Let me ask you a question: what do you like about the images you create? At what point during your creative process do you start liking what you have created? You see, there’s a principle, something called the mere-exposure effect. It’s a psychological phenomenon observed in people that we tend to like things that are familiar to us. The mere-exposure effect is an important consideration for artists and creative people who want to create the unknown. And for photographers in particular, it’s even more important. We take bits from the real world, interpret and reproduce them as something new–as a new way of seeing. Or, at least that’s what most of us want to do–if we can take our creative side seriously enough, and not settle for what we’ve seen, or felt, or experienced a million times. For us, that’s the question, when we like what we have created, is it because of an emotional process, an inner growth, a divulging of humankind’s secrets, a new perspective? Or… is it just familiar?
When you first start learning how to pose people for photographs, it’s hard. Hard enough that a lot of cameras are collecting dust right now. In the beginning, learning to pose people either means a lot of awkward failed poses, or a lot of demoralizing memorization that still results in a lot of awkward failed poses. Creating beautiful poses is a skill you have to develop, but maybe more importantly it’s an intuition you have to develop. Now, if you were to spend a year memorizing poses and practicing them everyday, intuition is what you’d probably walk away with. You’d have figured out when it is and isn’t going to work, and the kinds of people it’d work for. But, wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to focus on memorization, and instead could go straight to developing intuition?
By the time we’re adults, most of us have learned that mistakes are much better teachers than successes are. Mistakes engage our ingrained loss aversion. If you make the mistake of walking away from your camera bag on the sidewalk, if it’s stolen, you’ll feel the sting of losing your camera to a thief every time you set it down in public. Loss aversion is usually a stronger force in our mind than the drive to acquire. It means that, as far as our subconscious learning mind is concerned, we’ll work harder not to lose something we already have, than to work hard to get something we want, but don’t yet have.
A lot of photographers today find themselves more comfortable posing individuals and groups in a natural way, rather than the strict fashion most of us grew up with. That is, letting those groups pose themselves to some degree. With some outside direction from the photographer, a group of people can often arrange themselves rather organically, displaying their personality in the process: Wabi-sabi posing; Delightfully imperfect posing. As the group gets larger though, organic posing starts to fall apart too quickly for you to get a good shot.
We love to believe that we are reasonable. We love the thought that we are rational, and that we weigh evidence, and make decisions. But from our brain’s perspective, that’s not really quite how it works. In the human mind, we feel first. The feeling is then interpreted into rational thought. Just like our eye receives light milliseconds before our brain knows what to call it, we feel before we think. In photography, it’s easy to spend a lot of time on the thinking part, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we want to be amazing photographers, we’re going to have to put that time in eventually. But that doesn’t make us better artists, just perhaps more technically proficient ones.
It’s common for photographers to feel weird during their first portrait session. Like learning a new dance and being unsure what it looks like, shooting your first portrait session is full of motions you’re not familiar with yet. Choosing, posing, composing, shooting, refining. The question “am I pulling this off” might be looming and producing anxiety. In the hopes of defusing some of that weirdness for you, and assuming your first portrait session isn’t with a professional modeling agency, here are some things you can probably count on during your first portrait session. So breathe easy.