Photographic Triggers in Portraiture


For most photography, there is a certain condition that the photographer sees in the viewfinder that triggers a shutter release. In portraiture, it may be a certain smile that you’re looking for, or a particular tilt of the head. The study of what triggers you to take a photograph is a way to gain some insight into your own artistic vision and the methods that you use to take pictures. For most photographers who are just starting to develop a style, there aren’t many rules involved in taking pictures. You find a suitable subject and take some pictures. Just as a writer develops a certain voice that they use in all their writing, a photographer develops a style and vision that is unique to their work. A unique style relies on several factors, but the trigger that causes you to take a picture plays a large role in the final image that you capture.

The timing of a photograph is governed by several things. Even in a Single Lens Reflex camera, there is some lag between the shutter release and the final image capture. That lag is minimal compared the human lag that every photographer experiences. Even the best hand/eye reflexes introduce a small delay between your intention to take a picture and an image capture. For most people, the lag between seeing a visual queue and translating that into a physical action is about 1/3 of a second. It doesn’t sound like a long time, but you’re trying to capture an image that’s also in the same time frame. Most photographs we take in day to day life have shutter speeds between 1/60th and 1/1000th of a second. When combined with human lag, the range of time between your intention to take a picture and the final image may take you past the instant you wanted to capture. Photography is about capturing that small instant of time. When we watch an event, each instant combines with all the others to create a stream of memory that we use to recall the event. In photography, we’re trying to capture and accentuate an instant pulled from that stream. The instant we choose to capture should speak to the whole event and emphasize some aspect of it.


This picture doesn’t capture the emotions of the event.  In this rally, the crowd was very energized by Hillary Clinton’s presence.  This picture captures an overly intense expression.

When you’re taking pictures of a person, the correct instant to capture an image varies from person to person. As humans, we’re pre disposed to evaluate subtle expressions in other people. The mechanical process of taking a picture can capture an instant where not all of the moving parts of a person’s face are aligned with the image you’re trying to capture. It’s relatively easy to capture a person making a strange face just by taking a picture. Even in an encounter where they’re smiling and interacting with other people, their face goes through a range of expressions that can mean different things in a photograph. Transitioning from a smile to a laugh can purse the lips in a seeming snarl. The act of talking also takes the face through a range of expressions that, if captured as an instant, don’t represent what the person was actually expressing. News sources have a lot of fun using these pictures to represent politicians in a way that may be contrary to the narrative of the event. In personal photographs, we usually want to capture an instant that is flattering or expressive. To find the specific trigger that will cause you to take the right picture, it’s important to study the way the subject’s face changes as they talk or pose. Even a stationary pose will change as the person expresses their thoughts in the muscles of their face. If you want to capture a smile, the right instant to push the shutter is as the person begins their smile. A smile changes as a person tries to maintain it. The longer a person has to hold an expression, the more forced it will appear in the final picture. Start by watching the way their expression changes as they talk. Don’t look at them through the viewfinder at this stage, you just want to watch how their face works. Each person’s face is unique. Even if you want to capture a smile, the expressions preceding it will be different for each person. Once you have identified the specific expression and facial angle that you feel would make the best picture, start using your viewfinder to time your photograph. Experiment with different times. The purse of a lip or the widening of an eye can be enough to trigger a photograph because it precedes the expression that you want to capture. Even though you can see the entire face in your viewfinder, it is very difficult to keep track of all the different parts of the face that contribute to an expression. Another aspect of human psychology is that we evaluate an entire facial expression but are unable to concentrate on the totality of a face. We focus our vision on a single part a person’s face and rely on our innate ability to understand expressions to fill in the rest of the information. In a photograph, we can evaluate the entire expression at our leisure instead of having to fill in the gaps like we do in real life. It takes some experimentation to capture the right combination of features that contribute to a good picture. Usually, the eyes are a good trigger to use for portraits. The eyes and mouth are the two parts of an expression that humans are drawn to when they look at a face. Eyebrows and cheeks act in conjunction with these two parts to create a whole facial expression. A subject looking directly into the lens can make a powerful picture, but it may not be the picture that portrays the subject in the way you want. A direct gaze can portray the subject in a confrontational or confident light. Looking down usually portrays the subject as contemplative or uncertain. An upward gaze can portray humor or imagination. Which expression you capture depends on the mouth. Since it’s very hard to track both features at the same time, use one as the trigger for your shutter, and cull out the shots that do not match the result you wanted to capture. This is the point where a photographer’s vision impacts the final result. A good photograph will match both parts of a face together to give some insight into the character of the subject. Upturned eyes combined with a wide grin create a whimsical, imaginative image.

