As a portrait photographer, one of my responsibilities is to read people, and while I don't claim to be a profiler, over the years I have learnt the emotions portrayed through the face. I’ve noticed how small changes in my subjects expression can completely change the feel of the portrait. Understanding these expressions and what they communicate to the viewer is important to notice and something I use to my advantage. I decided to explore a bit more about the science behind this.
Studies have been undertaken all over the world to determine whether our facial expressions are culture specific. By applying the same theoretical methods which suggest that certain cultures or races have trademark facial and / or body features, the same can be said for facial expressions that are native to a specific kind.
The likes of Darwin and a few other scientists haven't fully qualified this theory. However, I believe there is merit to it.
Essentially, according to studies and research, there are 7 emotions that we can express on our face - they are:
The study continues to compare humans with primates, and how the same facial musculature exists, therefore producing the same expressions. (bring on Darwin's theory of evolution)
This brings me to microexpressions. But, to explain what these are, I will start with macroexpressions.
Macroexpressions are those facial expressions we express with emotions we are not worried about revealing. Generally we express these facial emotions easily when we are with people that we are comfortable around and they take over our entire face. Think about laughing at a joke, expressing sadness over a movie you are watching, or that feeling of pride watching your kid ride their bike for the first time.
Microexpressions are, on the other side, harder to see. They are the result of an emotion we generally don't wish to have others privy to. They last for milliseconds and it is only those with a keen eye who will see and recognise them.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Darwin's thoughts on the matter, I can see the merit in knowing how to recognise and read those microexpressions. In the case of a poker game, it would be very handy, given that everyone has a tell-tale sign when they lie. When a wife says, "Nothings wrong" to a question from her husband, it would be very helpful if he could read her microexpression.
With photography, it can mean the difference between a great shoot and a mediocre shoot. People rarely give all of themselves to strangers, and for some people, even to those closest to them. By reading the space my subject is in and by being completely aware of their split second reveals and true emotional states in that given moment, I instantly get a better idea of how to interact and make them feel comfortable.
Photographers also talk about the “in-between-moments” which is usually where people are unaware of the camera and completely at ease with themselves and their surroundings - no discomfort. No pretense. In portrait photography these '‘in-between-moments’ are split seconds. The moment the sitter looks up from fixing their shirt or that second after you’ve complimented him or her.
There have been interesting studies by many photographers where they would take a portrait of their sitter, then tell them they are beautiful and then take another portrait straight after. That moment when your defences are down is when the true beauty shines through.
I believe that learning to read microexpressions in others can help us in our everyday lives, from the office to the home, from our kids and our colleagues to understanding the people around us. I know it helps me produce amazing photos and it is in those snapshot moments that I often capture those microexpressions which can really bring out the true essence of the person.