How to capture emotion in portrait photography

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Emotion is one of the most valuable elements in portrait photography. Nothing is more powerful than a face that provokes a smile or teary eyes that arouse great sympathy. 

Behind each photograph is a photographer who awaits these moments, using cameras and techniques to capture transient joy, frustration and anger. But the question is, how can you make sure you continuously capture emotion in photography?

Whether you are an experienced snapper or have just tapped into the portrait photography field, below are my top tips for capturing emotions in your photography. 

1. Position your subject

The environment can significantly maneuver our moods. As such, it’s essential that photographers take time to consider the setting in which they capture their shot. Ask your subject questions that stimulate emotion, get them to move around or grab an object nearby to add to the shot.

More importantly, let them incorporate their own ideas as to how to best interact with the surroundings. This will enable them to also feel involved and in control of the shoot, rather than just a model subject to prearranged poses and ungenuine facial expressions.

In this shot, my daughter is strumming a guitar with her eyes closed as if performing at a concert. I had simply chosen a spot with great sunlight, and left the emotional unleashing all to this two-and-a-half-year-old. The result is, obviously, precious.

2. Lighting is important

Since your subject is your only channel of emotional expression, it is crucial that their face stands out visually. You can always rely on natural lighting to do the job, as long as your subject is facing the light source. In these instances, you would be able to use a low ISO of about 200.  This would reduce most of the image’s noise, leaving your subject’s face with a smooth, detailed and clear surface.

The shot below was taken at a temple in Bali. The midday lighting and the temple’s darkness created a perfect combination that set the image’s tone. Of course, the ultimate embellishment was our little model’s smile, and a dinner invitation from her family whom I had inadvertently befriended.

 3. The focus is on them

A photo showing provocative emotion is capable of telling profound stories. As a photographer, you should ensure the viewer is intrigued by nothing but your subject. This is when depth of field comes into play, whereby the image background is moderately blurred so that the main subject has exclusive focus.  

A wide aperture gives an ideal depth of field regardless of your subject’s distance from you, while ensuring details in the background are still visible. The two images below are taken with the Fujinon XF 90mm F/2. To balance out the large amount of light absorbed through the wide aperture, it is best to choose a fast shutter speed of around 1/400 sec. This also helps avoid shakiness and maintains details of your subject’s face.

In these shots, I gave the boys free reign to pose as they liked. The boy in the first image just managed to lift his sickle, creating a contrast against the looming bamboo leaves behind. The boy in the next image stood much further away. Yet with a large aperture and his confidence on camera, he remained just as clear and focused.

4. The right equipment goes a long way

Soft skills combined with the correct camera gear will help you make the most out of a photograph. Human portrait is about capturing powerful human expression while maintaining a high-quality image standard. My personal pick would be the FUJIFILM X100F with its 23mm F/2 prime lens, providing me with an impressive field of view. With its lightweight body, you can also move around freely while capturing the unique traits and manners of your subject.

I stumbled upon this boy in a market in Vietnam. Thanks to the broken rooftop, a ray of light landed on him just at the right moment. The result? It happened to be one of my most powerful shots.

About the author: Bhagi Siva is a travel and documentary photographer from Sydney. You can see more of his work at

This guest post is courtesy of FUJIFILM, and has been shared with permission. 

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