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5 Tips to Capture True Emotion
Photography Ideas
5 Tips to Capture True Emotion

In the spirit of Valentines this weekend I want to talk about how we can grow as photographers from capturing loved ones. It seems like a pretty simple concept, but lets dig deeper and discover how rewarding it can be!

I recently shot a session of a beautiful family who also happens to be my close friends. I left the experience feeling confident and fulfilled, both emotionally and artistically. I asked myself, “What made it more meaning-rich and rewarding than sessions I’ve done in the past? How can I bring that into the rest of my work?”

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5 tips to capture true emotion

In my mind, the mark of a brilliant photographer is one who can create images that emphasize relationship and moment. When we photograph loved ones we have the advantage of experiencing both of these.

I’ve been doing some pondering lately. I spent an afternoon searching the Internet for the most well known photographers in history. I encourage you to do the same! As I studied their works I concluded that there was one common thread…the element of storytelling. Their images made me feel connected to the person or moment that was happening in the photograph.

There is a beautiful, endearing human being within each of us just longing to be seen by the world. Capturing our true selves and personal stories helps the viewer feel something deep and familiar, whether they know the person in the photograph or not.

So how do we capture that true, loving, genuine side of everyone that normally only loved ones show us? And what can we learn from shooting loved ones? Here’s some tips and insights that I want to share with you.

  • No.
    Provide the right location and atmosphere.

    Normally when we photograph loved ones it’s in a location that is comfortable, familiar and safe. Choose locations such as homes, backyards, or favorite gathering places that help your subjects feel this way. Choose locations that offer privacy and an atmosphere that allows them to be silly, intimate and vulnerable.

    Playing music in that safe place will add an even deeper level of comfort. I asked my friends what their favorite songs were before the shoot and played them during our time together. They danced and played as if I wasn’t present. The result was images that captured real moments and genuine expressions.


  • No.
    Repetition fosters creativity

    Shooting our kids over and over gives us the opportunity to experiment with angles and lighting that captures the side of them that we truly love. And with no added pressure! Through trial and error with composition, light, and equipment we learn how to best draw those qualities out.

    Look at the photographs you love of your kids. What is it about those photos that you love? Certain angles, dramatic light that defines their features? Are they looking away, or directly into the camera? Take notice what elements are present in your favorite images. This may also help you recognize your style.

    I noticed some of my favorite portraits I’ve taken are of people looking down. There’s a certain element of vulnerability and beauty that I see with this perspective. I came to love that angle in general because of the way it made me feel in images of my kids.


    I also noticed in my personal work that I tend to grab my camera when I see compositional lines. Remember those technical aspects and angles that are successful for you and integrate them into your work when shooting others. The more you practice with loved ones, the easier it will become to think creatively every time you shoot.


  • No.
    Learn what “photogenic” really means and study expressions.

    Over the years as I’ve looked through my lens I’ve come to recognize the truth behind what actually makes a person photogenic. It’s not their physical appearance at all! It’s the inner light they emit when being their true selves.

    A portrait of beautiful model looking blank, vacant and unnatural doesn’t necessarily render him/her as photogenic. I love this quote:

    “It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are.” — Paul Caponigro

    I hear the phrase, “I’m not photogenic” a lot. As we shoot loved ones we aim to capture that little laugh they do, or that certain look that makes us fall in love with them. Understanding facial expressions is an important part of what we do as photographers.

    a&j emotions

    A little assignment to help you with this is to watch for unique expressions in loved ones’ faces during a simple conversation. You have the advantage of seeing them in a variety of ways because they are comfortable with you. Playful, silly, peaceful, annoyed, excited. Think to yourself as you are observing, at what point would I click the shutter?

    We can apply this same practice when shooting non-loved ones. A few tips to bring out natural expressions:

    • Observe and pinpoint their mannerisms and natural expressions during conversation.
    • Come prepared with discussion topics to use as you are shooting.
    • Ask them about themselves; really get to know them and show genuine interest in who they are during the shoot.
    • Tell them ahead of shooting time that your goal is to capture the beautiful person within them. This prepares them to want to open up to you.
    • Open up about yourself as well. Let down your personal walls and they will let down theirs! You will be surprise to see that when you give of yourself, your client will too. As a result, your pictures will come to life!
  • No.
    Provide a memorable experience.

    A challenge I face as a photographer is finding the balance between making emotive images vs. perfectly posed and smiling images. Especially because I know that posed images are generally more sellable.

    Although the OCD side of me wants the posed, my artistic side knows that’s superficial. If we don’t take time to shoot the things/people that bring us joy, we can easily feel burnout and forget why we love photography in the first place!

    Many people don’t like getting their pictures taken because it is a painful process of forced expressions and posing. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from shooting loved ones which can make your sessions a more enjoyable experience:

    • Invite couples and families to connect. Ask them to share personal stories, memories, hopes and desires with one another.
    • Use imaginative play or word games with kids.
    • Look for elements in the frame you can focus on to help tell their story.
    • Pose subjects in beautiful light first, then invite them to connect.
    • Be prepared ahead of time with topics and games. Bring prizes for the winners or use them as incentives for kids. Bribery works!
    • Prepare yourself and your client/subjects before the shoot to arrive free of any negativity or expectations.
    • As you view the images together, point out to your subjects why you love those soulful images and how they make you feel. Sometimes they just need to hear someone validate that it’s ok to let others see that side of them.

    As I was shooting my daughter and her best friend the other day, I was asking them questions about their friendship and playing silly word games with them. When I felt I was done, my daughter said she wanted to keep playing! If your subjects are enjoying themselves, they will remember how they felt during the session and those images will be even more meaningful to them.


    With this next shot I told the kids in secret to give their mom a big surprise squeeze on my cue. I had mom and dad posed in the back and the kids ran up to them and attacked mom with a hug. At the height of the moment when all were smiling and laughing I told them to look at me. It was one of my favorites from the session because it was a real moment.

    snow hugging

    For more ideas on questions you can ask during a session, check out Brennan Lanter’s wonderful post 30 Questions to Ask to Create an Experience in Your Family Sessions.

  • No.
    The difference a lens can make.

    Shooting loved ones gives us a good opportunity to experiment with lenses and angles. You know what makes them look good, as you’ve most likely seen the many sides of them. You probably know what they are self conscious about…or what they are proud of. As you look through your lenses, notice how their features accentuate or become subtler depending on lens choice, angles, or depth of field.

    For example, steer clear of standing too close to someone with a wide-angle lens. Certain features will appear unnaturally large! You can read more about distortion in my post Lens Distortion: What Every Photographer Should Know.

    In an intimate setting where I am inviting emotion and real moments I prefer lenses such as my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 or Sigma 35 mm f/1.4, which allows me to stay near my subjects. Although it is important to give them some space during moments of personal connection, you want to be close enough that you can give them instructions easily when it looks like they are ready to move on.


    In this shot I had invited my friend Johnny to write his wife Ashley a surprise letter before the session. She got teary and excited as he read the letter and it was a very tender moment. I used my 24-70 lens, which allowed me to get a variety of different shots without having to move around too much, which could distract or take away from the moment.

At the end of this session, my friends thanked me for how I made them feel and remember why they loved each other. What a wonderful gift you can give people!

So get out there and capture your loved ones. You WILL become a better photographer and you WILL love what you do as a result!