Making Expressive Portraits

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands

Portraits have been called ‘studies.’ Taking this definition literally would mean that you, the photographer, are a student of human behavior. There’s a lot of truth in that last statement. When you make an image, you’re attempting to freeze the complex and beautiful world of human behavior. Studying and waiting for hunting seeking expressive portraits demands that you are attentive to human nature.

small monk young monk Burma grandmother
Photographers have to study people to make good portaits. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

You look for moments when people express themselves so that you can capture them and tell their stories.

If you’re a portrait photographer, you really have to be in tune with yourself. You have to dig deep to find truths about why you do what you do. Because our minds isolate us from each other without language or an exchange of some kind, the closest you can ever get to knowing what someone else is experiencing is to link it to something you’ve known and experienced.

How do we tell what someone is thinking or feeling? And how do we translate those insights into images?

One of the ways is to focus on outward expressions of inner attitudes—in other words, posture, gesture and interaction.

Hands tell stories.

hands abstraction old hands Burma faceless portrait
Crossing an arm across the body is a sign of protection from a stranger. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

In an old people’s home in Burma, I know my dSLR is a little scary to this old lady. She smiles at me, a little smile that coaxes me to raise the viewfinder to my eye. Then I notice her left arm, crossing over her knees, a gesture that tells me she’s still protecting herself from the stranger with the black machine made of metal and glass.

Outside, a man clutches his prayer beads, and he’s hanging on to something precious to him.

prayer beads Buddhist Burma hands old hands
We hold on tight to what's important to us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

We surround ourselves with things that are important to us. This young weaver in Rangoon hung a picture of her favorite famous person beside her loom. When she looks up, sometimes, the photo might catch the light from the window behind her and cheer her up. To her left is a mirror, for when she thinks to look, instead, at herself.

weaver Burma silk weaving black and white
We surround ourselves with objects that comfort us. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

At a market, a man chooses a mirror. He looks at himself in one, unaware that he’s also reflected in all the others.

mirrors Burma Burmese man
Notice people who don't notice your camera. Copyright Aloha Lavina.

The best travel portraits are the natural ones, not posed, of people who are in their own bubbles of thought, oblivious to the photographer. These are the portraits that teach us the most how to create a picture from a canvas we can’t plan out by sketching all the elements first.

The challenge is in recognizing the moment when we finally find it.

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Five Variations on a Theme: Shooting Silhouettes
10 Things a Photog Can Learn from Golfers
Be a Photographer, Not a Lens Changer
Cut the CRAP–Just Take Pictures
Going to Burma


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