The Joy of Photographing People: Moods

(The following is excerpted from The New Joy of Digital Photography, a new book by Black Star Rising contributor Jeff Wignall.)

While it’s probably rude to photograph a person when they’re experiencing their worst moments, photographing a person’s many other moods can make for enticing and emotionally rich portraits.

Pensive, proud, shy, aloof, exuberant, sad, joyful — for most of us, changes in mood (or “changes in attitude” as Jimmy Buffet puts it) jostle through our days like a sailboat on a restless sea. Because moods are so fleeting and often evaporate in the presence of a camera, you’ll need to work quickly to capture them.

Reading Moods

Reading people’s moods, of course, is something we all do a hundred times a day.

You judge your wife’s mood before you ask her to bring you a tuna sandwich while you lie on the couch; you judge your boss’s mood before you ask for the day off (no doubt so you can lie on the couch ordering tuna sandwiches); and you judge strangers’ moods before asking to jump ahead of them in line at the grocery store (to buy the tuna, of course).

You certainly don’t want to bring up the subject of days off when your boss is thumping his fist on the weekly efficiency reports (you probably don’t want to photograph him at that moment either).

© Kevin Kopp

Filling the Frame with the Face

The most obvious indicator of mood, naturally, is a person’s face. You can pretty much assume that a smiling person is happy, or that a toddler biting her lower lip is pouting.

The best way to heighten the emotions in a facial expression is by filling the frame with the face. By using a medium telephoto lens to frame a face tightly from chin to hairline, you can exaggerate expression.

You can isolate and accent the face further by using a large aperture to get shallow depth of field. Using your camera’s Portrait mode (if available) will automatically set a wide aperture. Since the eyes are the most essential and emotionally potent part of the face (or the “windows to the soul” as the poets will tell you), focus on them.

© Rebecca Saltzman

Revealing Body Language

Faces aren’t the only barometers of mood. Body language can be equally revealing.

Your 10-year-old son sitting on the back steps with his chin in his hand is the very essence of boyhood ennui. But a moment later when his best friend shows up and they are splayed out on the front lawn using each other for pillows, the picture is one of self-confidence and sublime joy just waiting to be captured.

Same kid, same day — worlds apart in mood.

Exploit a setting to reveal or emphasize a person’s emotions. By including lots of space around your teenage daughter sitting alone on a rock jetty, you heighten her brooding. By moving in tightly on a granddaughter whispering a secret to her grandfather, but still showing the rocking chair they’re nestled in, you use the chair to enhance the intimate and trusting mood of that moment.

Would a chaise lounge or a bar stool evoke emotions as powerful as a rocking chair? Unlikely.

Being Ready

Lighting, in both color and quality, plays an important role in establishing mood in a portrait. Bright, warm, early morning sun lends warmth and well being, while the cool tones of an overcast day instill melancholy.

© Kara Arndt

Most of all, though, depicting moods in people pictures is about being ready — having the camera on, the mode set properly and the lens pre-focused on a spot near your subject. If the subject is camera-shy, use your LCD to compose the picture (if your camera has this capability) because you’ll be less intrusive.

The more subtle you can be in your approach, the better your chances of capturing the moment.

3 Responses to “The Joy of Photographing People: Moods”

  1. Excellent, thanks. I ordered the book.

  2. It is cool just how much a person mood is conveyed in a photograph, even when it is a posed portrait. This article reminds me of one of the many reasons I want to photograph people, to tell their story with their mood being part of that story.

    My friend had professional headshots done recently where he lives (I couldn't talk him into coming to Colorado for them) and out of the 20 proofs he sent me, I felt only four really captured who he was. I think a lot of people with in this digital era don't take the time to evaluate a scene before they take the picture. A lot use the machine gun effect and hope to get a good photograph.(My friend had 350 images to sort through to get the 20 he sent me.)

    As Jeff points out, lighting is factor and controlling the light to help tell the story, and to help show the mood is what puts professional photographs in a whole different ball park from the amateur photographer.

    Thanks for another great article Jeff.

    - john spinhirne

  3. Thanks Charles & John! And thanks Charles for ordering the book!

    I really appreciate both comments--thanks!


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