On Smiling.

In Tutorials &Technique, Vision Is Better by David17 Comments


When I wrote the first two eBooks – TEN and TEN MORE – the subtitles suggested that they were ways to improve your photography without buying gear. I’ve been amused, to say the least, to see the reaction to this by several others (including the prolific Scott Bourne, who’s written two posts inspired by the concept – HERE and HERE) who’ve written blog posts using the concept as a spring board to their own thoughts.  It all gives me hope for the Coming Revolution I trumpeted on Scott Kelby’s blog a while ago. In that guest post I said,

I believe we’re at a turning point in the way we, as an industry, approach our craft. Thanks to the internet, information moves faster and faster, filling our brains to bustin’ with everything any of us could ever hope to know about off-camera flash, HDR techniques, hyperfocal distances, and the effect of aperture shape on bokeh. We have learned more and more, and if we have not it’s not for lack of information. And at the end of day we’re still hungry; full up on HOW and still wondering WHY.

And as nature abhors a vacuum (cats also abhor a vacuum) we’re beginning to show signs of coming back to centre. It’s encouraging. Lord knows we won’t stay at centre for long, we always seem to swing too far the other other way – from Artist to Geek and back again – but we do learn from the swing and from our brief time in the centre. Anyways, this is not about that. This is about smiling, and I bring it up because it has nothing to do with gear or technology.

I read in Annie Leibovitz At Work that her heart broke when her kids began smiling intentionally for the camera. I understood what she meant and I’ve since heard others talk about this same thing – we put the camera up, ask for a forced smile, and often record nothing but the awkwardness of a disingenuous moment. It’s sad. But I love making people smile, even asking them to. My friend Kevin Clark goes to all lengths to make his subjects smile. But the smile isn’t the point. The point is the moment after the smile. The smile is not the end, it’s the means. As a comedian I studied laughter. Laughter is a release of tension, not unlike crying. When real and unforced, laughter is a genuine unguarded thing. The greater the tension, the greater the laughter when that tension is released. So when I force a smile, when I get them to interact with the camera in ways they’ve done countless times, it’s not on the smile I press the shutter, I’m waiting for the moments after, when the release comes, when they lapse into a state of genuine reaction before the wall goes up again. That may be a more genuine smile, it might not, but it’ll be real.

Making portraits of people is not easy, the camera is always there, intrusive, looming. The camera brings with it, in so many cases, a heightened self-awareness to the subject. But get your subjects to break that tension, whether through laughter or in the denouement of a smile, and there’s often a moment in there, one that in another place Steve McCurry called “the soul coming up into view.” A smile can be fake but the moment after it is often very genuine, honest, and unguarded. So don’t look at the LCD the moment you photograph a smile. Be aware that your most honest moment may be yet to come.

And you can do that with an iPhone, a pinhole camera, or a 20-year old Pentax K-1000.

Speaking of improving your photography without buying gear, I’m doing the big announcement of my third eBook on Friday, but in my enthusiasm, and my fear of screwing up the coding (first time I’ve done it myself, the Legendary H usually does it) I accidentally went live with it just before the weekend. So if you’re really anxious, head over to the Pixelated Image Bookstore – Drawing The Eye is there now. Still 32 pages of pdf goodness, still only $5. I’ve said it before but thank you so much for the support you’ve given these things, through purchasing them, reviewing them, tweeting and facebooking – I’m truly grateful. OK, see you tomorrow!


  1. Very good post…I just read this in the book the other day.
    Learning a few key words as you suggest is nice and usually gets a smile for the attempt. Especially when shooting humanitarian or travel photography.
    BTW – everyone should buy the book.

  2. Hi David, Not to belabor a point but I got my K1000 as a gift from my first girlfriend in early 1980, as the K1000 actually was first released in 1976. So, as much as I hate to admit it to myself, I’ve been using that camera for nearly 30 years. Still hard for me to believe. http://www.photoethnography.com/ClassicCameras/index-frameset.html?AsahiPentaxK1000.html~mainFrame

    I like your point about the tool being in service to the vision. I think too many in the photography world lose sight of that as we get caught up in the latest whiz-bang features in the digicam world, and I’m glad to see things swinging back toward the vision direction. Perhaps one thing that accounts for the focus on gear is that the gear (including the processing software) has become so advanced in such a short amount of time that it has overwhelmed many photographers, so that they have had to focus on the gear because there is simply such an overwhelming amount of new, complex information to learn around these tools (gear/software).

