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The Eyes Have It

Facial expressions and body language can either make or break a photo. Again and again we see images that would be successful if only there was emotion in the image instead of a subject with a bored look or a blank stare. How can you get your models more engaged with your camera to get more positive results?

First of all stop falling in love with the dark and depressing look. Sure it’s dramatic and has it place but think about how images are used. With the exception of pitiful children and animals used by charities to solicit funds (all worthy, don’t get me wrong), the majority of images that are used depict positive emotions such as empathy, understanding, relaxation, peace, thoughtfulness or satisfaction. I’ve heard it said that you should be thinking of keywords as you shoot as a test that the image would be marketable.

Step up and engage your model(s), getting them to sometimes make eye contact with the camera. You know the old saying, “The eyes are windows to the soul” so don’t leave your model’s eyes looking like the blinds are shut or the curtains are closed’. (Closed eyes, on the other hand, create a feeling of peace and relaxation). As an exercise, attempt to get as many expressions and emotions from a model focusing only on the eyes as the key element in the image as you can. Have you ever felt a hateful stare? How to capture that as well as looks of caring and compassion? Focus on the eyes.

Next look at the body language. Is the head tilted down, perhaps indicating sadness or depression? Is the model slouching, a position that also often gives a negative feeling to an image?

Notice that when you ask a model to smile, the result is sometimes a silly grin? Models mugging for the camera might generate a winning image but the money shot is more likely to be an authentic facial expression. The best way to achieve natural expressions is not to ask the model to say ‘Cheese’ but to spend time with the model, get to know him/her. Engage in conversation and once they are relaxed, steer the model to talk about things that are pleasant; ask him/her to think of situations that make them happy or make them laugh or think. Positive emotions can also be elicited by serious facial expressions as in the image of the woman soldier.

© Barsik
© Kurhan

As you talk to the subject of your image, try to elicit the full range of emotions not just an image of a smiling face, grinning at the camera.. As the Strobist so wisely says in this article a variety of more subtle expressions will expand the versatility of the images in a shoot. For centuries there has been speculation about the meaning of the expression on the face of Mona Lisa. The reason for the intrigue is that the smile is so subtle. No laughing out loud for Ms Lisa; no frowns either.

What is good advice in regard capturing the emotions expressed by a human face often also applies to portraits of animals, especially cats and dogs. Animal faces that appear to be showing an emotion or are humorous because of the expression are the most downloaded. While snarling and teeth baring portraits are not the most popular images of the human face, we like to see the snarling, growling animal faces. To see the work of a master of dog and cat photography, check out Gary Parker's fine photography and here. And as a cautionary note in case you have the opportunity to shoot inside a lion’s cage look at this

Finally why do so many photographers suggest that their subjects say ‘Cheese’? For a humorous and even possibly true story go here and for a very interesting article about how facial expressions are 'read' in Japan, for example, as opposed to the west read this.

Photo credits: Galina Barskaya, Raisa Kanareva, Iryna Shpulak, Kurhan, Phartisan, Starfotograf, Victoria Alexandrova, Michael Pettigrew.

Your article must be written in English

May 13, 2008


Great advise as always and after all we speak and use our body language 90% more than we actually verbalise! Just think mmm of how many people have looked at you today!!!

April 01, 2008


oops sorry.I probably missed the joke because I was deep into writing THIS week's blog!

April 01, 2008


Actually I have so many blogs because I write for Dreamstime as the Director of Content. Glad you find the information useful. Thanks for the compliment!

I know... I was actually trying to make a joke there. Thats why I added the wink ;)
Joke failed, hehe :)

Keep up the blogs, they are always fun to read and full of usefull information! Thanks

March 31, 2008


Actually I have so many blogs because I write for Dreamstime as the Director of Content. Glad you find the information useful. Thanks for the compliment!

March 31, 2008


lovely article again!

You have so many blogs... you probably have loads of credits on dreamstime now ;)

March 27, 2008


Great article, Ellen! And thanks for the lion link... wow.

March 26, 2008


Excellent article. The same concepts also applies to digital models which can easily fall victim to lack of emotion despite being perfectly polished. Even the slightest adjustment in body components, colour and pose can turn a visually stunning model into a statement with meaning and impact that connects with the viewer.

March 26, 2008


Poor kitten ... but I love this article! It's interesting how we can read from the eyes of people how they are feeling, are they fake or truthful. Not always, but ... that's very interesting. I admire very much those photographers who can make their models feel comfortable, enjoy shooting and even express those feelings they didn't have naturally at the moment, but imagine, put yourself into situation, what they remember or have felt, and do it so, that you don't feel it's fake when you look at picture. Of course a model should be a great actor too, but everyone has felt happiness or grief and sorrow and we have learned since birth how to express it, so a good photographer can make its models to remind it at the right time. That's a pure art. And very admirable.

March 26, 2008


Not to mention that a 'blunt' portrait is so hard to keyword. You type "woman,portrait,...." and no words come to your mind while looking at such a shot. Good advice, Ellen. Everyone - try to think of keywords for your portrait, if U can find some, you're on your way.

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