How To Capture a Specific Expression In Photography


The cover image is our daughter. This photo was taken about 15 years ago. She still gives me the same look today!

Being a photographer is more than just buying a camera, pointing it at someone, and snapping the photo. At least for those that want to excel at portrait photography. Or even street photography. 

If that’s you, then one of the greatest storytelling techniques is in the use of capturing facial expressions. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at what “expressions” are, how they differ, and how to capture them for your storytelling.

Table of Contents

Engagement photos don’t have to be cheesy, cliche, etc..

If you don’t know your clients that well, watch how they interact with each other. This will provide a window into their personalities.

Genuine, raw emotions captured pre-ceremony.  There are two stories going on in this image.

One, the bride is overcome with joy from the letter from her husband to be.  Two, the mother of the bride is helping her dry off the tears… to stop her make-up from running!

Different Types of Facial Expressions

Expressions in your portraits represent the personalities of your subjects. Although they can also represent an emotion, the person is experiencing at the time of capture. 

The type of expression you’ll want to capture is dependant on the genre of work your targeting. If your shooting portraits, whether for yourself or for your clients, you’ll most likely want a genuine smile.

However, there might be times when you’ll want to capture the true essence of your subject, and the expression will be more somber.

Or if your project is editorial in nature, then you might want to focus on expressions that evoke a particular emotion. 

As a pro wedding photographer, my specialty was photojournalism. My clients preferred this style vs. a “stiff” photograph since I captured the raw emotions of the day.

Capturing emotions in photography is a great way to tell a story about a specific situation. The type of emotion will help shape the story.

The True Essence of Your Subjects

Bringing out the true essence of someone is a skill any photographer can learn. In fact, if you’re a people person, it will come naturally.

For those like myself that are introverts, it will take a little bit more work. Including, but not limited to…

Helping them relax.

Getting to know them.

By “true essence,” I’m referring to one’s personality.

The expression of one’s personality will be slightly different from one person to the next. Not everyone is an ear to ear smiler. Some don’t like to show their teeth when they smile. Some have a quirky side.

Getting to know your subject will help you evoke an expression that captures their personality. Once you have a better idea of who they are, the next step is to photograph them. But, you have a little more work to do before you start shooting.

As a photographer, to capture their true-self, you’ll need to help them relax. Then, you’ll use your people skills to bring out the desired expression.

Rarely will you find photos of our son with a huge grin.

Nikon D300 | f/4 | ISO 400 | 1/125

Photography tips for capturing different groups of people and their personalities

A few quick tips for capturing the right expression for different people. 

“peek a boo” was the ice breaker for this portrait session.

Baby Photography

Babies are the easiest group of people to photograph. At least for me. Yes, occasionally you’ll get an awry baby that is scared to death of you. But, that’s when you have to let go of your “adult” habits and become a kid again. 

Be a kid. Make funny faces. Dance. Make funny noises. You know, all those fun things you did when you were five. 

Oh, and the parents will get a kick out of it too! 

Once you release your fears of being five again, you’ll get the best smiles you’ll ever get! Your clients and/or spouse will be elated. Guaranteed.

Kid Photography

Sometimes the hardest kids to photograph are your own. Especially teenagers.

Your Own

Well, from my experience, it’s best to let them be who they are. If you try and force a specific expression… good luck. The older they get, the harder it gets.

Your Clients

You’ll need to spend a little time getting to know them. Ask them questions about what they like:

The key here is to talk. Tell a joke. Tell a story. Ask questions. Doing this will help them relax. You might even have to bring out the inner-child in you.

Once they’re relaxed, it will be easier to bring out their personalities and capture an expression that moms will adore.

Inquiring minds want to know!

It was her birthday and she new a cake was waiting for her!

As there wedding photographer I already had a bond with this couple. A couple years later they invited me over for their first family photos!  Getting genuine smiles was easy.

Mom & Dad Photography

I could write a book on the psychology of photographing parents (adults in general). No, I’m not a psychologist. But for the last 30 years, photographing people has given me the experience to work with different personalities. 

My biggest advice is to use your people skills to knock down the walls that are blocking their real personalities. For your clients, a pre-consultation is a must. 

You need to get to know them like their new best friends.

The more you know about someone, the easier it is to help them relax when it’s time to photograph them.

Bride + Groom Photography

Weddings. It’s a once in a lifetime event that can’t be re-done. Plus, there are a lot of different emotions going on: 

This is part of the reason why I specialize in photojournalism… to capture the genuine emotions (expressions) of different parts of the day. If a bride is stressed, good luck getting her to relax and give you a “smile.”

There will be a time to capture those happy expressions. You’ll have to pick and choose when to capture them.

Sometimes, those happy expressions will elude the couple until after their ceremony and family photos. This is due to the stress of getting the family pics done in 15 minutes (because the Catholic ceremony went over by 10 minutes).
You’ll need to do whatever it takes to get them to relax. 

First, take charge of the situation. Let them know that you have it under control, and you’ll get the family photos done as quickly as possible.

Again, you’ll need to “talk” to your couple and other family members to capture the expressions they’ll love you for.

I’ve even gone deep within and brought out my 5-year-old self to break the ice. This often leads to a raucous roar of laughter. Mission accomplished!

What are their expressions revealing about the moment?

Happy? Absolutely.

A look of surprise isn’t always a natural expression on a wedding day.  But, it can be provoked if you know your clients. How did I get the bride to make this expression, naturally?

Ask in the comments and I’ll let you know.


Pet Photography

Pets have personalities too! For example, one of our cats (Myrtle) is anti-social. The other (Moo) will honor you with her presence when she’s in the mood. 

My advice for photographing your pets is the same advice given above… talk to them. It wouldn’t hurt to have an assistant too! Oh, and some treats to reward them as you work together.

How To Ruin a Genuine Smile

When I was growing up, there was one thing that always occurred when we “posed” for pictures… “say cheese!” I’m sure you’ve been there and done that too. 

It’s the worst thing you can do as a professional photographer or just shooting your kids. It will result in the cheesiest smiles and will not capture who they are.

So, don’t make people, “say cheese!”


What's Next?

Here are some more articles to help you create exceptional photos:

What is Aperture in photography?
What is ISO in photography?
What is Shutter Speed in photography?

Light is an important element for maximizing texture in your images.  Check out the 7 key ingredients for light in photography to master light in photography.

Picture of Parker
A 30-year photography pro with a desire to help you achieve your creative vision! Facebook | Youtube

One Response

  1. Hello.

    Thank you so much for the good article.

    I have a great difficulty talking to the model when I take pictures.

    I end up taking unnatural pictures.

    You asked me to ask you a question in the comments, so I leave it like this.

    How did you get the bride to make this expression, naturally?

    Thank you.

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