SarahI used a low angle and a tilted frame in this portrait to create a sense of movement. Combining a low angle, which imparts a sense of dominance in the subject, with a whimsical expression is a juxtaposition that can convey several things in a picture.

One of the truly magical things about photography is our ability to capture an instant that is descriptive of the subject, but counter intuitive to our pre conceived notions of the subject’s character. The pictures we remember are the ones that reveal some hidden quality about the subject. Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue to the camera is an iconic picture because we always associate him with dour, complicated subjects that don’t lend themselves to levity. For the photographer, that unexpected trigger caused him to release the shutter because it was so far outside the range of expressions that he was expecting. He HAD to push the shutter button. In the midst of your study of the human face, be open to the unexpected. Creating a picture with a specific expression that matches your vision of the person, and quantifying the parts of the face that contribute to that expression are important in portraiture, but are not the end of people pictures. A strange picture doesn’t necessarily have to portray the subject in a negative light.


If your subject begins to stiffen and become more aware of your actions, try lightening the mood by joking around a little.  In a group, getting someone to do some “Moose ears” is a fun thing to do.

When you start a session with a subject, don’t start taking pictures right away. Keep your camera in plain sight, but don’t put the person into the role of a photographic subject right away. Build a rapport with them, first. Ask them about themselves and let them think about it in a natural way. They may have some specific things that they want to portray in a portrait. It’s not very often that we think about the way that our thoughts control our facial expressions. Usually, we only pay attention to the way our face is changing when we’re in an interview or other formal setting. If you have a very specific image in mind, having them control their expression is necessary. Otherwise, the best way to get a natural looking picture is to put the subject at ease. An interesting effect of portraiture is that the camera can eventually disappear in the mind of the subject. Even when I’m right in front of the subject, they will eventually see only me instead of the camera. It’s natural for them to focus on the camera at the beginning. It’s only in the interaction with the photographer that the camera becomes a background object in their mind. That’s the purpose of the initial stage where the camera is visible, but not an active part of the conversation. The effect is similar to the way we focus on a specific part of a face to evaluate an entire expression. The camera is part of their visual field, but if you engage them throughout the session, they will be forced to focus on you instead of the camera. If you feel that the session is becoming too formal, try telling a joke or having them strike a strange pose. When I feel that they are becoming too focused on the camera and stiffening their poses, I usually ask them to stick their tongue out or make another strange facial expression. You can also come out from behind the camera, block their view of it, and talk about something else for a few minutes. Another example is a group picture. When they’re starting to get painted expressions, I usually ask why no one has done any moose ears on the person next to them. It’s a fun joke that usually loosens up the group again.


I took this picture kneeling because I wanted to convey more power from the subject.

The angle of your photograph also determines a lot about the final image. Taking a picture with the lens below face level gives the subject more prominence. A picture taken from above gives them a vulnerable quality. The difference is only a matter of inches. When you line up your camera with a face, placing your center spot on their chin or forehead, then angling the lens to capture the face is enough to produce the effect. This can be used to create interesting final images. Taking a picture of a child from a low angle adds a weight to the subject that is often in congruent with our pre conceived notions of children. In real life, we view children from above, mostly. Giving the child more dominance in the image not only increases the importance felt by the viewer, but also adds a dimension that we’re not accustomed to seeing in our normal lives. In the same way, taking a picture of an important person from a slightly high angle gives them a vulnerability that you may not see in them every day. The position of the eyes in an angled shot also conveys a great deal about the subject’s character. In a low angle shot, having the subject look directly into the lens combines confidence with prominence, enhancing the overall effect. A picture taken from a higher angle with the eyes averted compounds the vulnerability of the subject and allows the viewer to connect with the subject in an emotional way. A straight on shot, with your center spot aligned with the subject’s nose creates a documentary style photograph, which can be a good technique when you’re photographing a naturally artistic person. It’s the disconnect between your photographic choices and the nature of the subject that creates a unique vision of them and reveals an aspect of the subject.


It’s not really possible to keep all of the rules of facial expressions in mind while you’re taking pictures. Thinking about the elements that make up the human face is a good exercise because photography is an intuitive art. Preparation for the photographic session influences the decisions you make while taking pictures. Photography is a mechanical process that describes an intuitive state of emotion. Because of this, you need to think about the mechanical aspects before you can really develop an intuitive style in your photography. The mechanics of facial expressions are something that we’re born to understand, so we don’t spend a lot of time examining how they work and what impact subtle changes in a face have on an image. Since the final image is static, the viewer can examine much more of it than they could in a fluid, real life situation. Developing a sense of the image that you want to portray before you start taking pictures will improve your final product.

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