9 Tips for Capturing Emotion in Your Portraits


I love photographing people and I usually do so out on location. I am not one for studio portraits – it’s just not my style (nothing wrong with it though). Whether I am shooting people for a commercial job or a personal project, I always want to get beneath the veneer and reveal an emotion or a moment that will tell the viewer something about what it is to be that person. Here are some simple ideas that will help you in capturing emotion in your portraits.

The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt. Henri Cartier-Bresson

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

One of the most exciting things to me in photography is to dig beneath the surface. Most people walk around with masks on, trying to hide their inner world and to present a version of themselves that they want others to see. That’s what we see on a daily basis, the mask, the surface, of everyone else.

Photographers have a special skill

Except us! Photographers have an amazing opportunity to get people to remove their masks. We have what Diane Arbus called a “license” to explore and investigate the people around us, to watch their lives as they reveal what they really think and really feel.

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

As humans, we are all trying to make our way in this world in the easiest, most pleasurable way possible. We are all trying to find enjoyment, love, and excitement in the things around us, do our work, and deal with endless responsibilities. To watch the way that fellow human beings go about their lives is fascinating to me.

You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy. – Elliott Erwitt

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

1 – Get the mask to drop

Most of my photos are grounded in people, I look for the unguarded moment, the essential soul peeking out, experience etched on a person’s face. – Steve McCurry

There are things people want you to know about them, and things they don’t. This is the mask worn every day by most of us to hide our inner selves. But I want emotion! I want character and feeling! I want to capture interesting moments!

The most honest portraits will often come when you get the mask to drop – and usually, it only takes a few minutes. People can only hold up the mask for so long.

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

So once the mask drops you’ll get flashes and moments where true feeling and thoughts come through. The inner world of your subject will be revealed. That will make for a way more interesting portrait – because when you capture emotion, your portrait will end up transmitting that emotion to the viewer.

Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures. – Don McCullin

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

2 – Connect with your subject

A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it. – Edward Steichen.

The work of the photographer is done not by the camera but by the person who is taking the photo together with the subject. Your connection, the way they feel about you, will translate immediately into your images.

Casual chit-chat helps to relax people. So that’s what I do when I am photographing a subject.

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

I never talk about the shot, I just shoot the breeze, ask questions, talk about the day, the weather – it doesn’t matter. It’s just an opportunity to help them feel that this unnatural situation of them standing in front of me and my camera is totally natural.

I always aim to have fun when I am shooting, not just because it elevates my mood, but also that of my subject.

3 – Or just lift your camera and see what happens

I don’t always do the chit chat. Sometimes just pointing a camera at someone and seeing what happens results in awesome shots. Spontaneity counts for something!

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

The photo above was shot in this way and it’s one of my favorite portraits. You can see that the woman’s reaction is amused, and her posture is relaxed. The man, on the other hand, looks a bit annoyed, is more guarded. It’s a nice contrast.

People will react in wildly different ways when you photograph them unexpectedly – maybe they immediately button up or laugh nervously, start to pose, or react in an annoyed fashion.

4 – Let them peel the layers

Faces always talk too much. One line and all their plans are revealed. – Floriano Martins

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

Sometimes, I also just like to photograph over a period of time, maybe five or 10 minutes or longer, and let the subject peel. This works nicely if the person is very aware of their best angle and does a super staged pose.

I shoot what they want to show me, then carry on. After a couple of minutes people will just forget what they are doing and become preoccupied with everything else in their day, their life, or my stunning conversation skills (ha!).

Then bang! You suddenly have something interesting.

5 – Think about your energy

The definition of a great picture is one that stays with you, one that you can’t forget. It doesn’t have to be technically good at all. – Steve McCurry

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

How you are with your subject will really affect how the subject responds to the camera. That sounds obvious, but I’ve seen so many photographers wrapped up in their own nerves, who jump into taking someone’s portrait and they don’t get the shot because they are too wrapped up in themselves and their own thoughts. That burning desire to “get the shot!”

Become accustomed to really, really paying attention. That means leaving your own thoughts and feelings at the door. Be acutely aware of your subject! See who they are and what they are doing.

Remember that every part of the body reveals something – hands, posture, everything; you don’t have to simply focus on the face.

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

6 – Use your instincts

There is so much being said by a person that goes beyond their bodies and what they do with it. The energy, the mood, the feelings, all play a part in what the person is saying about themselves. And trust me we are all saying a lot about ourselves that we aren’t even aware of.

Use your instincts to get more information about how your subject is thinking and feeling – are their eyes sad but their face is attempting a smile? Are they acting shy but their eyes are burning with joy in the attention? Perhaps what they are really looking for is a nudge of reassurance from you and they’ll really relax and enjoy themselves in from of the camera.

There are so many possibilities of how people think and feel. Learn to read people beyond their words and their immediate reactions. Ask yourself, what is going on for this person right now? How are they feeling? Bored, distracted, uncomfortable, excited?

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

7 – Be watchful and be present

If you wait, people will forget your camera, and the soul will drift up into view. – Steve McCurry

Being a watchful person is crazy useful in photography. Be happy to just wait, look, see, and ponder. Think Zen monk energy! By being present you are like the calm in the middle of a storm. You’ll find most people are rushing around you, fidgeting, moving, sorting things out. Be calm and watchful and you’ll start to see and notice so much more.

8 – Photograph what excites you!

It must move you! If it doesn’t excite you, this thing that you see, why in the world would it excite me? – Jay Maisel

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

The best subjects are ones that you are totally fascinated by. Not just the ones who let you take their photo (although practice on those people for sure).

Be led by what you love. Have fun and have an awesome time – and that feeling and mood will ooze out of your photos.

