The two most destructive words in the photography world are, without a doubt, “Say cheese!” Or maybe they are “Stop! Smile!”
The world, and therefore the internet, is littered with photographs of people looking straight at cameras, making expressions that they never make in any other circumstance. Call it a fake smile, call it a camera smile, call what you will. Photographs of people staring at the camera with a forced expression on their faces are rarely good photographs.
Think of someone you love. Think of that person’s smile, that person’s laugh, the way that person holds her hands in her lap when she is listening to a brilliant story, the way he furrows his brow when looking at the hand he has just been dealt in “Uno,” the way her eyes light up when her ids run into the room, the way his eyes close when his kids give him a hug.
Each of these expressions and gestures, which you probably know so well, help us to define how we think of a person, and photographs are visual memory cues that also make us think of a person (or people, or a place, etc.). Effective photographs do not simply show us a face, and leave us to fill in the rest of the details. Effective photographs show us the gestures and expressions that we love, the expressions and gestures that make each person we know unique.
When you are surrounded by people you love, or if you are in an interesting environment, you might see something—and expression or a gesture or an interaction—that you think is worthy of being photographed. What happens if you ask that person to stop and smile, or to look at the camera?
They stop doing the very thing that was interesting enough to photograph. In other words, the scene is gone. The reason for taking the picture is gone. You have a photograph of someone forcing a smile, or putting on their getting-photographed face. What you do not have is an accurate representation of why you wanted to take the picture in the first place.
Yes, posed photography is a very important skill to develop, but the basic skill involved is getting your subjects to look as if they are not posing. So start by not asking your subjects to pose. Be informal. Get down on the floor with the kids. Get out in the yard with your friends. Have your camera in hand, and be waiting for the split second after the joke when everyone laughs and you can catch that expression.
Do not worry about making a perfect picture. For two reasons: (1) There is no such thing as a perfect picture, only a perfect moment; and (2) forced or faked or put-on expressions are far more imperfect than any moment you capture well and candidly.
Be candid. Catch the people you love in the moments you love. You’ll get photographs that you love.