How to Capture Emotion in Portrait Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Capture Emotion in Portrait Photography

by David Peterson 1 comment

There's a saying that there are only two emotions, love and fear. But, under those umbrella emotions are many definitive ones that express their own level of fear or love. For most people, it would seem that capturing an emotion would be easy; but, as a photographer, you probably already know otherwise.

Unless you're a wedding photographer, where emotions are running high, and therefore are all over people's faces, it's not so easy to capture emotion. When they see a camera, people tend to freeze like deer in the headlights or they over react with big, cheesy grins or scrunched faces. This makes capturing raw emotion a bit tricky for any photographer. That doesn't mean it's impossible, you just have to have some tricks up your lens hood.

Ditch the First Photos

The first several images in a shoot are meant for bonding with your client. Even if it's a friend or family member, there is still some warming up to the camera that needs to occur. With this in mind, don't expect the first dozen or so shots to be keepers. Naturally, I'm assuming here that this isn't a one-photo task at hand. You should always count on taking a bunch.

As you're photographing, move around and talk to your subject without doing so unnaturally. By time you take a handful of photos, they should start relaxing and falling into the groove. When you go to review the images later, I guarantee you, the later photos will be the best ones. You can even tell them that you're just warming up. Take a second to ensure your exposure is spot on. This will also give them a moment between shots to readjust, take a breath, and relax.

Location Matters

If you know you're going to be shooting in more than one spot, say for example you'll be moving around a ranch, start in the least interesting spot. On a ranch you have barns, fences, walls, maybe some horses, hay stacks, and so much more. Starting next to a simple wall lets you and the subject warm up without worrying too much about backdrop. Then, as part of relaxing into the shoot, you can move around to the other spots. This helps to make it more of an adventure and less about the camera. Also note that when people are out in their natural environment, they're more likely to relax and enjoy themselves, such as this young woman with her horse. Animals have a way of calming people and evoking emotions worthy of capturing! If you can include them, by all means do so.

Giving Direction

It can feel awkward when you're not used to doing it, but giving direction to your subject helps them to realize that you're in control and all they have to do is relax and smile. Also, if you and the subject move around in different positions, you can find their best side and the best lighting more readily. Lighting, perspective, and even facial expressions can change with the slightest repositioning of your body or theirs. The key is letting them know which way to turn, where to put their hands, or whether to face left or right. For example, when a subject faces you straight on in an image, it makes their shoulders go flat and across the screen. This is only good if you're a linebacker. Instead, direct them to turn at a 45 degree angle or so to create depth and slimming. Once you find a position that works for your subject, it's easier to direct people. From that, they'll relax and show their true emotions rather than just a worried face!

Chit Chat

You'll have to feel out the nature of your client, but chit chat while photographing helps them to forget about the camera. Asking questions helps to break the ice and start a dialog. Talking about their friends or family will naturally bring out emotions by virtue of them thinking and talking about them.

What you want to be aware of is over talking. This can backfire and make them feel uncomfortable. Possibly they'll feel like they can't pose if they're too busy answering questions. So, be mindful of how much chatting is good versus too much. Instead of asking questions, you can tell stories. For example, tell them about another photo shoot you had. This helps them to relax and listen rather than feel like they're on the spot to answer every question rather than smile.

When You're Not Shooting

It's actually quite likely that some of the best photo ops are when they think you've put the camera down. The in-between moments are when your subject becomes authentic again. If you can sneak in a few photos during this time, you'll be golden. When you pull this off will be spontaneous. If there is more than one person that you're photographing, that spontaneity will be more likely to occur as they engage in conversation or an activity while you're changing out your lenses. Stay on your toes and be ready for the unexpected!

Knowledge is Your Friend

If your subject is a total stranger, it will take some time to get to know them and to learn what makes them tick. The upside is you'll have lots to talk about in getting to know them. The downside is that in chit chatting, you could potentially bring up a sore subject. To start out, be broad in your questions, but personal in your delivery. Interesting balance, but it works. Asking someone if they're married only to find out they're going through a nasty divorce may evoke emotions you're not wanting to capture! Start with more generic topics and let them open up to you. It's a knack, a conversation art, that should be developed.

Closing Remarks

Pulling emotion from people takes tack that comes more naturally to some than others. It helps to visualize a shoot before going into it. Imagine how and where you're going to position them, the gear and equipment you'll use, and how the actual images might look when done. Going into the shoot with a vision of how it would unfold will help you relax, which helps your client relax.

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  1. Norman says:

    Good article. People sometimes also expect, too much too soon, from their efforts as well.
    I sometimes set the camera on a tripod and, as I walk round, use a wireless remote to take some shots and explain I'm getting a light balance. Helps them relax.

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