When you think of human expression, to which part of the subject are you drawn? Most people are drawn to the face, specifically the eyes and – to a slightly lesser extent – the mouth. It is in the face that we pick up the most obvious emotional cues – sadness, happiness, anger, boredom, contentment, frustration, intensity. As students of human emotion know, however, true feelings are often conveyed by body language beyond the face. Studying body language can be very helpful not only in broadening the way that you shoot, but in being more effective in your photographic storytelling, establishing mood, and heightening your own awareness of the way the moments you capture are likely to be perceived (even subconsciously) by your clients and/or audience. You can use this knowledge to direct your subjects or simply to aid in your observations and know when a moment is just right to illustrate your story or vision.
This month, focus on what the body alone can convey. How can you capture joy without seeing a smile, sadness without including the tears, uncertainty without the furrowed brow? Here are some examples of classic body language cues:
Rigid body, clenched fists, leaning forward, hands on hips
Limbs crossed and/or pulled in very close to the body, head tucked in or turned away, body made as small as possible
Body relaxed, fingers touching the face or head
Body sagging or hunched, shoulders and limbs loose, chin/face low, hands over the face
Body tense, hands on hips or arms crossed, weight shifted to one side or the other
Body relaxed and open, limbs uncrossed or away from the body, chin/face up
When working with two or more subjects, body language cues can help to indicate the connections/relationships between the subjects, and utilizing your knowledge of those cues will greatly improve your ability to capture warmth and affection in family or couples portraits. Look for bodies/faces angled towards each other (or away), physical proximity, whether the chest is opened up towards the other subject, whether subjects are touching, whether arms or legs are crossed, feet facing towards or away, open or closed palms, body rigidity or relaxation, and the mirroring of overall body language.
For the purposes of this exercise, you may not include the subject’s face in the image. That may involve shooting the subject from the back, cropping below the neck, photographing a figure engulfed in shadow or blocked by other elements … but whatever your approach, no part of the eyes, nose, mouth, etc may be visible. You must rely on the language of the body itself to convey feeling and emotion.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
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Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.