Capturing genuine emotion in portrait photography could arguably be one of the more difficult tasks of a photographer. Learning the technical side of photography can be quick and relatively easy provided the right learning tools – take a Photography 101 workshop or lighting course – and from there make some really solid imagery. But part of making a great portrait is being able to get your subject(s) to show true emotion.

The skill of being able to evoke emotion from people while they are in front of a camera is difficult to learn because each person you photograph is different. Most people freeze and stiffen up with a camera in their face, and many revert to saying the dreaded, “Cheeeeesseee!” to alleviate some of the awkwardness. But if you want to capture true emotion, skip the cheese and try these techniques for your next portrait session instead.


1. Take Some Shots to Warmup

No, not those kind of shots (though that works, too). Unless your subject is a supermodel, it takes time for people to get used to being in front of a camera. So for the first few minutes of your session, tell your subject that the first shots are only test shots, that you are testing the light, exposure, etc. You can tell them that you are warming up and that these first photos are probably going to end up deleted anyhow.

During this time, it’s good to strike up some conversation, get to know one another, ask them about themselves; your goal is to begin to draw out their personality and help them forget that you are photographing them.




It’s the “tried and true” method to get someone to look, well, cheesy, in a photograph. Wherever the technique came from, you know that it doesn’t really work. When your subject says “cheese,” their mouths clench unnaturally and it’s unflattering.

If you must have them say something, think of words that end in “uh” like “pizza” (who doesn’t smile when thinking of pizza?) or “lava” or “yoga.” You get the idea.

The only time I’ve made an exception to this is for one musically inclined family that would say cheese in harmony. It would make me smile and became a tradition each year I photographed them.


3. Give Them Something to Think About

Have you ever seen a portrait where everything looks perfect – the light, the pose, the location – but something about the image is missing. Usually it’s because the eyes are dead and that lends to just enough tension in the smile/face to keep the face from showing a genuine emotion.

Try giving your subjects something to think about; If you’re photographing a couple, ask them to think about their first date or how it felt when he popped the question. If it’s an individual, tell them to pretend Channing Tatum is doing a Magic Mike dance behind you (or whatever is appropriate for your subject taking into account age, gender, etc).

For the image below, I told the parents to show their daughter, without using words, how happy and proud of her they were.


4. Give Them Something to Do

When you give your subject(s) something to do, it takes their minds off of the “I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-hands-deer-in-the-headlights” syndrome. It  works well in a variety of situations. Ask your subject to play with their hair or fake laugh or twirl or jump. You don’t necessarily need to take the picture of them jumping if that’s not your thing, but the moments after you’ve distracted them with the task is the moment you’re looking for, and that’s when you snap the shutter.

You can do the same thing with couples, groups, or kids; just modify it appropriately. For families, I will tell them to look at each other but don’t laugh; inevitably someone starts laughing and after a few moments, it’s contagious and you have plenty of opportunities with genuine emotion. When it’s a child, I’ll try to have them play a game or make it a competition of who has the saddest sad face or the happiest happy face.



 5. Just Keep Shooting

Some of the best opportunities to capture genuine emotion is when the subject thinks you aren’t shooting because, well, they are acting genuinely. Be aware of these moments that happen when you’re in-between shots, like walking to the next location, and be ready to capture them. These in-between moments, when your subject isn’t expecting it, are frequently the winning shots from a session. These are the natural, relaxed moments, so learn to anticipate them and snap away quickly.

What are some ways you capture genuine emotion in your portraits? Comment below.