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7 Ways to Capture Emotion in Your Photography

What separates a simple snapshot from a stunning success is the story the image portrays. I believe the most important element to be captured in a photograph is emotion. The more emotional the shot is, the more it appeals to our senses, and the greater the connection we feel to it. If a picture conveys emotion – whether it’s happiness, surprise, sorrow, disgust – it is successful.

But how do you capture emotion with photography? First, you find a moment and then tell a story. For me, photography is all about capturing authenticity, movement, spontaneity, and mood.

1. No “cheese”, please.

Emotions, by their very nature, do not follow static rules…..they just happen, based on what a person feels at a given moment of time. They are a complex and fluid aspect of the human condition, but capturing emotion can be especially tricky when people know they are being photographed.

The photos I often find myself most drawn to are the ones in which some emotion other than just happiness was captured. One mistake photographers often make is that they say, “Smiiiiile!”, or “cheese”, or whatever it is they say to force people to give any one constant expression. That is probably the last thing I want. Although, these shots can make for great memories later on, the mood is often masked with a fake smile or sometimes a silly face, maybe even a hand covering the mouth or eyes.

2. Capture the mood of your subject.

If a child you’re photographing is in a pensive, quiet state, capture that. If the child is bouncing off the walls, capture that. If your child is staring at you, annoyed and displeased, capture that. You don’t always have to place your subjects into a posed position that is traditionally photo worthy – the photos are always waiting to happen, just let them.

 3. Anticipate a “moment”.

Unplanned shots are awesome. That’s the good stuff! When your subject falls over, looks up at an unexpected moment, or cracks up, make sure to capture it! Those are often the most beautiful, honest, emotional, moments.

4. Shoot after the “moment”.

Some of my favorite shots of my children are the ones I captured right after the shot that they were expecting. This is when they let go of that breath they were holding in, relax the smile that could have been forced, and the moment when their body falls into a more natural, relaxed state.

5. Look for and photograph moments in between poses.

We can give our subjects direction all day long, but there’s something wonderful about a natural pose…and sometimes those moments are only to be found in the “in between” moments.

So always anticipate the next move, before your subject gets there. Keep your camera to your eye and continue to look for the natural beauty.

6. The “eyes” have it.

The eyes are the window to our soul. If one had to isolate any single body part to openly portray emotions, it’s the eyes. Human or animal, eyes usually always convey what the subject is feeling. The intense focus in the eyes of an eagle or the soft warmth in those of your pet Labrador, or the myriad expressions of a ballet dancer, the eyes are the key to capturing the emotions felt by the subject. A raised eyebrow or a sideways look can sometimes say what a hundred words cannot. I love photographing my children because they are a bundle of emotions, they haven’t yet learned the art of faking, and you can literally see the “truth in their eyes”.

7. Look for the details.

As photographers, of course we know emotions are conveyed by the eyes and face. That’s the rule. So break it! Emotions can also be conveyed by other features. Never underestimate say, droplets of sweat dripping down a face, the gestures made by hands and feet, or the posture of a spine.

Don’t limit yourself by believing emotion can only be captured in the face, instead, experiment with a full range of emotional interpretations.

The authentic and genuine expression of emotion is what reveals person’s soul, capturing that in a photo is what tells their story and should be the goal of every photographer. There is no denying it, emotion is beautiful.

Julia Altork is a photographer living in Greenville, South Carolina with her husband and three children. You can see more of her work by visiting