Elicit Genuine Emotion to Improve Your Portrait Photography

The difference between a bad photograph and a good photograph is the application of smart photography techniques including lighting, framing, composition and timing. The difference between a good photograph and a great photograph is that a great photograph shows genuine emotion, and hopefully it triggers it from the viewer as well. It is more difficult to make a great photo, but there are a few things that you can do to help capture emotion in photography.

Here are my tips for the best ways to generate expression from your clients to take your photography to the next level.

Laughing portrait

Set the subjects up for success

If your subject is a professional model or actor you are several steps ahead. For most of us, more often than not, our subjects will be regular people without training on how to manipulate their own emotions.

Start by making your subject comfortable. Let them know what to wear, what not to wear, what you are trying to accomplish, and your methods for photographing people. As you are shooting, give the client positive feedback, gently guiding them into the mood you are looking for. If you are getting some good shots, show them a few photos and reinforce how great they are doing and how good they are looking. If a subject does not trust you and does not believe that you have their best interest in mind, they will not show genuine emotion.

Use cues

Like everything else in life, communication goes a long way. Tell the subject what you are looking for. Many times, when we see great photos of candid moments, we make the assumption that these things spontaneously happened and the photographer just happened to be in the right place at the right time — with all of the lighting perfectly placed. Occasionally, this happens. Most of the time, the subject is in on it and helping to achieve the end result.

Sometimes you can explain what you want by setting the scene. For an engagement session, you can ask the clients to think of their favorite things about the other person and to pretend that they are alone. For a moody artist portrait you can ask the person to think about the last time they were really hurt by someone. When I’m trying to get someone to give me a real smile for a headshot I will sometimes use a joke book to get them in a lighter mood. Whatever it is, you can set the scene with words.

Couple photo

For couples

When shooting with a couple, remember that while you know the best posing and lighting for their photos, they know each other best. They can make one another laugh, smile or give a quirky grin. Get your technical stuff set up and then focus on getting more expression.

Sometimes, I’ll pretend I’m checking my settings to see if I can grab a quick photo of the unguarded moments. Other times, I’ll remind them of a funny story they have told me and ask them to tell it to each other while I shoot. Most of the time, this will get them laughing genuinely with each other.

Play music

Music is an easy tool to pull out emotion. Pick the right music for the moment and use it to your advantage. If you are trying to get someone to look confident in the studio, choose some hip-hop, R&B, or rock music that feels good. If you want a bride to show emotion on her wedding day, choose something sweet and sappy. Some soft lullaby music can get a newborn to fall asleep — and calm his/her parents down on a photography set.

Take your time

Everyone knows when you’re rushing, including you. Your stress will transfer to your subject. Plan ahead and take your time to work into the emotions that you are looking for. If you find that you’re running out of light quickly or running behind on a shoot, reassess your most important shots and go for those first. One or two great shots will be better than 10 OK shots with no emotion.

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