John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Photos of Body Language

(return to the article "Body Language in Photography")

body language in pictures

Body Shapes

Especially when arms and legs are in full view, notice the shapes created by the person's body. How do the lines of the arms, legs, torso, and head interact with each other? For this subject, those lines curve inward towards a fetal position, a movement emphasized by the curls of her hair. Surrounded by the cushions of the couch, she has retreated to a womb-like comfort and security. Her feet provide na important clue about her repose. After a long hike on a dirt path through the woods, she has curled up for a nap.

body language photography

Where do the eyes go?

The eyes reveal the subject's attention and mood. Notice where they are looking, and how? How do the eyes and their line of sight relate to other parts of the person's body?

Here the subject is looking out the window in a reflective mood. Her head, her "thinking" fingers, and her upright knee form a triangular composition that keeps the viewers eyes moving through the scene. Along that path, one notices the bracelet, which might provide a clue to the subject's personality and lifestyle, and perhaps also to the thoughts on her mind.

body language images

The endless stream of body language

If you sit back to watch a person while they are interacting with someone else, you'll see an endless stream of constantly changing body language. You can take one shot after another, each time getting slightly different results. In the infinite variety of combinations of body posture, facial expression, and eye movement, each photo will tell a slightly different story about the mood and state of mind of the subject.

body language photos

The full body language story

The more of the subject we can see in a photo - including arms, legs, torso, the eyes, and clothing - the more information will be conveyed about the subject's state of mind and personality. The way you take as well as edit the shot will also influence the impact of this full body language story. In this photo, a low camera angle along with vignetting in post-processing creates a "settling down" introspective feeling, which reinforces the closed-in body language of the subject.

body language photographs


Intimacy between people is expressed through body language by a merging of their "personal spaces." Parts of the people's bodies will touch, overlap, and intertwine. Eye contact will lock into each other. Their facial expressions will be relaxed and open. In this photo, the tight square crop, in addition to a circular composition, reinforces the feeling of closeness and being "turned into" each other.

body language photography

Dyad body language

The "dyad" consists of two people. Even in this smallest possible group, the interaction of body language of the subjects can become amazingly complex. Now there is not just one body shape, but two interacting with each other, which inlcudes the various lines created by four arms, four legs, two sets of eyes, two heads, two sets of facial expressions, and body orientation.

body language images

The energy of body language

Given the complexities that emerge in the body language of a dyad shot, the possibilities for generating sensations of movement are endless. In this photo, the various diagonal lines and triangular shapes created by the arms and heads of these cousins, along with their facial expressions, reveals the energetic, playful enthusiasm of their time together.

body language picture

The complex body language of group photos

When we start taking photos of three or more people, we move into the wonderfully complex and subtle world of group body language. For photos like this one, ask yourself these kinds of questions:

- Who is making physical contact with whom?
- What subgroups or clusters of people do you notice?
- Where are the different subjects looking?
- How do their facial expressions compare?
- What shape does the group pose form?
- What positions in the group do the subjects take relative to each other and the group as a whole?
- What are the people doing with their hands?

Your answers to these questions will tell you about the individual personalities of the subjects, the nature of their relationship to each other and the group, and the "personality" of the group as a whole.


Books about body language:

body language in photos
The Definitive Book of Body Language, by Barbara Pease

This book is mostly written about body language in the worlds of business and politics, including such things as how liars gesture, what leg positions reveal, smiling, and interpersonal attraction as reveal through body language. Take it with a grain of salt, as not all of this information has a scientific basis. It's based mostly on the experience of the authors. Nevertheless, this book will give you lots to think about when taking and looking at photos of people.
body language in photos

Unmasking the Face: A Guide to Recognizing Emotions from Facial Expressionsn, by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen

Unlike other books about body language, this one really is based on rather extensive psychological research. The authors discuss many photos that illustrate variations of the basic facial expressions of emotion: happiness, fear, anger, surprise, disgust/contempt, and sadness. They also describe the ways in which people might try to hide this emotions in their face, as well as exercises for understanding your own facial expressions and those of other people. This is an excellent book for learning how to identify the obvious and sublte emotions expressed in portraits. The information might also come in very handy when coaching subjects to express emotions when taking photos of them.

body language in photography

What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agents Guide to Speed-Reading People, by Joe Nararro and Marvin Karlins

Written by a former FBI counterintelligence officer and an expert on nonverbal behavior, this book attempts to educate the reader on how to quickly assess other people's honest and deceptive emotions as expressed through body language. As with the Pease book, it offers lots of fascinating information that photographers will find very useful, although it should be taken with a grain of salt. The information indeed comes from experience "in the trenches," so to speak, but has not been scientificially validated. From a scientific point of view, we must question whether the body language of people in the world of crime, politics, and business accurately reflects the body language in other social situaitons.


body language

Photolanguage: How Photos Reveal the Fascinating Stories of Our Lives and Relationships - by Robert Akeret

Based on his experiences as a psychoanalyst who used family photographs as way to help his patients better understand themselves, Akeret developed a system for interpreting the hidden, unconscious “language” expressed in images. In his earlier book Photoanalysis and in this more recent sequel, Photolanguage, Akeret applies his techniques to the interpretation of photos of both everyday people and famous figures over the past century, including Adolf Hitler, William F. Buckley, Frank Sinatra, O.J. Simpson, and Jodie Foster. Based on a careful analysis of subtle body language, dress, and context, his conclusions about the unconscious emotions and motivations of the subjects is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Trained as a psychoanalytic psychologist myself, I find his books absolutely fascinating. To be honest, I wonder how much of his interpretations of what he sees in photographs are based more on a kind of post-hoc Monday Night Quarterbacking as opposed to a truly objective analysis of the subjects. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys understanding the nuances of personality styles as conveyed in photos.


Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche