Gary Rabenko

Each person is a complex package, more than what we see. To appreciate someone involves sensitivities on many levels. We want portraits to convey more than appearance, which is trivial, but something deeper. Producing that kind of image requires multilevel sensitivities and a lot of practice. A good photographer’s best clients are super-critical. Those clients read micro expressions. Photographers, even those who go beyond “taking pictures,” are usually shockingly insensitive to this facet of the subjects they are photographing and then later, the photos they cull from the shoot.

There is reason to be less than thrilled with most photographers today, who fall into variations of two categories. Some emphasize the technical — the mechanics and the gear. Others claim to be photojournalistic — rejecting the importance of technical skill in favor of “the moment.” Neither of those groups acts during a shoot or upon review of their images as if they are aware of those all-important micro expressions.

The intent in using a photo on a website or business card is to convey professionalism, competence, and just the right personality to resonate with prospects and clients. Too often the photos are lackluster, bland, or unskilled snapshots. Lackluster and bland is what you get with a professional picture maker who feels no uniqueness between his or her subjects. That photographer is one in name only.

You cannot be a photographer if you don’t love the emotions people have the potential to express, and you cannot photograph the subjects who will most value meaningful photos if you are not fluent and used to evaluating their ever-changing minutia.

That which makes one a photographic artist is mostly our thinking. Photographers tend to become the product of manufacturers’ training and promotion. They also are influenced by others they know and follow on social media. They mostly do the same, sound the same, and think the same. That is not the way to be an artist.

This week a photographer wanted my critique. The first few images were superior. It pleased me to say so! Those images were impressive, with dramatic lighting used outdoors at night. Soon their similar style got tiresome; there was an obvious recipe to the shots, with seeming insensitivity to the unique world within each subject. Next, I viewed a bar mitzvah album of boys and men in suits and women in pretty outfits. It showed the bar mitzvah boy standing before, or staring at, different walls inside a shul and posing with blue balls and red balloons on a dance floor. Father and son and then mother with more sons, some grandfathers, often with the same smile towards the camera populated the increasingly repetitive and boring pages. None spoke “bar mitzvah” to me. Much care was put into positioning limbs and bodies. I noted the family’s patience and cooperation, but wished that they could have experienced more inspired photography. The people were perfectly lit the way a hat or jewelry catalogue would be photographed when similar size and style items get dropped sequentially into a lighting setup. Illustrative photography is inspired and meant to speak to the viewer. Catalogues are the practical listing of tangibles. Perhaps that is why that family, as perfectly as they were posed, seemed little more than mannequins. I learned nothing of their personality or attitude from that book. Whatever the client paid was too much for imagery saying so little and for which they worked so hard posing!

A 13-year-old rarely knows how to stand while trying to appear purposeful, absentminded, or in thought, as if not comfortable in his own skin on stage yet. Body language should follow from demeanor and a subject’s personality. That is one of the most difficult parts of the craft for photographers to master—being one part theater, one part psychology, one part physicality, and two parts personality. Those two parts are the subject’s and the photographer’s! This is a challenge for a photographer who merely tells the person to smile. You don’t learn how to elicit personality from manufacturers on YouTube or from other photographers on Instagram.

Copying another’s work is not the way to create meaningful or special! You must have something to say and your mind needs to natively feel, not just think in the terms of photography. Both traits cannot be found in photographers who copy trappings of the craft, without having developed a productive style and a true mastery of this art. People who appear interesting or different may not look good, and certainly those who only look good may not at all appear interesting. At any time, there have been only a handful of photographers who could make meaningful statements about their subjects with lens and light. Photo associations existed because of the members who were just picture-takers, not the masters who behind closed doors were the mysterious creators most respected. Today, photo associations are the occasional social yentas who enjoy the monthly meetings over coffee. Photographers instead expect to learn from questioning others, comparing their work, and from conversations on social media. In all that, it is rare anyone considers what the image really says. For that one scrutinizes the detail, the micro expression, and the body language. It cannot be fake, posed, or stiff. It cannot be superficial or bland. And meaning is not found in many photographs today.

Most photographers are not sensitive to light. They do not see. They do not understand light. Without seeing and understanding, even those few specially gifted photographers who do feel light will not be able to control and use it effectively.

Photographers and videographers must make reading micro expression a priority. They need to do this instinctively and always. Along with body language, general demeanor, and facial expression, they need to read the all-important micro expressions that can say so much to one who is sensitive and certainly to those who know the faces well, like the subjects themselves and their loved ones.

This is a talent, an art, and a skill. It may not be something to which everyone is sensitive. People are different. Some people are more insightful and sensitive, while many only read a fraction of what can be found in the faces they meet.

I have always marveled at how photographers will boast about this or that beautiful photograph they just made, garnering many compliments and the occasional criticism over background issues, lighting issues, and even clothing issues, but so very rarely is a challenge made questioning what an expression or body language is saying, or how it is lacking and unflattering or awkward.

Perhaps it is my early interest in theater and drama, or maybe that my mother was a ballerina, or that I learned from photographers schooled by sensitive clients, which I am proud to say describe all of mine today. They say beauty is in the detail. To photographers this should include the emotion, expression, and feeling we must look for and develop in all.

Rabenko Photography & Video Arts is located at 1053 Broadway in Woodmere. To learn more, contact, 1-888-RABENKO, 888-722-3656, or visit


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