How to Capture Authentic Emotion in Portrait Photography


If you shoot portraits on a regular basis, I’m sure you have an informal checklist of sorts that you consult — at least mentally — both before and after you click the shutter. You want to make sure the composition is interesting, the desired part of the face is in focus, the lighting is flattering; all important things, to be sure. And on some level, these are easy things. What’s not always so easy is capturing emotion.

When you’re shooting street shots or candids, capturing genuine emotion isn’t too difficult because you’re recording moments as they happen and your subjects are often unaware of or unconcerned with the camera’s presence. But when it comes to actually posing for a portrait session, getting authentic emotion out of your subject can be a tricky course to navigate. Many otherwise easy-going individual tend to tense up once they get in front of the camera while, on the opposite end of the spectrum, others go overboard with exaggerated smiles or all manner of unpredictable and unflattering facial expressions.

It takes a little effort — mostly in the form of simply being a thoughtful photographer — but getting your subjects to display some unfiltered emotion is certainly an attainable goal and one with a huge payoff. The following tips apply whether your portraits are formal or spur of the moment, for pay or for fun.

Photo by Zohre Nemati

Talk, Talk, Talk

Small talk, chit chat, whatever you want to call it — this is particularly important if the person you’re shooting is a stranger. Talking helps you, the photographer, get a feel for your subject’s personality and helps your subject forget about the camera. You can put them at ease by asking questions about themselves; don’t be intrusive or overly personal with your questions, but do express a real interest in their responses.

With someone you don’t know, you naturally run the risk of bringing up a topic your subject isn’t keen to discuss, so start small and let them dictate the flow of the conversation; take your cues from them. Additionally, you can tell an amusing story to make your subject laugh or smile. No matter what approach you take, some degree of intuition is required, but the more you apply it, the better you will get.

Photo by Aatik Tasneem

How to Make the Environment Count

Let’s assume you aren’t shooting in a studio and are, instead, shooting at a client’s home. It is unlikely that all the photos from your session will be taken in the same spot; you’ll take some in the living room, some in the den, some in the back yard. But before you start traversing the diverse locations within your client's home, start with the simplest setting; this will allow them to become acclimated to you and your camera. Then let the client take you on a tour of their place, showing you all their favorite spots and favorite things. People tend to feel comfortable with their favorite things and they love showing them off; include those things in the shoot.

Be a Director for Better Results

Not everyone feels comfortable giving orders. But don’t think of it as such; think of yourself as some kind of wise and enlightened guide, there to point your subject in the right direction. Let them know which way to tilt their head, where to place their hands, where to look, and anything else that will bring out their best. Your subject will see that, under your expert guidance, all that’s left is for them to relax and pose; no matter the facial expression you are going for, providing your subject with concise, gentle direction will help achieve that end.

Use the Element of Surprise

We’ve already established that people have a tendency to turn awkward once the camera is pointed at them. This won’t be true of everyone you photograph, but it’s inevitable that you will face this at some point. If all your chit chat and direction-giving have been only moderately successful, try going into stealth mode. There may arise a number of occasions when you’re not shooting — when your subject is doing something else and they “think” you're doing something else. These “outtakes,” occurring when the subject doesn’t feel the weight of the lens aimed at them and are, thus, more likely to act naturally, may provide some golden moments. The spontaneity of these candid-like shots can reveal the authentic emotion you’re after.

Photo by Michael Dam

A great deal of a successful portrait shoot lies in preparation. Having all your gear prepared and in tip-top condition is a given; you also have to be prepared to interact with your subject in such a way to help them give you their best performance — an authentic performance, as it were. This is best achieved by approaching the relationship between photographer and subject as a symbiotic one. And take the advice of renowned portrait photographer Bambi Cantrell: “Expression beats perfection…If you have the most perfect photograph in the universe, it's a zero if you have no expression from your subjects.”

For More Resources on the Technical Side of Portrait Photography:

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

Great post, a lot useful information – I’m sure my portrait photography will become better after reading it 🙂 Thanks you for sharing!

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