Don't Be a Poser


When you think of your friends and family, how do you remember them? Are they laughing, crying, giving you a hug? Perhaps you’re sitting together over a drink, talking about loves lost and dreams to come. You might be on your way to a party, or cooking a meal together.

My friend, Sasha, was preparing his condiments (and his soul) for ramen, delicious ramen.

However you remember them, I will venture to guess that they’re not standing awkwardly, giving you a fake smile, a thumbs up, or a duck-face. And if that’s not how we remember our loved ones, why do so many of us take pictures of our friends in this way? What’s worse: we will often interrupt the actually fun activities in which we’re engaged, in order to take the required “say cheese!” or “smile!” or “make a goddamn duck-face!” snapshot. 

Diana, her daughter, and her very close neighbors looked happy, but posed. I don't even remember what I said, but I tried to make them laugh; I think I succeeded.

Today, dear reader, I invite you to try to be less of a poser. Instead of asking your friends to pose for your snapshot, or posing for your friends, take real photos. 

You might ask, “what do you mean by a real photo?” What I mean by "real" is a photograph of your friends and family actually doing something or genuinely interacting with each other, or with you. A real photograph is not one of your loved ones simply standing in close proximity to one another, making what I like to call “the photo face”—the photo face is the face people make when they know they're about to have their photo taken. They think it looks good on camera, but it usually just looks awkward, stiff, and forced, and they’re not fooling anybody.

My grandmother had been very sick; we wanted to take some photos with her. She and my brother posed for a photo. When they felt like I was done, my brother gave my grandma a big hug. That's what I'll remember, so that's what I captured.

Whether it’s talking to you, sharing an unspoken understanding glance, laughing at an inside joke, or doing any of the other interesting, fun things you remember about them, capture your loved ones as you would like to keep them in your memories.

Granted: this is not always an easy task. It seems many people in this day and age (of ubiquitous camera phones and selfie sticks) instinctively turn on their photo face whenever a camera is in sight. It seems almost impossible to get them to act natural, or look natural, in front of a camera. You tell them to smile, and they give you more of a grimace, or (worse) a pucker-mouthed, smoosh-lipped duck-face.

My friend Beto leaned forward to show me something on his phone, and the light caught his face in a really interesting way. Luckily, my camera was at the ready. This squinty-eyed face of skeptical judgment is one of his trademarks.

But fear not! You can take more natural looking photos too, if you are willing to be a bit patient, very observant, and rather persistent. You’ll also need some luck from time to time, but I think that’s true about everything.

1 - Whip it Out, Keep it Out. The first tip is simple: always have the camera out. This should be pretty easy, especially if you shoot exclusively on a relatively new smartphone with a camera app that’s quick to load. When you always have the camera out, it doesn’t take long for the people around you to get used to it, and start forgetting about the camera altogether. That’s when people resume behaving naturally, and (ironically) that's when most people will put their camera away. Not you! Instead, you will leave your camera out, and capture your friends being themselves, instead of the version of themselves they think looks good on camera. 

My friend Hala has one of the most beautiful smiles I've ever seen. Whenever I'm trying to take a picture of her, she often gives me her photo face. So I take the photos, and then wait for her to go back to being herself; she never disappoints.

2 - Get a Reaction. Let’s face it, sometimes your friends (or yourself) just have to have that posed shot—the ones with everyone together, standing in front of the world-famous whatever building, or landmark, or plate of food; It can’t be avoided. However, you can strive to get a bit of personality out of your photo, instead of a bunch of plastic smiles. Talk to your friends, or look at them, or say something funny, or interesting, or provocative just before you take the photo. Get a reaction out of them. Encourage/coax/trick them into showing their actual personalities and expressions in the photo.

My beloved colleagues at work have such lively, interesting, and joyful personalities, I refuse to simply take photos of them all staring at the camera, with toothy smiles. I believe I said something along the lines of "c'mon guys, pretend like you actually like each other," to get them all to reveal their true selves.

3 - Be a Director. This means suggesting that people do something while you're taking their photo. The trick is, you have to tell them to actually DO something. Simply telling them to stand somewhere and smile isn't good enough. Be creative, or silly, if you have to. Tell them to run; tell them to jump. Tell them to try standing on one foot. Ask them to tell you about their kids or their best friend. If there's more than one person, tell them to talk to each other. Tell them to whisper the dirtiest thing they can think of in each others’ ears. Tell them to tickle each other. Tell them to hug each other. When people are doing something, they’re too distracted to focus on making their photo face; wait for a natural expression (this is where the patience comes in), and snap away.

My friend Sara wanted a photo with her son, only a few months old. They were already adorable, but when she started tickling him, I saw magic through my lens.

In conclusion, dear reader, I’m hoping you can use these tips to make better photographs of your friends and family. If you make an effort to capture real moments instead of posed ones, your images will reflect how you actually remember the people that matter to you. And I can guarantee both you and your loved ones will enjoy looking at your photos that much more.

I'm not saying it'll be easy. And you may not always succeed—some people’s “photo faces” are very stubborn. But if you try to keep the tips above in mind whenever you're taking photos, and make a habit out of seeking and encouraging real moments of interaction and emotion, you’ll have better images to show for it. And you might find that taking pictures itself can be a lot more fun.

Good luck out there, and happy shooting.

All images taken by me with the Canon EOS 6D, and the Tamron 35mm f1.8 Di VC lens or Canon EF 50mm f1.4 lens, or the Olympus OM-D E-M10 mark ii and the Panasonic Lumix GII 40mm f1.7 lens.