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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

9 Tips for Capturing Emotion in Your Portraits

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.

9 Tips for Capturing Emotion in Your Portraits

Conclusion

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
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.