How to Emote in Photos

If anyone ever tells you that there is a distinct separation between models and actors, I invite you to challenge this theory. In my last column we discussed finding inspiration on Pinterest and in fashion magazines. I’d like to further explore this subject and explain what to do after you’ve found your inspiration. My favorite thing about modeling has always been “telling a story.” It is not our job, but our privilege, to portray a character in every photo we take. The beauty of photography is capturing an image that will evoke an emotion in the viewer. In speaking with fellow models over the years, I’ve heard that it’s often hard for some to channel their emotions onto film. Is it a mental block? Is it an unwillingness to go that extra mile? Whatever it is, I believe every model should try their best to avoid the “deadpan” look at all costs. Nothing is more unfortunate than a well-produced, expertly styled photo shoot ruined by a model who doesn’t connect with the story. I look at countless advertisements in both fashion magazines from million dollar companies and smaller publications. Why are the big-budget advertisements the ones that resonate with us? Sure, it doesn’t hurt that the models are wearing the best clothing on the planet in some of the most exotic, beautifully lit locations on planet Earth. But what I believe really makes the photo is the model. The models who are hired for big campaigns have proven themselves (some over decades) to carry an entire brand’s message with only a look.

Model: Valerie Wyndham; Photographer: Kyle Schruder

But how do we do it? Photographers will often tell you to think of a time in your life that will bring your emotions to the surface. The problem with that is that models can take it way too literally. If the image you’re creating is one of solace, sadness or loss, it’s very easy to recall a memory from your own life that will put you in the appropriate mood. Why I caution you is because there is, I believe, a difference between “model acting” and “actual acting.” We hear Tyra Banks often say to “America’s Next Top Model” contestants that while they successfully demonstrated a distinct look, they “lost their model.” It’s so easy to take an emotion too far and forget your angles, lose your light, or be careless in your poses. What I suggest is to not fully go to “that place” of dark emotions. Dip your toe in the pool. Do not dive in. Do not “forget your model!” Practice in the mirror as often as you can. Try different expressions and study your angles in various lighting.

It is our job as models to think about the key aspects of what we’re hired to express.

Consider Your Surroundings

Are you in a beautiful lush forest? Are you in a grungy lumber yard? Echo your surroundings in your emotions. Stop for a moment to breathe in your location and let it speak to you. Take in the view, smell the air, touch your surroundings…how does it all make you feel?

Model: Valerie Wyndham; Photographer: Kyle Schruder

Consider the Brand

What does the company have in mind for how they want to be perceived? Speak with the owner of the brand or whoever is directing you about what their brand represents. Not only will this help you in posing, but it will impress them that you want to represent their product to the best of your abilities. In addition to speaking with someone, you should also do homework (even if it is just Googling the company) and read every material you can about the brand.

Know Your Audience

Who will be viewing this image? Is it a sexy men’s magazine? If so, then sultry poses and direct eye contact may be what works. (Research, research…can’t stress this enough.) Is it a women’s fashion catalog? Carefree poses and a friendly gaze may be appropriate. Is it an avant-garde editorial? Get creative in your poses. Your eyes, pose and expression can tell the viewer everything they need to know.

Photographers will forever be telling you that the story is in your eyes. Listen to that and take it to heart. It’s our job as models to discern what that story is. Get lost in that story and express yourself in a way that feels right. It should be organic, but I assure you it does become easier over time. As with every column I write, I want to stress that asking questions is completely acceptable and should be encouraged. A great relationship with a photographer is born this way. If you’re having trouble with emotions in your photos, I also strongly suggest acting classes. Does this mean you should switch careers? Not necessarily. But I encourage any exercises that will get you out of your shell, so to speak, so that when you are called upon to play a character you have the mental tools to be free in your expressions. With every shoot simply ask yourself, “Who am I today?”

Wishing you luck in the amazing and, most importantly, meaningful images you will create. It is art, after all. Never forget that.

Valerie Wyndham

Valerie Wyndham is an American host/model/actress of English and Welsh descent. Valerie specializes in Fashion, Glamour/Pinup and Lingerie modeling with experience in Print, Tradeshow and Fitness modeling. She is currently a feature model for ‘MuscleMag’ and is a host for “Impact Wrestling” seen every Thursday night on Spike TV. Her website is

More Posts - Website

Follow Me:

2 Responses to “How to Emote in Photos”

  1. September 18, 2016 at 2:25 am, steven said:

    I just started doing selfies. I like the art of it and my goal is to have the viewer feel the picture and what im trying to convey with only my eyes, facial expressions and body language. I also spent time studying different angles, types and different types of lighting throughout a day, how light and shadow work together. Its fun and a cool hobbie. I sent pics off to 2 agencies. A month later one liked the 3 selfies and wants me to set up profile page with them and the other in the uk likes thinks im in good shape. My look doesn’t fit what they have on the books but offered to put me in the database for editorials commercial, ….you know. These pics were 2 selfies sent to them through their website or any email i found. I really didn’t expect a response because of many reasons but i didn’t really use their process. Anyway, it’s cool that the like the pics. Its about the art of it and evoking emotion through the pic. .but don’t lose the model in you pic..


  2. March 10, 2015 at 10:38 pm, r c said:

    some good tips, but the main focus of modeling wasn’t presented. the purpose of the model is to sell the product or service they are modeling. that is the “emote.”

    it may be a handbag, a dress or, as in fine-art, the structure of light presented by the photographer. that even goes to glamour and erotica in presenting the sexual call to action in emotion. it’s not about the model, it’s about what they are selling. nothing more, nothing less.

    the other key to remember, and this goes back to the early days of model presentation, is emotion toward the audience of longing. generally speaking, as what determined success, is the audience is directed more toward the female, the empowered buyer. that goes to how imaging is viewed. females tend to take the emotion as, “i want to be like her, or in the case of male models, i want my man to be like him.”

    on the other hand, male viewers tend to view the imaging in respect to wanting to have, or dominate the model as a possession which is not as strong a selling point to the product or service.

    think about that as a model. if one can create that attraction for both the male and female viewer then that’s called success. there are countless examples, think victoria’s secret…


Leave a Reply