The Psychology of Portraiture

We’ve all been there. You’re around 14, maybe 15 years of age. You’re more insecure and self conscious than you will ever be in your life, and it’s picture day. You traipse in front of the backdrop, and the photographer asks you to smile. You oblige, and the ordeal is over. 

Peas in a Pod by Karin Nagel.jpg

Two weeks later, your mother receives the print, and she loves it, and it proudly goes on display at home. You, on the other hand, hate it. And you’re not alone. Many of us cannot stand our own photograph, and there are a couple of reasons why. A good photographer seeks to eliminate these reasons.

Think about those awful, 70’s/80’s family portraits. All posed, stiff and rigid, forced smiles etched across the faces of unwilling subjects. Being asked to smile is asking you to do something unnatural. We smile as a natural response to something that we find enjoyable, and its something all humans do regardless of age, race or demographic. In the days before language, facial expressions were an essential part of communication. But when we are asked, or forced to smile, it becomes a conscious action, which results in an awkward, unnatural portrait.

Peas in a Pod by Karin Nagel.jpg

This is why we seek to create a relaxed, fun atmosphere, because relaxed people make better subjects, which in turn results in images of themselves they actually like. Equipment such as lenses also factor in. The lens with an unsuitable focal length, used at the incorrect distance from its subject can pinch and distort an image, so the result is a photograph the subject hates.

Photographer Duncan Davidson theorised during a Ted Talk that we don’t like images of ourselves because we are used to seeing ourselves reflected in a mirror where our image is reversed. This does not happen in a photograph, and it shows us an image of ourselves that we are not used to seeing, and we begin to descend in to the “uncanny valley” where human appearances look unnatural or unnerving to us (see the animation in The Polar Express for a prime example of the uncanny valley)

He concluded his piece with some words that I will quote for you now, and they are worth their weight in gold to both photographer and client alike:

” If you see a photograph of yourself and you don’t quite like it, but everybody around you says that it’s a great photograph, trust your friends. They know what you look like more than you do”