Adding emotional impact to your portraits

Fashion-photography-1920sIf you’ve ever taken what you thought was a great photo, only to discover that a poor expression ruined your shot, you’ll understand why emotion can make or break a portrait. There are many different aspects to taking a good portrait, such as lighting, posing, composition, and camera settings to name a few, but without emotion a portrait will always fall flat. The saying “the eyes are the window to the soul” is especially applicable to portrait photography. It’s through the eyes that emotion is conveyed and the viewer feels connected to the person in an image.

My first fashion shoot

It was in October, 2008 that I came to realise how little I really knew about capturing emotion. I had organised a fashion shoot at Mt Stromlo Observatory, just outside of Canberra. On the morning of the shoot, I enjoyed watching the model, Nadine being expertly transformed by the makeup artist, with 1920s hair and makeup.

Shooting in ruined buildings without roofs in the midday sun proved to be extremely challenging, however this was the only time that everyone was available, so I had to make the most of the situation.

As we continued shooting, aside from the lighting challenges, I could see that the images lacked emotional impact. And although I wasn’t sure how to solve the problem, I realised as the photographer it was up to me to find a way to convey the right emotion. I explained to Nadine the mood I was looking for, but because of her inexperience (and mine), things just weren’t happening, and she looked bored. And to make things worse, now I was running out of time!

I discovered that day that it’s really hard work for an inexperienced model to portray emotion well, but it certainly makes you work harder as a photographer.

Getting the right expression

In the midst of my frustration, I came up with an idea. I asked Nadine to think about something from her life, or her past, to help her feel the emotion I needed. From memory, I think I asked her to give me a brooding expression. I figured that if she really felt the emotion then it should come across on camera. To my surprise, it actually worked, and I watched her demeanour change before my eyes.

Lessons learnt

This proved to be a turning point in my photography and I was later able to apply this technique to all of my portraits, including family portraits and business photography.

Another important lesson I learnt is that the best way to lose someone’s attention is to say nothing while you fiddle with your camera. Although it can be challenging, try to maintain a conversation when you’re photographing someone, or you’ll quickly lose their focus and patience, and this will definitely have an impact on their expression. Try asking them questions so they can talk while you concentrate on getting your settings right.

Next time you’re taking a portrait I’d like to challenge you to think about the importance of making an emotional connection, even if it’s only a member of your family. Although I agree that it can be hard work taking responsibility for how another person comes across on camera, the reward of capturing a great portrait will definitely make it worth the effort!

Giving Feedback

An often forgotten tip is to remember to give positive feedback while you’re photographing. This encourages people to relax, assures makes them that they’re doing the right thing, and it can also encourage people who tend to freeze in front of the camera to let their guard down. If you’re still not getting the right expression from a person, ask them to think of a place or person which makes them feel happy, and hopefully their expression will improve.

The power of emotion

A glazed, fearful or bored expression will never come across well in a portrait, no matter how attractive a person, or how great the composition. It’s up to you as the photographer to get the right expression, but keep in mind that capturing a great portrait also requires sensitivity, a genuine interest in people, lots of patience, and the ability to think creatively, especially when things go wrong.

By learning how to better capture emotion in your portraits, you’ll not only learn more about the people you photograph, but also about yourself. I hope that you also learn, like I did, that how you treat people and how they respond to you, is just as important as your technique and camera settings, and being sensitive to the emotions of others is the first step toward creating more captivating portraits for others to enjoy!