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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Graham

Not a natural - facing the camera when you don't really want to

Being in front of a camera has always been scary for me. Photographs are honest - they won't allow me to hide, and sometimes I'm afraid of what will show.

Despite that, I've made many self-portraits when the light is right or, more often, when something unsettled or unarticulated needs to come out.

But being my own muse doesn't change the fact that posing for a portrait can make me squirm inside, and I know I'm not alone. How often have you heard someone say "I hate getting my picture taken"? A LOT of people do, including many of my subjects. When I arrive for a shoot, I’m often greeted with tight, nervous smiles and predictions that the next half hour or so will be "torturous," a word one man chose on a recent session at a university.

About a year ago, I was working with a group of about five women, all also accomplished academics, who were catching up and chatting as I prepared for the shoot, but the second the camera was ready, they froze. I encouraged them to talk just like they’d been doing, but nerves took hold and suddenly there was nothing to discuss. I suggested talking about lunch, usually a dependable conversation-starter.

Fraught silence. Then, in a low, desperate voice, one woman shared with the others, “This is my worst nightmare.” Murmured agreement.

Fortunately, the shoot got better from there.

Here are three things that I’ve learned from photographing myself and others who aren’t naturals in front of the camera:

Relax your face

Almost every single image from a self-portrait session I did earlier this year made me cringe. The lighting, focus and background were fine - it was my face. Yuck! The whole thing felt contrived and overbearing. My unhappiness with the photos seemed familiar, though, and I spent a few days trying to unravel why.

It turned out that in the images I disliked the most, I was forcing my face. That’s an artifice that I came up with when I was a young child - putting on an expression in the hopes of earning approval.

In my case, it’s widened eyes and slightly raised eyebrows, which make me look chirpy and uncomfortable.

I tried again, this time consciously relaxing my face, not putting on a show for the camera. Even though it took some effort, the results were better, and I felt good about how I presented myself.

One trick you can try is to look down, then look up at the photographer - this can help freshen your smile or expression and make photos appear a little less posed.

Think about why you are being photographed, and allow yourself to take pride it it. Have you just started a new job and need a headshot? Is it an editorial photo to highlight an accomplishment? Are you the face of your business or a source in a news story? Maybe you want some photos to reflect a professional or personal fresh start.

There is a reason that your photo is being taken - allow yourself to relax during, if not enjoy, the moment.

Bring along a friend

This can really help. A friend’s support is a great distraction and can make you forget about the camera. Then, when it’s time to shoot, you’re much more relaxed.

Putting on music can be another instant mood-changer.

Do the shoot in a setting where you feel comfortable

A great portrait doesn’t have to be done in front of a traditional seamless background. There are boundless outdoor options, from city streets to parks to rooftops. Places of work, a favorite store, your own kitchen- as long as the setting provides the context you’re looking for, don’t be afraid to choose somewhere unorthodox.

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