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12 Tips for Capturing Genuine Emotions in Portrait Photography

Portrait photo of Nikita

Portraiture is an art form that captures the human spirit in a moment that lasts forever. It provides a gateway into the subject’s soul, highlighting their personality and emotions while simultaneously telling a story.

However, achieving such depth and authenticity requires more than understanding technical aspects; photographers who capture emotion must grasp human psychology, connection, and keen observational skills.

As we delve into the art of portraiture, we’ll explore essential tips and techniques to bring out the true essence of a subject, capturing emotional photography masterpieces.

How to Capture Emotion in Photography

Emotions in photography can be triggered in many ways and often depend heavily on the viewer’s experience and perception. Here are a few ways that photographs can evoke emotions, along with some tips for achieving this:

Establishing a Connection with the Subject

Creating a comfortable and relaxed environment is crucial when working with a model. This may be no secret, but people will likely be more expressive when they feel at ease. So don’t be afraid to connect with your model.

A young boy eating pizza while making fun expressions
Photo of my son, Nikita, eating pizza and making funny expressions.

I suggest beginning the session with a casual conversation. Learn about your model’s interests, favorite music, or personal anecdotes. I’ve found that this approach builds trust, which can be the difference between flat, lifeless pics and emotional photos.

During one of my recent collaborations with a company called Albert Cliff, I was commissioned to capture a series of photos featuring their employees in their office environment for their Instagram account and website.

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I discovered that engaging in a brief chat about their responsibilities at work, along with other interests like favorite music and movies, helped establish trust and a connection with each individual. This approach put them at ease, enabling me to capture their genuine emotions and create even better portrait photos.

Photo of an office employee talking on a headset with the client and smiling

Context and Storytelling

Providing context or a story with your portrait photos can help evoke emotions. You can do this through a caption, a series of photographs, or elements within the image itself. The more the viewer understands the story behind the photo, the more likely they will respond emotionally.

Play Video about Storytelling in photography

The most important rule here is to be mindful of the subject’s background and look at the layered visual elements together – items the person is holding, their clothing, the location, or even the way they’re posed.

You can also plan a portrait sequence, a beautiful way to tell a deeper story. This technique is frequently seen in photojournalism, where images reveal a progressing narrative.

For example, a portrait photography session during a wedding ceremony could start with a photo of a groom tying his shoes, progress to making a gin tonic cocktail, and end with a heartfelt embrace with the bride, capturing the full range of emotions on this joyous occasion.

wedding day portrait photo session

Patience

Patience is the most crucial virtue in portrait photography. Allow the shoot to progress naturally, allowing your subject to express themselves. 

For example, when I take pictures of my son, I often need some time to help him feel okay with the camera, until he can fully ignore it. 

This is when the best pictures happen: when he forgets about the camera and just plays with his toys or does an activity.

A young boy swinging

Timing

Be ready to capture that candid moment – it often results in the most authentic and emotionally rich portrait.

This could be a moment of joy, like a child opening a gift, or a moment of sadness, like a soldier saying goodbye to their family. The key here is patience and being ready to capture the exact moment it happens.

Photo of my son Nikita and his uncle Imants having fun

Mastering Lighting

Lighting plays a pivotal role in emphasizing emotions. Natural light can lend a soft, warm feel, while harsh artificial light can evoke strong, dramatic sentiments.

However, there are ways you can soften harsh light in your portraits and make those shadows more mellow.

For my day-to-day photography, I like to use flat light – that is, light that does not have a strong direction and therefore creates minimal shadows. I find that this type of light can give a sense of rawness, evoking emotions like calmness or melancholy. Perfect for any emotion portrait photography.

Camera Angle and Position

The angle at which you shoot your subject greatly affects the perception of their emotions. A low angle can make them appear dominant, while a high angle can introduce a sense of vulnerability. Close-up photos can create a sense of intimacy, while wide-angle shots can evoke feelings of awe or insignificance.

Example: Photographing a boxer from a low angle, making them appear more imposing and powerful.

Black and white portrait photo of a boxer shot from a low angle

Composition

Similarly, composition can significantly influence the mood of the portrait. Centering the subject can make the image feel intense and direct while placing them on the edge can create a sense of unease or anticipation.

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You can think of the composition in post-processing as well. Crop the frame in a way you see tells a story and evokes a stronger emotional response.

