Jan 15, 2011

How To: Torturing Kids with Results

Couldn't decide on the title for this post. Imagine the guys voice from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show..."Will Dudley make it in time? Will Natasha get away with the gold? Join us next time for 'How to get the worst expression in pictures', or 'Out with a bang!'" Anyway...

C, C, and M stopped by the Studio after a class at the Bullen Center on Friday morning, which is when this warming trend began melting the snow around here, by the way. Well, C and C were having a good time running amok through the Mansion, and I was having a good time chasing them with my camera. However, we ran into a problem when Mom asked the two of them to smile, and this problem pops up almost every time we make pictures with kids. These first two pictures illustrate the issue perfectly.

Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/2000s, ISO 400.
Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/4, 1/320s, ISO 200.
In the first one, C is honestly distraught! She has just been asked to make a 'real' smile, and she just doesn't know what that means! The second is just as common, but usually not this comical. C's brother, C, has just been told to smile, and this was his first attempt. Love it. 

Back to sister, C thought hard about it, but just didn't know what it means to make a 'real' smile.

Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/1600s, ISO 400.
Frequently, when kids are told to smile I get looks like they have been tortured and threatened on pain of death to expose their teeth to the camera--like chimpanzees in captivity that have been trained to smile by showing their teeth (I think I read that in the wild it's a deadly threat for chimps to show their teeth, and you'd better not do it in their presence).

Still, C relaxed again, and we were able to coax a few more natural smiles out of her.

Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/250s, ISO 400.
And that's really what I think mom's want from their kids when they tell to make a real smile: they want a natural smile. However, 98.2% of the time, when I turn the camera on Mom, she pops out her toothiest, eyes bulgingest, most prepared expression on the face of the planet. And it looks nothing like the woman who was laughing and relating stories about her kids moments before.

See, what I think happend is that sometime in the past (probably when Mom was about fourteen years old) someone told her that her eyes looked small in pictures, or grandma complained that she always squints in pictures, or (heaven forbid) some unthinking photog said something with "beady" in the sentence. So, Mom went home and practiced her photo smile in the mirror until she could paint it on with hardly a moment's notice (which moments have become more and more frequent in our digital camera age). Thus, Mom's smile has become exactly what she doesn't want to see on her kids' faces. Unfortunately, C's brain is already churning on how to make a real smile next time she's commanded (let's hope I never see the results!)

Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/4, 1/200s, ISO 200.
How to get the natural smile, then? First, don't say, "Smile". It doesn't work on you, and it won't work on the kids. Instead, do what you usually do when you want someone to smile: something that makes them smile!

Tell a joke, do something silly, ask them a silly question, ask them to tell you a story. Doing something that is natural evokes natural expressions. There's a relationship between a person in front of the lens, and a photographer behind it ('cause, you know, photogs aren't really people;). The photog is trying his best to build a natural relationship and portray himself as a normal-person-who-just-happens-to-have-a-large-glassy-device-glued-to-his-face. But, the photog becomes an oddity when Mom asks a kid to act unnaturally in his presence, and now the kid can't possibly treat the photog normally. This pretty much undermines everything the photog is about. And sometimes it's so bad that I have to ask Mom to step outside for a few minutes. This Studio is a big house; don't make me send you to your room.

Fortunately, C and C know me well enough to know that 1) I am an oddity, but that's normal...for me; and 2) I always have a camera on my face every time they see me anyway, so it's nothing new! My abnormality is pretty well summed up in this sympathetic look from brother C:

Nikon D7000, 85mm f/1.8 lens, f/2, 1/125s, ISO 400.
I was sure happy to have M bring the little crew by, and I hope she stops by again...heck--after this post-- I hope she speaks to me again...


  1. Heh, Girl C and Boy C are just beautiful. I love the way you capture their cute-isms and gorgeous eyes with your lens. Great work, Levi!

  2. Great post, Levi. All so true.