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The Importance of Capturing Gesture and Emotion in Street Photography

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Sometimes an expression can cut you like a knife.

Sometimes an expression can cut you like a knife.

One of the most fascinating things about street photography is that it can be so hard to pinpoint the reasons why one photograph works and another does not.

A good street photograph can be sharp or it can be blurry; it can be in contrasty light or in soft and even light; it can be an energetic scene with layers of people or it can be a quiet shot with nobody in it. It gets further complicated when you start to think about the ideas, moods, and feelings that your images suggest.

Despite this lack of certainty, I believe there are two things that will always improve a candid photograph, and that is a gesture in a subject’s body or an emotion captured on a subject’s face. Both of these elements have the power to be the defining reason that a photograph is great. They can be the basis for an entire image.

When I refer to emotion, I am talking about the look in a person’s face, in their eyes, in their mouth, in their eyebrows, or even in their nose. When I refer to gesture, I am talking about a movement, a stance, an elegance, or any position of a subject’s body that is suggestive in some way.

This image would not have worked without the elegant and suggestive stance in the legs.

This image would not have worked without the elegant and suggestive stance in the legs.

It can be misunderstood that doing street photography well is solely about photographing people that seem to pop out at you in some obvious someway. Maybe this is through a unique fashion or an interesting facial feature. The result is that you see images of people deemed interesting for some reason that don’t seem to be actually doing or thinking anything – they are expressionless and neutral in stride.

Instead of photographing with only the intention of capturing interesting people, try to take this idea further and locate interesting emotions and gestures in all different types of people. I don’t believe that you can differentiate who is more worthy of a photograph based solely on someone’s facial features or clothing. Your most ‘uninteresting’ person aesthetically can give you the best photograph of your life with a single powerful expression. So many compelling moments lie within these expressions and gestures.

So the next time you’re out photographing, pay attention to what you think a person is feeling and work from there out.

NY is filled with nervous people. This image tells the story of the city more than any image of a skyscraper can.

New York is made up of nervous people. To me this image tells the story of the city more than any image of a skyscraper can.

For more street photography tips try these articles:

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James Maher is a professional photographer based in New York, whose primary passion is documenting the unique personalities and stories of the city. He is the author of the e-book, "The Essentials of Street Photography" and runs photo tours of New York. To view his work or connect, visit his website.

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  • ColininOz

    This image taken in Colombo Sri Lanka as the locals paraded along the esplanade while the sun went down into the Indian Ocean . The little girl wanted something from a stall and mother was less than keen.

  • As luck would have it, the young lady at right swept her eyes toward the
    street performer. A bit of a contrast in both these young ladies’
    social circumstances.
    Taken on the Byward Market in Ottawa, Ont, Canada.
    (Cropped)

  • Geoff

    These two women, presumably not friends, passed by the cafe where I was drinking coffee, James.

  • This is beautiful Geoff and exactly what I was talking about.

  • Kurt Breakpoint Charlie

    Sometimes it’s just a fleeting glimpse.

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