My career as a photographer began in the wonderful world of weddings. Fresh out of art school, with only a minimal amount of technical training, I stumbled into a job as an assistant to a wedding photographer. Little did I know at the time, what I learned shadowing an established, very talented wedding photographer not only would teach me everything I needed to know about photography, but also about the art of capturing the true emotion of a moment.
Shooting weddings on film (this was the pre-digital days) also made it that much more important to make every shot count. In what felt like a baptism by fire, shooting weddings on the weekends and children’s portraits on the weekdays, I quickly came to realize what I enjoyed most of all was capturing the un-posed, candid moments. Being a second shooter at events allowed me the freedom and flexibility to shoot more like a fly on a wall than a portrait photographer. While the lead photographer was busy capturing posed shots, I got to take the pictures that were candid and unexpected. It didn’t take long for me to realize that watching, waiting and anticipating which moment would be worth capturing was as important to photography as the technical aspects I was trying to master. Luckily, the photographer that I worked with encouraged my passion and praised my creative vision, motivating me to keep doing what I was doing. He taught me that the intuition and heightened awareness of when a moment was at its most photo-worthy was an art in and of itself. The mix of styles ensured we were telling true and authentic stories for our clients. They loved the mix of posed and candid shots for our weddings and family sessions.
Years later, I became a mother and have since gotten to use what I learned as a professional in my own everyday photography of my children. Over the years I’ve captured everything from love and laughter to tantrums and tears, and have realized that the spectrum of expression, from one extreme to the other, is infinite no matter what age or stage you’re shooting. With a range of emotional potential like that, we can never run out of things to shoot or stories to tell! With that in mind, here are a few tips and tricks to enhance and elevate your expressive photography.
With so many things to keep track of, so much to consider and so much equipment to lug around, it’s not always easy to keep yourself poised and ready for the perfect shot. But to capture the most expressive moments, you have to stay alert—camera in hand—way beyond the posed pictures and obvious events. Being aware of what’s happening “in between” the more predictable moments ensures the discovery of little windows into your subject’s truest emotion. Timing is everything, and the more you observe with this in mind, the more you notice a cadence and rhythm to when the perfect expression might emerge. Watch from a distance, use a long lens, and release the shutter right at those unexpected moments when authentic expression is at its best.
NOTICE THE CUES
Facial expressions are the obvious telltale sign of how your subject is feeling. Even still, you’ll want to try to capture the most natural, relaxed and “real” facial expressions you can. Any portrait photographer (or parent) knows that not all smiles are created equal. When capturing a smile, for instance, watch for other cues that tell you the smile is, in fact, real. Laugh lines, a tilt of the head, a little chuckle or even closed eyes can highlight the truest of emotions in your photography. Some of my favorite portraits of my own children are of them smiling ear to ear, their unbridled joy perfectly captured with their eyes closed. That, for me, displays the quintessential happiness of childhood.
CAPITALIZE ON CONNECTION
People are at their most real, most genuine, when they’re interacting with one another. Weddings are ideal for the expression that can come from person-to-person connection. Couples often bring out the best in each other, especially on happy occasions. Mother and child, siblings and even friend connections work in the exact same way. Use that intangible, yet recognizable spark that only people can create together to your photographic advantage. Remember, although people can feel the connection they have with someone they love, they aren’t ever able to really witness it themselves. Consider it your mission to capture that magic for them through your lens.
READ BODY LANGUAGE
Notice your subject’s stance, posture, movements and unprompted poses. Even without relying on facial expressions, your subject will reveal a lot just by how they’re holding their body. The slightest tilt of the head, curve of a shoulder or position of the hands or feet can showcase expression, even unbeknownst to your subject. You don’t have to forgo the facial expressions, but if you’re mindful to include other clues that can showcase emotion, it can make your portraits that much richer and more evocative.
GET INTO MOTION
Extreme emotion often can’t be contained. Consider the phrase “jump for joy.” When someone is feeling something deeply, his or her movements often are a display of that emotion. With children, in particular, their movement can be used in a way to capture their energy and enthusiasm. Watch for the motion that might very well express the feelings of your subject with utmost gusto. If you’re working with a child or a pet, you might want to consider using a fast shutter speed to really stop that moment in time in mid-display.
NOTICE THE NUANCES
Expression doesn’t have to be over the top to be noteworthy. Many of the most meaningful images captured are those understated, often pensive moments. There’s no better opportunity to watch for these moments than at a wedding. Quite often they can be found in the pause between the big moments, the times that people don’t even notice the camera is there. The more intimate the shoot (picture a mother and her newborn), the better the chance to witness a quiet, tender moment where emotion isn’t displayed overtly, but it’s felt incredibly deeply.
TELL A STORY
Unlike video, capturing still images gives you a single moment where all the pieces within the frame have to work together for the greatest good to capture something real and true. Remember that you’re using your camera as a narrative tool, telling a story about a person, or people, and an experience that they’re having. Everything in your photographic frame can be used to enhance that story. Expressive photography most certainly includes more than just facial expressions. Clothing, gesture, location, context, props can be used when at all possible to offer more layers of expression, even beyond what your subject’s face may be telling you.
Expression is defined as “a look on somebody’s face, conveying a thought or feelings,” which is exactly what we’re looking for when we’re shooting a portrait. But other definitions include “the communication of thoughts or feelings” or “a way of communicating something,” suggesting ways alternative to mere facial expression. Our job, as photographers, is to use as many ways possible to seek out, discover and distill the emotion our subjects feel. With heightened awareness, creative insights and intuitive anticipation, we can create more telling and communicative expressive portraits, adding rich and meaningful layers to our visual narration.
TRACEY CLARK is the founder of Shutter Sisters, a collaborative photo blog and thriving community of female photo enthusiasts, shuttersisters.com. Learn more about Tracey and her work at traceyclark.com.