with Courtney Slazinik
5 Tips to Capture True Emotion
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!

  • February 13, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    Great, great tips- love this article!

  • Lyn Zee
    February 13, 2015 at 10:55 AM

    Wonderful article. Absolutely love it.

  • February 13, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    Just LOVE this!! Emotion is everything in my business. Love the varied approaches to connecting with others.

  • February 13, 2015 at 4:18 PM

    Great tips, thank you!
    Rubi | The Den | http://www.the-den.blogspot.com

  • February 13, 2015 at 6:06 PM

    I really like the exercise that you mention of observing conversations between friends and loved ones and thinking about which moments we would capture with our shutter if we were photographing the exchange. It helps bring the emotional and communal aspect of photos into the forefront instead of getting hung up on technically perfect images. Love it.

  • Kristen King
    February 18, 2015 at 11:41 AM

    Thank you for this wonderful article. This really stands out as a great tutorial for me because it gives so many good specifics. Things to practice (and what specifically I am working towards in my practice), elements to help find style (I am still finding mine), things to think about before even lifting the camera up…or when the camera is not around. For me…it really helped stretch me to be much more intentional about vision and how I want to compose. Thank you for taking the time to write such a well thought out article. Great tips.

  • February 18, 2015 at 11:54 AM

    I’m not very photogenic and look like I’m posing when I’m… well, posing. I have one favorite picture of myself and it was actually taken between poses when I was laughing. It shows my real facial expression like you talked about here. Thank you for posting.

    • Jen
      February 18, 2015 at 7:45 PM

      April, everyone is photogenic, including you! It’s just a matter of capturing them/you at the right profound moment, the “real” moment. Like your favorite picture of you, sometimes that moment is just before or after a pose or fully extended smile. Thanks for your comment!

  • February 18, 2015 at 12:04 PM

    Wonderful article! I’m curious about what the word games you use are?

    • Jen
      February 19, 2015 at 1:43 AM

      Mandi, examples of word games are, “On the count of 3, say out loud a new word (or funny sound, etc.) that no-one has ever heard before.” They will bust up laughing and get some funny expressions before and after the word is said! Or, “On my cue, say a color (or animal, or shape, etc.) …1-2-3-go!” Then keep doing this several times to see if they can say the same color at the same time. Click the shutter at the height of their reactions. Tongue twisters are great too!

      • Mandi
        February 20, 2015 at 12:59 AM

        Thanks :)

  • February 18, 2015 at 12:09 PM

    Courtney….This is such a well done, and helpful article. I am anxious to try some of your suggestions on my grandchildren. Thank You!

  • Julie Ross
    February 18, 2015 at 1:40 PM

    Thank you Jen, for the great tutorial. I will bookmark this one for sure. You article is so helpful and full of great tips. I can feel the sweet emotion in your photos between the members of this family. Thank you for figuring it all out so you can share with the rest of us!

  • February 18, 2015 at 3:31 PM

    I love #3. I hear people say all the time that they are not photogenic and you explain it in a way I could not.

  • Barbara Brown
    February 18, 2015 at 6:27 PM

    Excellent article! Thank you for the wonderful tips!

  • amy b
    February 18, 2015 at 8:15 PM

    Jen…that was one of the best articles on the subject that I’ve read! Thank you for all of your insight and experience that you shared. And great photos too!

  • February 18, 2015 at 8:20 PM

    Oh, this is just so very wonderful….thank you!

  • February 18, 2015 at 11:07 PM

    This was fantastic. SO many ideas to catch the emotion. It is something I have been working on with some of the kids shots I have done but always seems that parents aren’t so emotional (always worrying about the kids poses etc). I will use this information wisely!!! THANK YOU

  • February 19, 2015 at 7:47 AM

    I enjoyed this article so much. Especially the point about making it a memorable experience. Some of my ‘favorite day’ memories last year are photo shoots. Memorable for me too!

  • February 19, 2015 at 9:00 PM

    I really enjoyed this article, it really helped.

  • Justine
    February 19, 2015 at 10:22 PM

    Thank you for the tips, I have a 24-70mm lens, (sigma for my t3i rebel canon) I love it, but I feel like I can never get the focal point where I want it. Could something be wrong with my lens, or strictly operator error?

  • Justine
    February 19, 2015 at 10:47 PM

    Also, I am one to take several pictures of my children but i think I was doing it way too much and taking away from the moment and I was missing great moments of their life while being behind my camera. How do you capture true emotions and bring out what you love of you see in them without missing the actual moment in real time. This is the issue I am having with my photography.. I find myself using my phone and editing via instagram and taking a long break from my “big camera”. How can I get back with out feeling like simple moments of my life captured are too time consuming to take with my professional camera, mostly because I shoot everything in RAW and its not a quick to load and execute as a JPG. I’m venting, sorry, if none of this helps anyone, but thank you for listening.

  • February 20, 2015 at 3:10 PM

    Justine, I’ve felt all these same concerns! It’s always a balancing act if/when you should pull out the big camera. During certain moments I absolutely do not bring it out if it is a distraction. When you do pull it out, don’t draw attention to it i.e. by telling them you are going to take pictures of them. During a cute moment with my kids I will grab my camera, then engage in the conversation or moment like normal, but sneak it up for a quick shot as I am talking with them. With clients I tell them “I’m going to invite you to share things with each other and I want you to focus on one another and the love between you, not on me.” As they are making that connection I quietly sneak in a couple of shots. You really have to give of yourself in order for people to let down their walls. Talk, listen, snap. Regarding shooting in raw/using dslr vs. phone camera, I agree, sometimes it is easier to use your phone! But I try and get in the habit of using my dslr over the phone if it’s near me. I upload my raws in Lightroom then export as jpg to dropbox, then save to my phone and post on IG. It’s more of a process, but you will get better quality. I feel like shooting with my iphone makes me lazy sometimes. I tend to push my creativity and photography knowledge to greater heights when I use my dslr. And I’m always grateful for a better quality photo for printing in the end. If it’s about capturing the moment quick, it’s ok to use whatever you have handy, but when given the choice, I recommend making the effort to use the dslr. You will become a better photographer by doing so IMO!

  • Jessica
    April 20, 2015 at 8:47 PM

    I love this post! I never thought of giving out prizes!! I think that is so cool, and I’ll be using that the next time I have to do a kids shoot! Thanks!

  • april
    May 17, 2016 at 11:02 AM

    What a great gem of a post! I’ve really struggled with awkwardness between clients and between them and myself during a shoot. I loved the idea of the surprise hug and the letter written prior to the shoot. Just curious about what games we might play with clients to get that emotion.

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