I look at a lot of portraits and I can confidently offer a general critique of 99% of them. I see work from photographers who make very good portraits with great lighting and terrific wardrobe and beautiful people, but they lack this one thing that would turn an otherwise well-made portrait into an intriguing piece of art. The problem with most portraits is that they lack engagement.
What the Heck Is Engagement?
By this, I mean that the subject of the photo looks a little blank. Looks like they don’t care, or like they don’t have any opinion about this situation. Now, in fashion photography, the models often have blank stares and uninterested looks which may be so that their expressions don’t distract from the clothing you’re supposed to be looking at. Compare those professional models with the celebrity models in the same magazine. You’ll see the celebrity looks as if they are acting right there on the page, and that’s what makes them great. They are totally engaged with the situation and are making sure you are drawn in, too.
It all comes down to body language and expression. Expression is hard because most people aren’t actors and they haven’t spent 10,000 hours practicing how to make their faces do things on purpose. And the same goes for body language: most people don’t pay that much attention to what they are saying with their posture. But you can use these to help your subjects look more engaged.
Look at these two pictures. Simply tilting his head down in the second photo gives much greater presence and engagement than the first, and even though his face didn’t change, the tilt totally alters his the meaning of his expression (don’t ask me why we were experimenting with ax pictures 😀 )
Your subject could engage directly with the camera, or they can engage in another direction, like toward the light. A subtle shift toward the camera will do it. Simply arching the back a little will do it. A deep breath, as if preparing to start an action will do it, like preparing to stand up and look out the window. In fact, a great way to get your subject to engage is to suggest a movement and do that move several times. Your picture will probably take place at the initiation of that movement, and you should shoot each time they move. You might say, “Starting by looking over there, then turn toward the window and stand up to go look out,” or “Look at me like your friend just arrived and you want to get her attention.” You’ll get better pictures, and you’ll find that the whole shoot becomes more fun as your subject engages and you cheer them on.
One more example. Here, Doug simply engages with the camera, leaning a little and showing the edge of movement, and the second photo looks much better. The second is the one he purchased.