Was it good for you? You can’t fake a great portrait.

Above: I photographed Australian actor Jay K for Foxtel's "Open Slather"
Above: I photographed Australian actor Jay K for Foxtel’s “Open Slather”

I’ve got a confession to make. I’m a very convincing liar. I wasn’t born with this skill, it was developed in my childhood and perfected in my teen years. I learnt this skill out of necessity. I was raised by a very strict Sicilian born mother, who decided that it was in my very best interest to not date boys or go to parties until I was at least 18 years old.

I became a master “liar, liar pants on fire”. The trick to becoming a convincing liar is believing your own spin. I would come up with a story to tell my mother and visualised myself in the situation as I told it.

I didn’t know this at the time, but learning the fine art of lying to a Sicilian mother puts you in roughly the same rank as a secret agent. The slightest change in vocal tonality, tilt of the head or sideways glance was the difference between life and death – or another Saturday night at home vs going to the coolest party of the week.

Lying and faking it is a tactic I see many photographers use all the time. I often overhear things like:

“That’s great, looking good.”

“Omg you look amazing in this light.”

This technique is great in theory. The thinking behind it makes perfect sense. The photographer should do everything in their power to make the model feel special. If the model feels great, they look great.

The major flaw with this technique is when the photographer is working on auto pilot and they are saying all the right words, but they don’t mean them. The model will pick up on this and react accordingly.

The photographer fakes interest in the model and the model returns the favour by faking interest in the photographer. The result is a fake portrait. It’s flat and lacks energy. You can’t fake a great portrait.

For the first few years, I used my “Sicilian Spy – liar, liar pants on fire” protocol on all of my portrait shoots. If I could convince people that I thought they were the most beautiful person I’d ever seen, they would respond with a great and engaging portrait.

Then one day, I realised that if I really got into the moment and connected honestly and authentically with my models, I didn’t need to lie anymore. When you have real and honest conversations with people, where you give them 100% of your attention, you will notice their inner and outer beauty. The connection is real. You will share something honest and this brings life into the portrait.

Next time you are photographing a portrait, use this mental checklist to help keep things real.

 1. Take care of the mechanics of the shoot before your model steps in front of the camera.

A typical portrait scenario requires you to think about a million different things: exposure, pose, location and light. It’s impossible to give your model 100% of your attention if you are still trying to correct your exposure and work out your location.

I try and have my shot pre-visualised and my exposure pre-tested and locked down before my model walks onto my set. If I don’t have an assistant working with me, I use a passer-by, a friend or a light stand to test my shot.

 2. Be present

Being in the moment is tricky to do. How many times have you caught yourself in conversation with someone while you think about the shopping you need to pick up on the way home or what to have for dinner?

Take a deep breath before your portrait session as a cue to your mind to tune in and focus 100% on the person in front of you.

 3. Be real

Forget about the photography cliches and just have an honest conversation with the people you photograph about how you feel about what you are seeing.

I know when I’m 100% in the moment for a shoot when I notice the beautiful catchlights in people’s eyes, the way fabric reacts to certain light, and how a shadow adds mood and depth to a shot. When my reactions are sincere and heartfelt, my model’s reactions are real and authentic.

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Gina Milicia is one of the most widely known and respected photographers in Australia. She is the master of capturing that ‘magical moment’... READ MORE

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