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Capturing Genuine Emotions and Expressions in Portraits

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     
Image taken by Marlene Koslowsky

Whether you’ve just developed an interest in photographing people or you’ve been doing it for a while, you probably already have a good idea in mind about what makes a nice portrait – good lighting, a nice location, and your subject looking at you and smiling. But what really takes a portrait to the next level is the presence of genuine human expression. We all know that Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is famous for her mysterious half-smile, rather than a cheesy grin, and it’s the main reason why it’s such a compelling work of art.

So how do we get natural expressions that we want from our subject? Well the key is manipulating their mood. If you want a full smile, you need to give your subject a reason to be truly happy. If you want tears (but let’s hope you don’t), you need to set a sombre atmosphere. You’ll also need to use different tactics on your subjects depending on whether they are children or adults.

Make them comfortable

Before your subject is going to give you any kind of expression, they need to feel comfortable enough to express themselves in front of you. This means from the very get go, you need to make sure that you’re putting them at ease. Be warm, and get to know them by holding conversation for a few minutes before the shoot even begins. It can be as simple as asking them how their day has been or what they’re hoping their photos will look like. Find out what their interests are and use this information to fall back on throughout the session if conversation runs dry.

Get them to focus on themselves

There is a photographer called Jesh de Rox who is famous for his ‘Beloved’ techniques that he uses to highlight the relationships between the subjects in his photographs – whether they are a couple, siblings or a large family. By asking a series of questions to get the subjects to reflect on their feelings about the other people in the photo, it usually creates a sense of intimacy, and delivers facial expressions that are much more sincere and interesting than forced smiles.


Beloved techniques take a lot of time to learn how to execute well but for your own sessions, there are a few simple things you can do that will have the same effect:
Ask the subjects to share little facts or tell funny stories about one another
Encourage them to look at one another, make eye contact and be playful
For single subjects, ask them to talk about people who are important to them, and who they want to share the photographs with.
Ask some of the subjects in the photo to surprise another subject, such as suddenly tickling them, lifting them up or creeping behind for a hug. The subject being surprised will react genuinely and the other subjects in the photo will play off their reaction, which makes for very real photos.

Image taken by Ryan Polei

Switch between posed and candid

As important as posed shots are for getting good photographs, they do create a degree of superficiality because people are “acting” rather than just “being”. If you’re only getting artificial smiles and stares, try instead conducting the session as if you weren’t there. For children this is much easier as they are less self-conscious; give them toys to play with or engage them in another type of activity that will distract them. For adults ask them to go for a walk or take in a view at the location, and keep your distance. All of these things will help them to make them less conscious of the camera and behave more authentically.

Don’t worry if this means that your subjects look away from the camera momentarily. A good expression can still be captured whether a person gazing off thoughtfully into the distance, smiling warmly at someone beside them or deep in concentration. Always keep your camera at the ready to capture the moments that come without prompting, like the spontaneous moments in the photos below.

Image taken by Mary Plousha

Image taken by Mary Plousha

Study after the shoot

Go through all of the photos after your session and figure what it is you love most about your favourites. It might be a mannerism, a gesture, or the way a subject has taken something you’ve asked them to do and given you something completely unexpected. By reviewing the photos carefully, you’ll be able to recall the techniques you used that were successful and the ones that weren’t, and understand what it is you need to do to get even better results next time. Remember all people are different, and the same things won’t work on everyone, but it’s very helpful to have as many tried and tested techniques up your sleeve as possible for the future.

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