Photography may be a highly visual art, but like any other art form, it’s not all about the aesthetics—it’s about telling a story. This is particularly true when photographing people as your subjects. Capturing authentic emotions and feelings in an image is key to creating beautiful, truly compelling images that speak to your audience on a more personal level.
There are many different emotions that can be depicted in an image. In all of our photographs, we strive to highlight joy, happiness, sorrow, despair, and love, although the interpretation can differ depending on the viewer. The challenge in capturing an emotion, however, is in making it appear genuine.
Tips for Capturing Genuine Emotion in Photos
Capture Your Subjects in a Familiar Environment
Taking photos of your subjects in a location that is familiar to them allows them to feel more comfortable with you and your camera. You may even want to choose a place that has special meaning to your subjects, as this can help elicit a strong emotional response.
During the actual shoot, ask your subjects to show you around this particular location—whether it’s their home, the restaurant where they got engaged, or the bowling alley where they had their first date. Encourage them to tell you stories of their special moments and ask them to show you their favorite objects or spots in that particular location. Talking about meaningful events may help your subjects act more naturally in displaying affection, while including relevant elements can help add context to the composition.
Give Minimal Direction and Do Not Intervene
Don’t direct your subjects. Doing so can prevent you from getting their real emotions on camera, as they will be too focused on holding a pose that may or may not come naturally to them. Just guide them minimally on where to place their hands, how to tilt their heads, and more. If you really must provide some direction for the purpose of utilizing the available light or the environment, learn to pose your subjects in a way that won’t make them feel self-conscious or uncomfortable.
It’s important to remember that you should only provide subtle guidance in the beginning. Once your subjects feel more comfortable in front of the camera, allow them to freely interact with each other—and do not interfere. If possible, move further away so they can feel more at ease. The goal is to make your subjects forget that the camera is even there, so strive to make yourself as invisible and unobtrusive as possible.
Note that love can manifest on the face and through hand gestures, so try to focus on or include the face and hands while shooting.
Give Your Subjects Something to Do
The best way to elicit genuine emotion is to have your subjects act as naturally as possible, so make sure the activity you choose will bring that out. For instance, if you are trying to take romantic photos with a couple as your subject, ask them to cuddle or do something they normally do on a daily basis. If you are trying to capture the love between a man and his canine best friend, let them play their usual games, practice their favorite tricks, and do any other activities that they both enjoy.
Allowing your subjects to do other things will help prevent them from consciously or subconsciously posing for the camera, and should enable you to capture their emotions at their most genuine state.
Learn to Anticipate Important Moments
Another thing you must be mindful of when attempting to capture authentic emotions in your photos is to be on the lookout for possible instances wherein you’ll be able to catch your subjects at their most unguarded. These moments can happen when you least expect it, but if you remain alert and observant, you should be able to catch them. Also, make sure that your camera is ready to snap that shot at a moment’s notice—you won’t have time to fiddle around with your settings.
But even when you are able to capture these shots, you shouldn’t stop there. That split-second right after the height of one’s emotions can also be a good time to capture photos, as it is usually during this time when your subject’s face and body become more relaxed and natural.
Focus on the Eyes
The eyes can convey true emotions regardless of what the other facial features indicate. A smiling person can still convey a different conflicting emotion—sadness, despair, and even fear—through their eyes. Therefore, if you want to determine what a person is truly feeling, you only need to focus on their eyes.
However, if a subject’s eyes are closed due to some type of strong emotion, that’s fine. Overwhelming feelings can often make a person close their eyes, such as when they are crying, feeling pain, or experiencing extreme happiness and contentment.
Keep on Shooting
Shooting continuously will allow you to capture all sorts of moments, from the intimate, to the funny, to those other candid yet meaningful shots that otherwise won’t be captured had you not been ready to take them.
Use your camera’s continuous shooting mode and shoot a particular moment in bursts to make sure that you capture plenty of shots to choose from. This gives you a higher chance of getting just the right photo at exactly the right time.
Zoom in on Other Details
“The devil is in the details”—or so they say. In photography, this could not be more true. Focusing on the right details can actually help convey emotions in your photos. You can try zooming in on the body language of your subjects, how their hands grip, their posture, and even tiny details like tears and sweat. All of these details can present you with extremely powerful ways of conveying what your subjects are truly feeling, as these are often harder to fake.
In some cases, these details can also be an object that signifies love, such as the engagement ring on woman’s finger or a child’s worn-out teddy bear that was given to him by his grandfather.
Use the Element of Surprise
Take several surprise shots. This allows you to catch your subjects off-guard, which will help show their natural feelings. Most of the time, surprising your subject can give you the most memorable shots you can hope to get. You can do this during times when your subjects are not aware that they’re being taken a photo of, and during any other instances that you wouldn’t normally take a photo of.
And if all else fails, go ahead and attempt to create posed and carefully planned shots that show the emotions you want to depict in your photos.