Happiness is the backbone of my work. I’ve always been obsessed with capturing wild, joyful moments and I don’t think it’s going to stop anytime soon.
Over the years I have been asked hundreds of times how I capture so much joy in my images. We always hear stories of uncooperative kids and stressed parents, but my subjects are always smiling and bursting with happiness.
Of course, there are many ways to elicit joy but I do think that the simple, honest answer is: you really need to WORK for it.
You could wait for joy to happen naturally. After all, kids are usually joyful, right? However if you are a family photographer and spend only an hour or two with your clients, it’s likely not a good plan to just hope that joy will show up on its own. Take matters into your own hands and do something to jumpstart the fun.
If I am going to be honest with you, shooting for joy is not an easy task! It requires a lot of effort and energy from the photographer…you! There will be sessions where you end-up sweaty, exhausted, and drained. But it’s also incredibly rewarding and that is why I love it so much.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do to make your job easier. Let’s see how!
1. Joy starts with YOU
The first thing to keep in mind is the mirror effect. It might seem obvious, but don’t underestimate it because it’s a very powerful tool. The best way to capture joyful expressions from your subjects is to ooze joy yourself.
In my Click Photo School workshop Capturing Joy, this is the advice I give on day one. People are more likely to express their authentic emotions in front of you if you authentically express yours.
Think about it for a minute. Would you feel relaxed and happy in front of a tense, emotionless photographer? I wouldn’t! You need to give before receiving. By doing so, you are showing that your photo session is a space and time where it is perfectly fine to express your feelings freely. It’s a time to be silly, carefree, and wildly happy. Make your subjects truly feel that they can let go!
Before grabbing your camera, make a conscious effort to relax yourself and reconnect to your inner joy. Be ready to smile, laugh, joke with your subjects. It might seem a bit forced at first if you aren’t truly in the mood that day, but I promise it’s worth the effort. Your joyful mood will quickly spread out and your subjects will smile back at you. Together you will fuel the happy mood of the moment!
2. Movement is your best friend
Movement is by far my favorite trick to get joyful expressions in a photo session. It works like magic every time.
Take a shy kid and ask him to smile for you and you will either get a forced-smile-for-the-camera or a weird smirk. Ask him to show you how fast he can run or how high he can jump, and suddenly you will get sparkling eyes and beaming smiles.
Great news: it works with adults, too! Take a grumpy dad. He is typically annoyed to be stuck in a family photo session he didn’t want to be part of in the first place. Ask him to help you make his kids laugh by tickling them, propping them in the air, or making them twirl. That tense dad will instantly relax and start to smile too without even knowing it. It’s the magical power of MOVEMENT!
Making your subjects move will help them relax and forget about the camera. Because you are giving them something specific to do, they can stop thinking about the fact that they are being photographed. This is when they will start being natural and letting their emotions shine.
Beware, photographing your subjects in movement might be a little more challenging than if they were quietly posing on a park bench. You need to watch your settings (see tip #4) as well as be focused and quick to catch the perfect moment. But again, I promise it’s worth the extra effort. The expressions you get when you let your subjects move freely and have fun are so much more impactful and real!
3. The power of body language
When we think about joy, the first thing that comes to our mind is a smiling face. I won’t deny it, capturing a wide happy smile always makes me happy. I don’t think I will EVER tire of it!
However, focusing only on facial expressions would be a mistake. Capturing your subject’s body language is a very powerful way to infuse your images with impactful happiness.
Body language covers the messages expressed by our whole body without even saying a word. It’s an extremely important concept in portraiture in general. However, it becomes especially relevant when you want to convey a joyful feeling. Joy (and positive emotions in general) are usually easy to read on the human body without needing a single sound or word.
The most common manifestations of joy on our body are obviously a smile or laughter. However, other signals like arms raising, head bending backwards, or hands covering the face (when joy comes by surprise, for example) can communicate joy just as clearly.
Paying attention to body language and including it in your work will make the joy perceived even stronger!
4. Watch your settings
Is there anything more frustrating than capturing a strong, authentic moment of joy and realizing after the fact that your image is annoyingly blurry?
Joy often involves fast motion, either because your subjects were actually in movement as suggested in tip #2, or just because the sudden burst of emotion made their body shake.
There are three very simple things you can do to get sharper images when photographing happy moments:
- Bump your shutter speed at 1/500s or higher. It will naturally increase the number of keepers by preventing motion blur.
- Use a dynamic AF mode. This is the autofocus mode that will best follow the movement of your subjects. If your subject is in movement, you want to make sure that your autofocus is constantly refocusing while the distance between your subject and yourself changes, in order to make sure that your image will be crystal clear when you press the shutter. This mode is what Canon users call Ai-Servo or Nikon users call AF-C.
- Use back button focusing when photographing fast action.
Related: How to use back button focusing
These three very simple tips will eliminate most sources of unwanted blurriness. I’m not saying that ALL your images will suddenly become tack sharp, because photographing joy is a challenging, technical work. But I do promise it will increase the number of keepers drastically!
5. Choose your lens well
Not all lenses are created equal when it comes to photographing joyful moments. It’s actually impossible to tell you which lens would be THE best one because your personal photography style and preferences will greatly influence your choices. However, there are a few things you should consider when picking a lens for a joyful photo session.
When in doubt, choose wider over tighter. Manifestations of joy can be rather unpredictable. Therefore, I will always make sure to frame the scene wider than necessary to make room for unplanned movement or gesture. It’s always better to recrop after the fact to get a more desirable composition (this is what all those megapixels are for, right?) than to end up with an annoyingly tight crop with chopped limbs (a big pet peeve of mine!).
Pick a lens with very FAST autofocus. The sharpest of lenses won’t be of any use if it doesn’t follow movement fast enough to nail focus. This is the biggest downside of my beloved 135mm. The bokeh is out of this world and it’s a fabulous portrait lens, but it generally works better with still subjects. With a fast-moving kid it will miss focus most of the time which is something I can’t afford during a client photo session.
Zooms are your friends! I love a good sharp prime lens too, but you can’t beat the flexibility and ease of a good zoom. My beloved Canon 24-70mm 2.8L II stays on my camera 90% of the time when I shoot kids and families. In fact, 100% of the images included in this article were shot with that lens!
I don’t know how many times I have tried to use a prime lens to capture fun family moments only to end up with frustrating results because my feet weren’t fast enough to zoom in or out to capture an unexpected fabulous moment. A zoom lens is versatile and unbeatable to follow wild movement in a heartbeat.
Want to dive in deeper learning how to infuse your photography with happy moments? Then you must join me on November 19th for the very last run of the Capturing Joy workshop. Over four weeks you will learn everything you need to know to capture joyful expressions and interactions during your kids and family photo session. Whether you shoot clients or photograph your own children, this workshop is what you need to capture joy. The workshop will retire after this run so it’s now or never… Dont miss out!
Now get out there and have some wild fun!