Recognising anger, and when to use or avoid it in your pictures.

Our facial expressions are one of key ways we convey emotion in our pictures, and the slightest tension in the face can have a huge impact on the feel of the image. Recognising and understanding emotions helps us become stronger portrait artists.

Anger is one of our primal and strongest emotions, and when it appears in a picture, it can create a strong feeling in the person viewing the image.

This can be used voluntarily, to capture attention in an advertisement for example, but when it’s not intentional, it can create a negative first impression for the person being photographed.

Let’s dig into Anger, how to recognise it, learn why we want to avoid it in our pictures… and when we should run away :)

Emotions create Expressions

When we feel an emotion, our facial muscles contract to create an expression on our face. Dr Paul Ekman identified seven that are found in all forms of societies all over the world:

  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Anger
  • Happiness
  • Contempt
  • Disgust
  • Sadness

Micro expressions are called that way because they appear very briefly, and are barely visible to an untrained eye, but when you film them and slow the movie down, they are actually quite pronounced. (discover a live example on YouTube).

Why understanding emotions in portraits is important for photographers

There are three main reasons recognising anger is important for photographers:

  1. this expression can show up in your pictures involuntarily and can effect the overall feeling of the image
  2. this microexpression is going to tell you how your client is feeling
  3. emotions are contagious and are going to be passed onto the person viewing your picture

Let’s look at these in detail.

1. Anger can show up in your pictures and impact the overall feeling of the portrait.

First of all, it’s important to understand that an emotion is not always going to be fully expressed and can more often than not appear in a lighter form in our pictures.

micro expression anger

When we’re angry, our eyes open wide while pushing against lowered and pinched eyebrows and our lips press together.

In it’s lighter form anger appears as annoyance. The eyes tense up and the lips start pressing lightly against each other

People can appear angry in pictures for several reasons:

The squinch

Photographer Peter Hurley has revolutionized posing for headshot by sharing his squinching technique (if you haven’t seen it yet you have to check it out! It’s brilliant!) and when done properly, it creates a wonderful connected expression.

However, we need to be careful when using this technique, because there is a very fine line between the squinch (the slight tension of the bottom eyelid he teaches) and a real squint that will result in your subject looking angry.

Left: when there is no tension in the eyes, the person looks bored or can even look scared  
Center: a slight tension of the lower eyelid that creates a nice connected & confident expression 
Right: as soon as the top eyelid comes down – even slightly – out goes the squinch and in comes anger. 
The difference between the two is tiny, but the impact on the overall image is very powerful.

2. Micro expressions tell you how your client is feeling

When you master reading micro expressions, it’s like having superman eyes right into the emotional state of the person you’re working with.

If your subject flashes a micro-expression of anger right after you’ve:

  • suggested a pose,
  • talked about something,
  • made a joke,
  • or are discussing the price of a product,

you know you’re treading on dangerous ground and it’s time to revise your approach to help him or her get back into a positive state of mind.

If you’re a street photographer or photojournalist and you see an anger microexpression + a Chin Jut when shooting someone, I’d recommend you get out of there fast because you will often see this behavior just before a fight breaks out.

3. Emotions are contagious

Numerous studies on Facial Feedback Hypothesis have found that our faces not only express emotions, but also mimic the ones we see on other faces. What mimicking does is to send feedback to our brain about an ongoing emotional experience.

In other words, when we see an emotion on someone’s face, but also in a picture or movie, we naturally mimic this emotion with our faces and we feel that emotion too!

What this tells us is that emotions in our pictures are passed onto the viewer and will impact how they feel when seeing the image.

Why? Because our body language not only tells us how someone is feeling, but can also influence how we feel!

You can actually reverse engineer your emotions by forcing an expression or a body language cue.

In her TED talk Your body language shapes who you are, Amy Cuddy shares findings from her research that show how, within just two minutes of power posing, your hormone levels actually change and influence how you feel. Your testosterone (strength hormone) levels will increase and your cortisol (stress hormone) levels will drop.

Observations I have made in my studio support this theory too. I’ve found that people leave the studio standing very straight in a confident stride and I think that is the direct effect of them spending quite a lot of time in confident body language poses. It has been fascinating to observe this!

Anger is not always a bad thing

Like any language, Body Language is used to convey information and emotion. Using Anger in pictures isn’t “wrong”, but anger is related to more negative feelings and it can trigger fear.

  • If your goal is to shoot a stock image of someone who’s angry, you now know what anger looks like to achieve the perfect angry look!
  • If you want to create an attention grabbing picture, then using an expression of anger can be one way of grabbing an audience intention… even though they might associate a slightly negative feeling to it.
  • On the other hand, if your intention is to create a friendly trust building portrait for a corporate client, it will probably be best to stay away from any anger expression in your image to avoid the viewers feeling angry when they see the picture!

 Let’s recap

  • emotions create expressions that can show up in our pictures

  • emotions are contagious, so unless it’s intended, we want to avoid triggering negative emotions for our viewers

  • squinching creates a nice connection in the eyes, but too much looks like anger

  • if you see a micro-expression of anger when interacting with a person, be careful what your next steps will be

Getting the right expression in a photograph is notoriously difficult!

Learn more about micro expressions and how to use this knowledge to engineer emotions in your portraits.

With this 22 page e-book, you will learn:

  • decode the 7 universal micro-expressions
  • how they can impact your business and your pictures
  • engineer emotions of happiness and connection in our pictures
  • when to use negative emotions in your pictures
  • how to coach your clients to get the right expression without it looking fake


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