Utilizing Props

Props can act as a great icebreaker, revealing hidden aspects of your subject’s personality. They can add context, tell a story, or even just be something for nervous subjects to do with their hands.

Below are two portraits that I took for one of the projects that I was involved with in 2022. In both of these photos I managed to capture genuine emotions of my subjects, highlighting the essence of their personalities and the spirit of the moment they were experiencing.

Two portrait photos of young males with props in their hands.

PRO TIP: Ensure the prop doesn’t distract from the subject. It should enhance the emotion or story, not overshadow the subject.

Emphasizing Movement

Capturing movement in photography can create dynamic images that convey a sense of action, which can evoke strong emotions. For example, a photo of a dancer in mid-twirl can convey a feeling of joy and freedom, while a picture of a running child can evoke a sense of excitement or urgency.

capturing movement in portraits

To capture movement effectively, you can use techniques such as:

  • panning (moving your camera along with the moving subject)
  • long exposure (allowing the subject to move while the shutter is open, creating a motion blur).

A Play of Light and Shadows

Playing with light and shadows can create dramatic, high-contrast images ripe with emotional impact. Shadows can add depth and dimension to your photographs, bring mystery, or evoke feelings of loneliness, fear, or anticipation.

Experiment with different sources of light, angles, and times of day to see how they affect your photographs’ shadows and overall mood.

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Focusing on Just One Subject

Focusing on a single subject can evoke powerful emotions by allowing viewers to engage with that subject fully.

By using techniques like shallow depth of field and eliminating distracting elements from the photo, you can direct your viewer’s attention to your subject and evoke a more impactful emotional response.

Portrait photo of a young boy with a toy in his hands.

PRO Tips

  • Be bold and get to know your subject deeply. Learn their history, likes, dislikes, fears, joys, dreams, etc. This allows you to create a narrative around your subject that resonates with their authentic self. For instance, a portrait of a war veteran might be more evocative if taken in his old uniform or among memorabilia from his service days.
  • The background or the subject’s surroundings in a portrait can provide substantial context. Instead of using generic backdrops, consider locations that reflect the individual’s character or narrative. For example, a picture of a chef taken in a high-tech kitchen can convey the subject’s passion and proficiency.

Frequently Asked Questions

Photography is a universal language that transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. Photos have an immediacy that can convey complex concepts and emotions faster than words, and they allow for a highly personalized interpretation, as each viewer brings their unique perspective to understanding the image. Visual images can make us experience a situation more vividly.

Emotion in photography portraits refers to the feelings and sentiments expressed in the photo. This can be through the subject’s facial expressions, body language, the ambiance created by the lighting, the colors, or the overall composition. An emotional portrait isn’t just a snapshot of someone; it tells a story about the person’s emotional state or personality, making the viewer feel connected to the subject.

Emotions are essential in photography as they form the heart and soul of the image, creating a connection between the subject and the viewer. Photographs that convey emotions can evoke emotional responses, build empathy, and make viewers feel like they are a part of the situation.
They add depth and richness to images, transforming a simple shot into a powerful story.

Photography can express emotion through various means:

  • The subjects’ facial expressions, body language, and actions
  • Lighting, colors, and composition can evoke certain feelings – for example, bright colors can express happiness, while darker tones can communicate sadness or mystery.
  • The timing and context of a shot can add emotional depth – for instance, a solitary figure in an expansive landscape can express loneliness or contemplation.
  • The way a photographer captures and presents a moment

Wrapping it Up

“Portraits demand something of the subject, of the observer, and of the artist.”Iain Thomas

This quote encapsulates the essence of portraiture. It’s a shared effort, a creative experience that culminates in capturing the raw human spirit.

We’ve seen some essential ways to create images that evoke emotion, but here’s the deal: Emotions are subjective and personal, and what one person finds moving or poignant, another might not.

It’s essential to understand this as a photographer and not to be discouraged if your photos don’t always evoke the same emotions in others as they do in you. It’s all part of the rich tapestry of human experience and emotional response.

Remember, there’s no definitive ‘right way’ to capture expressions and emotions in portraiture, so go out there and experiment. Conveying emotive photography is a challenging road. 

To learn more about portrait photography – and much more – take a look at our other resources here at OhMyCamera.

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

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