Facial expressions and body language can either make or break a photo. Again and again we see images that would be successful if only there was emotion in the image instead of a subject with a bored look or a blank stare. How can you get your models more engaged with your camera to get more positive results?
Step up and engage your model(s), getting them to sometimes make eye contact with the camera. You know the old saying, “The eyes are windows to the soul” so don’t leave your model’s eyes looking like the blinds are shut or the curtains are closed’. (Closed eyes, on the other hand, create a feeling of peace and relaxation). As an exercise, attempt to get as many expressions and emotions from a model focusing only on the eyes as the key element in the image as you can. Have you ever felt a hateful stare? How to capture that as well as looks of caring and compassion? Focus on the eyes.
Next look at the body language. Is the head tilted down, perhaps indicating sadness or depression? Is the model slouching, a position that also often gives a negative feeling to an image?
Notice that when you ask a model to smile, the result is sometimes a silly grin? Models mugging for the camera might generate a winning image but the money shot is more likely to be an authentic facial expression. The best way to achieve natural expressions is not to ask the model to say ‘Cheese’ but to spend time with the model, get to know him/her. Engage in conversation and once they are relaxed, steer the model to talk about things that are pleasant; ask him/her to think of situations that make them happy or make them laugh or think. Positive emotions can also be elicited by serious facial expressions as in the image of the woman soldier.
As you talk to the subject of your image, try to elicit the full range of emotions not just an image of a smiling face, grinning at the camera.. As the Strobist so wisely says in this article a variety of more subtle expressions will expand the versatility of the images in a shoot. For centuries there has been speculation about the meaning of the expression on the face of Mona Lisa. The reason for the intrigue is that the smile is so subtle. No laughing out loud for Ms Lisa; no frowns either.
What is good advice in regard capturing the emotions expressed by a human face often also applies to portraits of animals, especially cats and dogs. Animal faces that appear to be showing an emotion or are humorous because of the expression are the most downloaded. While snarling and teeth baring portraits are not the most popular images of the human face, we like to see the snarling, growling animal faces. To see the work of a master of dog and cat photography, check out Gary Parker's fine photography and here. And as a cautionary note in case you have the opportunity to shoot inside a lion’s cage look at this
Finally why do so many photographers suggest that their subjects say ‘Cheese’? For a humorous and even possibly true story go here and for a very interesting article about how facial expressions are 'read' in Japan, for example, as opposed to the west read this.