    My own feeling is that the limitations of a tool you use to create art or the very medium in which you work often lead the artist to a level of ingenuity and imagination that they would not have achieved otherwise if they had had a tool that easily overcame these limitations. An example might be, say, a formal structure in poetry (such as the sonnet form), whose limitations the poet must work within in order to exercise the full range of their vision and imagination. In this sense, in my photography at least, I find that it is often helpful to me to impose some sort of limitations (whether via gear or subject or whatever) to inspire me to work with the limitations and try to transcend them through my own vision and imagination.

    Also, wanted to add that your blog and your books have really inspired me to become more aware of these issues in my own artistic work, so thank you for being such an inspiration to me and to so many others. Keep up the great work!

  3. Author

    @Brian – I believe the K-1000 came out around 1983, so that puts it right between my 20 and your 30 🙂 My original slr camera was a Pentax Spotmatic, and still sits on my shelf beside me.

    You’re right about the dichotomy of gear and vision, but what I really mean to address when I talk about it is not whether we use one or the other, simply the place of one (gear) in service of the other (vision and expression) – I can geek out like the rest of the photography world, but at the end of the day it’s what I use the camera for that matters.

    Thanks for the note!

  4. David — Great post. Totally agree about the key moment often happening the moment immediately after the moment you thought your were seeking.

    Had to laugh about you mentioning the “20-year-old Pentax K-10000” at the end. I still use my THIRTY year old Pentax K-1000 with the original 50mm lens right alongside my DSLR and iPhone. I love that camera not so much for its sturdy engineering (it’s a little indestructible tank) but for what it engenders in me when I make photographs with it: all of its settings are manual, so it doesn’t do any of your thinking for you, and absolutely forces you to slow down and think through your shot before pressing the shutter. It doesn’t even advance the film automatically. I find I need a day of shooting with that camera every once in a while so that my vision has a chance to center itself and to prevent myself from getting lazy and taking the easy way out with my shots (too easy to just keep snapping away with a digital camera, with the thought in the back of my mind that “I’ll just fix it in software later”).

    I guess in this sense, I believe that the dichotomy between “gear” and “vision” that you often bring up is a bit oversimplified in that the tools we use (and their capabilities and limitations) definitely shape our vision and how we tap into it.

  5. David,

    You are so right. Avedon was a master at getting someone to relax so that the viewer looked right into that person’s soul. I know because of a personal interaction that I was so fortunate to experience before he died.

  6. Sometimes the shot right after the shot is the shot. (Works great for kids — if you’re not waiting for your studio lights to cycle.) Just the surprise at having a random moment photographed might bring out a natural reaction you need to be ready for. I keep telling myself that, and I keep forgetting. There I am personally enjoying the moment I created, while the shot I should have shot is shot.

  7. Hey David!!! To me, reading your posts has been an oasis in a world completely turned to the Gig side of photography. I’m still wondering if I could afford upgrading my gear when I still struggle with doing decent frames, that’s why I would like to spread the word in some of the online forums I participate in. If you’d like I can help with the English to Spanish translation and you go with the publishing. Believe me there are tons of beginning photogs that will appreciate it. If you find it cool send me an e mail: hkraulperez@hotmail.com

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  9. “we put the camera up, ask for a forced smile, and often record nothing but the awkwardness of a disingenuous moment”

    hey David

    Wonderfully put, and such an important insight .. great post, thank you.



  10. Nice write up! How do you capture a ‘moment’ with a pinhole camera though?

  11. Well said. So in the realm of portraiture, you could say, “Gear is good. Social skills are better.”

    Already jumped the gun and bought “Drawing the Eye” when I saw it up on your site as I was finding a link to recommend your e-books to a friend who’s been in a creative slump.

  12. David,

    Spot on, as always.

    I recently struggled with this very issue when asked to take a portrait of my boss.

    She’s a lovely lady with fantastic red hair and awesome personality, yet everytime we went to the camera ready position, the resulting photo was, what I call, Drunk Eyes.

    I was shooting “McNally Style” with 3 hot shoe flashes and I knew the batteries were fresh so I had her close her eyes, open them on the count of three and then I blasted away for about 5 or 6 frames…not too surpising, the last one or two were the keepers!

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