People & Place

Rob Townsend's OCA Learning Log

Exercise: Eye contact and expression

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Set up a portrait session in which the face is prominent (and so perhaps head-and-shoulders or torso), and over the course of the shooting direct your subject to, at times, look towards you and at others away. ‘Away’ can mean anything from slightly away from the camera to looking completely to one side, and you will need to give some ‘stage’ directions.


Subject: this is friend and neighbour Phil. He doesn’t like having his picture taken, so I thought that made him a good subject for this exercise!

I took over 70 photos in total but shortlisted the six below that give an idea of the differences achieved. Note: references to left and right are from viewer’s viewpoint, not sitter’s.

1. Straight on:

First, a ‘looking straight at the camera’ shot. You can see that he’s not comfortable sitting for a portrait! This was from very early in the shoot, before I started giving him directions.

1. Straight on

1. Straight on

2. Eyes right:

After a few very similar head-on shots I started asking Phil to look around the room in different directions. To begin with he maintained the same overall pose and just moved his eyes, as in this shot. He still looks a little ‘posed’ but just the simple measure of asking him to break eye contact changed his expression (more quizzical) and makes for a more natural shot. I think his dislike of being photographed lessens if he’s not staring into the lens.

2. Eyes right

2. Eyes right

3. Down and left:

For this we were just chatting while I took the pictures via remote shutter, and he started relaxing. He got less self-conscious as the shoot went on (I guess this is fairly common) and as I’d moved down to his level (sitting opposite, off to one side of the tripod) it was more natural for him to look at me when we talked rather than the lens. He relaxed enough to start unconsciously gesturing with his hands, as in this shot. So the difference between this and the previous shot is that here I was just catching him changing pose and expression, not specifically directing him. The result gives a bit more character than the more posed shots.

3. Down and left

4. Slightly down:

I confess I then went back to giving stage directions… I asked him to scratch his head in an exaggerated comedy fashion, and he obliged. I did this to see if it would make him smile. It did, a bit…!

4. Slightly down

4. Slightly down

5. Turned right, eyes left:

He’d kind of settled into a pose in the chair, so towards the end of the shoot I asked him to stand up and sit back down again, as he would if he was just sitting down without a camera in his face. He chose a different position, more side-on. In this shot the stance, eye-line and expression make him look more pensive than the other shots.

5. Turned right, eyes left

5. Turned right, eyes left

6. Turned right:

This is one where I caught him talking, and I think by this point he’d forgotten that the camera was there and was just holding a normal conversation. as a result, this is one of the most natural-looking shots, and as a result probably my personally favourite. I like a portrait that gets over a little of the character of the subject, and the really ‘posed’ shots give a falsely self-conscious representation of the man, who’s very chatty and sociable, but just doesn’t like having his photograph taken!

6. Turned right

6. Turned right

What I’ve learned

Aside from a rookie technical error (wide open aperture plus manual focus meant that I lost some sharpness as he changed pose) I think this is a reasonably successful attempt at this exercise. I found this similar to the ‘active portrait’ one is as much as the more natural (and in my opinion, better) photos happened when the sitter wasn’t consciously posing, but had been sufficiently distracted into dropping their guard a little. I’ve learnt that getting out from behind the camera (using remote release) and engaging with the subject as a person, without expecting them to stare into and speak to a lens, can lead to much more naturalistic candid shots. These in turn reveal more about the sitter’s character than an overly posed photo.

I do feel like I need to slow down and make sure I’ve got the settings right before I start shooting – up until now I think I rush too much, thinking that I shouldn’t be wasting the sitter’s time. So obviously the answer is to properly prepare before engaging with the sitter – lighting, background, camera settings and so on. Every day’s a school day.

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