9 – Look at the eyes

You don’t have to sort of enhance reality. There is nothing stranger than truth. – Annie Leibovitz

The eyes can reveal some incredibly strong emotions. It’s not always this way. All parts of the body play their part, but I love to look at someone, look into their eyes and see what happens.

People rarely look into each other’s eyes for long, it’s too powerful. So to capture someone in an image where they are really looking at the camera is fantastic.

Study the following images and see the different emotions conveyed through the eyes of the subjects.

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

What did you think? I am going to suggest the first one (above) – well this is interesting as I think the child is delighted, and the closed eyes of the mother – is that also delight? Can you tell what they are feeling just by looking at their eyes?

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

The second portrait (above) for me says – fed up! Like I’ve just had enough and now you’re looking at me. I image her saying, “Go away!”.

How to Capture Emotion in Your Portraits

That massively contrasts with the last portrait which says to me – confidence! I’m here! I’m totally happy being right here and you can look at me all you like. Very strong.

Do you agree? Maybe you felt something else when you studied these portraits? I’d love to know what you think about them.


It is an incredible honor photographing another human being. You are capturing a moment of their life, and creating a connection with them that will last for years to come. In that little moment, you have noticed them, you have captured an emotion and something about their life that you are showing the world.

Photographing people is some of the most fun and exhilarating photography for me. I hope this gives you some useful tips so you can go out and have fun and create some amazing images.

Please let me know what you think in the comments. How do you work toward capturing emotion in your portraits?

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Anthony Epes is a photographer whose work has been featured internationally; including on BBC, French Photo Magazine, Atlas Obscura and CNN. He is also a teacher - writing in-depth free articles on his website. Receive his free ebook on the two essential skills that will instantly improve your photos, and sign up to his weekly newsletter providing inspiration, ideas and pro-photo techniques.

  • Angela

    I love, love, love your perspective on shooting people.Getting the “real” person is indeed a challenge, but worth the wait. Thanks for the reminder on patience. I really enjoyed your advice and comments. Your photos are good too.

  • I love this line: “It is an incredible honor photographing another human being.” Yes, it is. Thank you for a great read!

  • Subrato

    Thank you for such an inspiring piece of advice. ?

  • walwit

    Your article comes at the right time for me. I’m about to go to a friends reunion and I want to take potos of them but not conventional photos but this kind of photos you are talking about. My preferred quote: “Photography for me is not looking, It’s feeling”.

  • Nicole Martin

    Firstly, your images are fabulous. Why? They’re real, and I love that. I have a question for you that I personally battle with. I often come across spectacular potential photos of random people, yet ethically, I am unsure where I stand or how I feel about publishing an image of someone who has not consented to the photo. What are the rules here? Are there legal issues surrounding publishing images without consent? …This always stumps me and prevents me from capturing people in their most natural states. I am also reminded by others that taking photos of people without them knowing is not right. As a result I feel like the bad guy who is invading their privacy. Very tricky, I’d love to know your thoughts. Love your work…cheers Nicole

  • walwit

    Well, the author may be busy because he doesn’t reply your comment nor mine. From what I have read and experienced you can legally take a picture of people while on public places but use common sense, I mean, if the person does not want you to take his/her picture you better move on. If you intend to use the picture commercially try to get a release.

  • Hey Good luck with your shoot. Friends and family are good practice for my advice above.

  • You are most welcome!

  • Hi Angela

    Thank you for commenting and saying nice things about me :). Could use it today!
    Remember – almost everyone wants to be noticed.

  • What walwit said is correct. And the legality of public shooting changes from country to country – try street photography in Paris(YIKES!)
    I would add that when it comes to the ethical rather than the legal aspect I like to make sure I’m giving something back.

    Say, you’re in Havana or a country with impoverished peoples and see a subject standing outside their home with curlers in her hair wearing a dingy dressing gown, shes outside because her place is boiling; the only real light is outside and she’s in it against a colorful wall(cliche yes!). You find her at that moment and want that perfect shot. At that point I would like you to ask yourself “Why do I want that image?” and if I had it “what would I do with it?” – put it in my Social Media to show everyone where I’ve been and the people I’ve met?

    You’ve taken something from the subject and haven’t given anything back – not even a smile. Engage and feel it man! There is time for spontaneity and a time to step back and have your ethics in your awareness.

    I’ve taught lots of workshops around the world and I see photographers who would take the shot at any cost, despite the fact they may have taken the last thing the women had – her dignity.
    If you are a professional then you know this. You go out with intent and ethics. Most people are tourists and travelers and they just take. And don’t for a moment think you were the first photographer to find her, you are not, she has had people pointing cameras at her all day. It must be exhausting…

    My point is just be aware of your place in things in relation to the world around you and if you must have something then reciprocate,engage, and both you and the subject will have a positive experience. That’s my two cents…

  • been busy…thanks for the comment mate!

  • Cindy
    Thank you. I truly believe it is an honour. And the experience is better through engagement.

  • Michelle Whitaker

    Maybe a naive question, but is a release necessary for every person you shoot to publish? Such as with the ‘fed up’ girl on the scooter, did she consent? This always stops me.
    Thank you for all the invaluable information!

  • No a release is not necessarily needed for every image. But it depends on what country you are shooting in. In England,where I live, if someone is in public space they are “fair game” to shoot but you can’t turn around and sell or financially profit from their image. That is a no no. But for sharing in social media it’s fine. But not in France. Not in Hungry(where it is a criminal offense!). Check your local laws.

  • And I would like to add – don’t let it stop you from creating images. Shoot it then deal with the legality of it. And remember a little engagement with your subject can go a long way to making you more confident

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