A Quick Guide to Emotional Portraits

As you may probably agree with me, portrait photography IS a challenge. It is not about arranging a meeting with someone and taking picture of them. It’s all about emotions, and the relation between you and the subject.

This guide will not provide you with any sophisticated techniques that could make your pictures creative or original. It will tell you how to look for the truth. There are many good portraits, such as fashion or glamour portraits. Nevertheless, they are artificial in terms of emotions – everything is directed from the beginning. This is not the kind of photographs I wish to focus on now.

There are three important aspects about portraits worth concentrating on: Model, Authenticity, Light. Read this portraits guide to take more emotional photos.

1. Model

It is so tempting to take advantage of our family members as models. This usually happens when you start out in the portraits. Fine. It is ok if you want to do crash-tests, check light or places. In the long run, it is better to avoid such portraits.

Why? Because it is really hard to get rid of personal emotions we have for the model. This is the family relationship that is an obstacle for the viewer to read the photo since the viewer does not share the same feelings towards the subject as we do. If we really want to shoot the family, try to practice looking at them as strangers.

However, you’ll probably need some time to acquire the skill. On the other hand, this is the intimacy that we often share with the close ones so you might want to photograph that, especially when this kind of intimacy is hard to achieve with strangers.

When choosing a model answer a couple of questions:

  • Is the face interesting? Does it express anything?
  • How do we feel about the person?
  • Do we feel we can build up positive relations, atmosphere? Will the person open up?

Processed with the BW White Pepper preset from the Black&White Pepper Lightroom 4/5 Presets Collection

2. Authenticity

Then, it is good to be aware of what we want to achieve in the portrait. If the portrait is to be powerful, then we should look for the truth about the person through the intensity of the person’s gaze. How to do that? There are several ways to achieve it.

One of them is creating positive atmosphere and relation between the photographer and the model. They need to feel mutual trust as we portrait the mutual relation. It would be perfect to meet the person first, without the intention of taking pictures. Just to talk, find something out about their interests- all this to build up the atmosphere of trust I was talking about earlier.

One of my mentors in photography, professor Marian Schmidt, once said that we do not want to see actors who play without emotions – we feel that they are playing a game and the feelings are artificial. That also works the same way in photography. Why should the viewer want to read a photograph if they feel that it is not real?

Therefore, we as photographers should not intervene with posing, should not direct anything. The most natural poses have both physical and psychological background according to current emotions that the model has.

Having a conversation with the model we should make them less and less aware of the fact that they’re being photographed. The conversation itself should lead to the “core moment”, when the emotions are peak. It is your role as a photographer to find this moment and take advantage of it. Sometimes it lasts seconds. This is actually when the subject’s awareness of being the model is minimal. You simply can’t miss it! As Henri Cartier-Bresson once said that you have to “put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” Well said.

Processed with the Late Summer preset from the Analog Story Lightroom 4/5 Presets Collection

3. Light

As we wish the portrait to be emotional, we need to be aware that both eyes express some information. That is why both should be visible in a classic portrait. However, people’s faces have one eye more active, usually it is more open. We should check which of them we feel more, is more expressive. This eye will get the key light. The second light, the complementary one will lighten up the shadows on the other side of the face. We may use natural light, e.g. from the window and use reflectors on the other side.

Immensely important fact to be aware of is that our camera and lens see differently than our eyes and we need to learn the way our equipment sees things. Also, the equipment does not convey emotions. This is the model and we. Since good portrait is a true portrait, we need to take care of that expressive part.

Processed with the BW Soft Portrait preset from the Black&White Pepper Lightroom 4/5 Presets Collection