How to Capture Emotion in Portrait Photography

by June Jiang | April 1, 2016

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Whenever I participate in a discussion among photo enthusiasts, the topics most often brought up are equipment and technique. When I have a gallery showing, the question I’m most often asked is: “What aperture/shutter speed/ISO did you use?” No one asks how I captured the genuine emotion on my subject’s face. No one asks how I seized the “moment” during a portrait session.

In my experience, beginners are too focused on technical perfection. What they fail to realize is a picture can be perfectly composed and exposed, but without true emotion it’s not going to establish a connection with the viewer. Knowing how to capture true human emotion will take your photography to the next level.

1. Warm-up Shots

If you look at the photos taken at any given portrait session, the shots with genuine emotions are always in the middle or toward the end. Even the most photogenic person is nervous coming into a session. It’s your job to make them feel comfortable. Most photographers chit-chat before taking the first shots. But talking alone seldom works for me. However, showing subjects test shots will. As soon as they see how great they look on an LCD or monitor, they become more excited and open. The warm-up shots also serve an opportunity to study the subject’s face and find the best angle. Depending on the individual, 5 to 15 minutes is usually sufficient to let go of any nervousness.

5 Tips to Capture True Emotion in Portrait Photography

2. Create a Moment

It’s your job to create a moment so you can capture true emotion. Give gentle guidance, but be precise. For example, once during a family session, I asked grandpa to dance with dad and grandma with mom. The children, who had never seen their parents and grandparents doing something so silly, all started to watch and laugh. Soon everyone was laughing and happy. The moment I created produced tons of amazing photos.  Being creative with props will make it easier to capture the emotion in a moment. When a client has a prop to interact with they’ll forget about you to some degree and that’s what you want.

5 Tips to Capture True Emotion in Portrait Photography

3. The In-between Moments

Don’t put down your camera. During the in-between moments, when clients think they can take a break while you are setting up a new series of shots, they relax and you can see the look of satisfaction on their faces. That’s a moment not to be missed.

5 Tips to Capture True Emotion in Portrait Photography

4. Increase Subject-Camera Distance

This tip is taken from street photography. Using a long lens, such as a 70-200mm zoom, to distance the camera from your subject. Increasing the subject-camera distance will help your client to be more natural and relaxed.

5 Tips to Capture True Emotion in Portrait Photography

5. Unique Camera Angle

True emotions aren’t just shown when looking directly at the subject. Taking the shot from a top-down angle will reveal subtle feelings that aren’t easily captured using other techniques. Don’t limit yourself to the standard straight on portrait angle. Instead, experiment with a variety of angles in your portrait photography.

5 Tips to Capture True Emotion in Portrait Photography

It takes time and experience to learn how to capture true emotion in portraits. I recommend trying out some of these tips with your family and friends before using during client sessions. With a little patience and a lot of practice, you’ll find your best photos are the ones where your clients are relaxed, natural, and genuine.

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