable and there reaction is usually to laugh. I find this trick especially useful since you don’t always have much time to build rapport and this is a good way to get a quick win. This also gives you two different shots (the non-smiling one and the laughing one).  I can’t take credit for this as I learnt it from the Shebangmeister himself, Peter Hurley. The takeaway is to say something unexpected and fun which elicits a genuine emotion.

Stranger 83 - Elisa

Stranger 83 - Elisa

One thing to be careful when they are laughing is that you might miss focus at shallower depths of fields or at slower shutter speeds so be careful of that.

TAKE A CUE FROM WHAT THEY ARE DOING

When I take a strangers portrait, I usually position them where I want them in the frame but will then let them pose how they want to. I do this for 2 reasons: firstly, if they are directing themselves then the pose is likely to be more natural to them and they will be less stiff and secondly they might come up with something that I would never have thought of.

Sue Turner, who I met on the South Bank, is a perfect case in point. Had I posed her, there is every chance that I would have come up with a boring pose which would not have reflected her character. Instead, I got her to do her thing and as a result I got this shot. As Sue herself said it says “welcome to my world...you'll live to regret it.”

Stranger 29 - Sue Turner

Stranger 29 - Sue Turner

If your stranger is with friends you can use that to your advantage too, and not just by incorporating them as an assistant either. In this shot of Bianca. I had already taken a few shots of her and was happy with what I came back with. But when her friends arrived and said something about her mixed race face, I suddenly got the idea of doing a diptych showing both sides of her face separately to showcase how it looks a different ethnicity depending on the side. Once again I was able to come back with a portrait which is much more insightful than it otherwise would have been. 

Stranger 35 - Bianca

Stranger 35 - Bianca

SHOOT BETWEEN THE SHOTS

Sometimes the best shots are those that are between the posed shots. For a split moment they forget about the camera and a real moment surfaces.  The 100 stranger project can be great for this especially since by asking a stranger for a portrait you are already putting them on a high by the implicit flattery of your approach. This portrait of Stephanie is probably one of my favourites from my first round. I can’t remember in what context she was laughing but I do remember that it was between some pictures where she was more composed. The energy in this shot is infectious and was a no brainer for me when picking my final shot.

Stranger 33 - Stephanie

Stranger 33 - Stephanie

EDITING AND FEEDBACK

One of the rules of the 100 strangers’ project is that you may only submit one picture to the group. While I suspect this was partly to keep the group’s photo stream clean, it also forces you to edit your choice very carefully. By editing I don’t mean post processing but choosing which picture to submit.

I would recommend that you choose your photo based of expression first and foremost. Yes, the other shot might be sharper with better composition, but…… if the expression is not there then a viewer will not connect with the portrait no matter how technically perfect it is. In fact, in striving for that perfect shot, you might lose the soul of a photograph. In the image of Stephanie above you will probably have noticed that the image isn't sharp but as the great Henri Cartier Bresson once said: "sharpness is a bourgeois concept." 

You should also remember that there is one major difference between you and viewer, you were there and they weren't. This means that you see the picture very differently to them. When reviewing your pictures try to imagine how a viewer would see it and not how you see it. This is when it helps to get feedback from people whose opinion you trust.  I am lucky that I have a few fellow 100 stranger photographers (and friends) who I respect very much to get feedback from. They are always encouraging yet honest.

Stranger 118 - Andres (Contact Sheet)

Stranger 118 - Andres (Contact Sheet)

I shared the above three shots of Andres with them to get feedback as I wanted to see if they saw what I saw. The overall consensus was they preferred the expression in the left shot, but the composition in the others.  Now personally, I like the composition in the left too, but even if I didn’t, this was the only shot to go with.

So there you have it, a few short tips on getting better expressions in your street portraits. But before I go, I thought that I would share a link of an awesome headshot photographer, Dylan Patrick. When researching for this post I found his piece on investigating human expression to be by far the best article on expression on the web. In it he also shares a great tip on how to look for that expression as you are shooting. I really recommend that you check it out.

I hope you found some of these tips useful and would love you to share your tips to.