Ready, Set, Frown: Portrait Photography for Emotional Response

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a photographer who always told his subjects, “Smile big for the camera.” The problem with this fairytale is that not everyone smiles all the time. Let’s say, for example, you say that to someone at a family reunion you happen to be covering, and then you find out that person just lost her spouse of 53 years. Would requesting a smile still be appropriate? When you cover events, your job as the photographer is not just to cover what everybody expects but to cover what they feel as well.

how to take interesting photos

Photo by Aaron Guy Leroux; ISO 6400, f/2.8, 1/60-second exposure.

Sure, you can take pictures of the joy of victory, but don’t forget about the agony of defeat. We are human, after all. Our faces often express doubt, fear, courage, surprise, boredom, excitement, and more. A baby takes his or her first couple of steps and then falls; there is a brief moment where you can tell that child is trying to decide if they want to cry or not. Is it a picture-perfect portrait? No. Is it a picture worth having? Yes.

Some of man’s greatest moments come in the moment of overcoming something. Sports, drama, playing, dancing, mourning, building, and exercising are all very real to those participating at the moment. Each will bring up different emotions; each will show different expressions. Rarely do these everyday events involve a big, cheesy ear-to-ear grin. Don’t get me wrong; smiles are great, but they are not the only things worth photographing.


tips for amazing photos

Photo by Mo Riza.

Be a Photojournalist

We are not all photojournalists. We don’t always see a firefighter carrying a three-year-old little girl out of a burning building. But what if we were photojournalists? Or better yet, what if we just pretended? A photojournalist has to answer five questions: Who? What? When? Where? Why? If you’ve ever done much writing, you have probably heard these before. But the difference between a writer and a photographer is that the photographer has to show his or her answers in picture form. What would happen to your work if you had to show your answers to these questions for every shot you took? If you could use no words, and your photo had to speak for itself, what would it say?

how to take a great photo

Photo by Aaron Guy Leroux; ISO 5000, f/2.8, 1/80-second exposure.

Tell a Story

If every photographer thought of his or her work as having to tell a story, our photos would be much more focused. (No pun intended.) Every element in the shot needs to have a purpose. You must have balance. Just like telling a story, there are good guys and bad guys. You must have opposition. It is often hard to tell just how good or brave or strong a person is unless you also see what they had to overcome. A family photo album that only shows smiles is a book of lies. Include some tears, expressions of doubt, prayers, and pain, and you have a book that means more.

How to take good photos of your kids

Photo by Beryl_snw; ISO 800, f/2.0, 1/160-second exposure.

If you shoot children for example, shoot the learning process: baby’s first steps, riding a bicycle, learning to swim, learning to climb, or how to slide down a slide for the first time. These things will bring a smile to your face if you can remember the fears and doubts that you overcame at the time.

Taking pictures that others can relate to is not always the same as taking a standard portrait. But if you want to be remembered as a photographer, your work has to touch the heart of the viewer, not just the eyes.

Give them something to think about. Tell them a story they will never forget. The key to being a great photographer is to tell a great story. Great stories use the full range of emotions. Can any great photographer be expected to do less?

About the Author:
Award winning writer / photographer Tedric Garrison has 30 years experience in photography ( As a Graphic Art Major, he has a unique perspective. His photo eBook “Your Creative Edge” proves creativity can be taught. Today, he shares his wealth of knowledge with the world through his website.

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  1. Brian says:

    Don’t we keep on getting “portrait photography” somewhat mixed up with “life photography” or “human interest photography”, “candid photography”, etc.? Not to argue that even with portraiture the subject should be asked to plaster a wide grin on their face by any means, but just sayin’ that what’s being described here isn’t portraiture – it’s simply a reasonable argument that candid human photos should be just that – candid, and not composed or contrived. The error is calling this portrait photography, not the logic of the argument itself.

  2. Leon in KS says:

    The article makes some very interesting points, but mostly it depends on what you want to show about the subject. The idea of saying “say cheese” is ridiculous unless you are saying it as a joke to try the get the subject to laugh. I think the most important task is to get the most natural expressions from the subject. A thought provoking article. Thanks.

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