Adding Emotion and Feeling To Photographs

Adding Emotion and Feeling To Photographs

One thing that makes a great photo is its ability to convey emotion. Emotion in a photograph, or any work of art, is what helps a viewer connect with a piece if that emotion is prevalent in the viewer. Happiness and joy, sorrow and despair, these are some of the easier emotions as they are universally felt, at one time or another, by all on this planet.

Emotion, or a feeling, is what can bring a snapshot out of obscurity and make it shine. Think of a normal sunset picture from the shores of Hawaii with just the horizon and a bright orange sun dipping low. It’s beautiful for sure and even better when viewed in person. Now pull the zoom back to a wider angle and show a couple in silhouette, sitting on lounge chairs facing the waves and reaching to each other to hold hands. Different people will connect with each photo in different ways, or maybe not at all. Those in a romanic mood will enjoy the photo of the couple and those looking for calm without distraction may enjoy the singular sunset.

My point here is you can’t guess which mood people will be in when they view your work. Which is actually a good thing, because the photo should be your expression of what you see and feel through the viewfinder (unless you are attempting a neutrally biased photojournalistic stance). Here then are some tips to help convey emotion and feeling in photographs to help make a stronger connection with viewers.

Realize What Type Of Mood You’re In While Shooting

Your emotional state has the largest impact on the emotional quality of your photos. When I look back through travel photos I will often noticed a dip here and there in the number of photos taken on a particular day. The quality is also off and I can remember just what I was feeling that day. In most cases, I had that, “Just not feeling it today” blah that comes and goes for us all. And it shows in my work. Ok snapshots of mountains, but nothing to write home about.

Other days I feel like the world is my oyster and I’m uncovering hidden gems left and right.

It’s important to understand where you are and realize that will likely come through in your photography (while realizing just like anything in life, some people are really good at faking it). Give yourself a break on the down days and be sure to pick up your camera on the upswings. Just remember that neither lasts forever.

Tighten The Shot

Often a singular emotion gets lost in a busy scene. This goes for photos as well. Simplify the main subject of the image before hitting the shutter release. A wide angle view of a festival in the streets might show the size, which can be impressive in its own right, but the feel of that party is best conveyed on the faces of those dancing or performing in the crowd. Zero in on the action. It may tell the difference between a large crowd who is standing around, bored or a large crowd having the time of their lives.

Focus On Faces

This is a fairly straight forward bit of advice that may seem obvious, but many of us avoid people photographs when in a new situations with strangers. When possible, always ask permission before taking a picture of stranger, especially head on. Again, remember your mood will possibly influence theirs and if you are trying to capture them as naturally as can be (without being a sniper hiding in the shadows), keep your demeanor as neutral as can be. Simple raised eyebrows while pointing to your camera does work and it doesn’t require a huge smile on your part, as if you are asking your subject to smile back.

Chances are they will convey what they wish. If life is hard, they likely won’t smile and their face will often tell the tale of their hardships. If they are joyous, or just young, you may get a beaming smile. And with any good portrait, remember to get sharp focus on the eyes.  And share the results with your subject if you can.

Set Your Camera Down And Observe

I tend to get lambasted when I tell people to stop shooting and set the camera away, so this time I’ll simply tell you to put the camera down for a minute. Forget about shooting and just sit and observe. Your mood has a big part in what and how you shoot, but also realize that being a shooter in a situation often means you travel in a bubble.

To break out of that bubble and absorb more from the world in which you are immersed, sit. And observe for 15 minutes. The mood of those around you will often become more apparent with this relaxed stance.

Return If You Can

If you are shooting a subject which you can return to, do it. The same street or beach or room will have a different feel on different days, especially if the weather changes often. And your mood can shift as well from day to day. Return to a location with an open mind for a second look and you may be surprised to find not only are the characters involved different, the feel of the place is different too.

Conveying emotion in photography is a surefire way to help your work connect with those viewing it. It will help lift the quality of your work and give it more punch. Before you hit the shutter release next time, think to yourself, “What emotion am I trying to convey?”

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Dewan Demmer December 29, 2011 11:14 pm

    I really do try carry as much emotion as I possibly can in a photo. Sometimes though its not that can be found easily, that said I think I am more straight forward in that approach and look for that something that has that obvious factor.

    Here are 2 examples:
    This one is a all about baby and while she is only 3 weeks, I think its really the parents that convey the emotion:
    This is a wedding, and any wedding is overflowing with emotion, its trying to find those moments when everyone else is looking elsewhere ... obviously so long as I dont have to be paying attention to what everyone else is looking:

  • Susan May 27, 2011 05:51 am

    Love how you've described the role of emotion on the photographer and on the experience of the individual viewing those photos! Very well written.

  • zafarali May 24, 2011 05:25 am

    [eimg link='' title='labour on sunday' url='']

    Taken after much observation, sometimes taking the photo means just keeping the camera down for a while :)

  • Katie@How to take great photos April 17, 2011 08:28 am

    Very well said! It's amazing how my own emotional state at the time of shooting plays such a large role in how my pictures turn out!

  • amir paz February 12, 2011 09:00 pm

    one of my better works i am proud of...


  • Erik Kerstenbeck February 1, 2011 06:23 am


    Here is another shot from Sunday’s Trash the Dress session with our beautiful model, Jessie Wilson


    Cheers, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Rhett McCarthy January 30, 2011 11:32 am

    I agree 100%, its so important to have your images send the right message or it would really be another snapshot amongst the others. I always try to convey what I'm feeling in my images.. it gives the viewer a sense of belonging & makes them want to continue viewing your work.. Great Article!!

  • Barrie January 29, 2011 11:31 pm

    Years ago I read The Power of Now where he describes most people walking around disconnected to what was around them. If I recall correctly the author gave two tips to get in touch with what was happening around you;
    See the space around objects or between you and objects
    Try to listen to the silence amidst the noise.
    I paraphrase and it does sound new-agish but it does work. helps you focus

  • Rob January 29, 2011 04:42 pm

    Another great article which is a simple concept yet can accomplish so much for all of us! I like the idea of returning to certain spots as time of year / day, lighting, weather, etc will totally change the subject...I've got my eye on an old abandoned shed out in a field and keep going back to see if I can get the shot I'm looking for.

    This site is fantastic and always look forward to the articles and of course everyone's comments and ideas!

  • Sarah January 28, 2011 11:30 pm

    I love it- soooo true. Emotion is everything. I couldnt shoot weddings unless i cared emotionally about what i was shooting!! Thank you for confirming what i have often felt in my heart about photography- it is not all about f- stops! :)

  • sal Vera January 28, 2011 05:51 pm

    Absolute true: Anytime I read these articles I learn a big deal of photograpy, thanks to everybody who participate in these posts. Yes, emotion is inherent with the art..

  • Eleazar Paradise January 28, 2011 04:20 pm

    I really enjoy your posts. Can you add even more photo examples in future posts?

  • David Hauraney January 28, 2011 02:52 pm

    Excellent article. I totally agree and it was great to read so well articulated!

  • Ron Emorey January 28, 2011 01:18 pm

    I agree. Emotion is the non technical side yet equally important aspect to complete a photograph. Very good article. Two thumbs up!

  • fortunato_uno January 28, 2011 12:41 pm

    Catching the emotion in a shot (as you said) really brings life to a shot (as well as a story). I have to say though, one of my personal favorites (of mine), is of my niece tasting a chunk of coal (yea what a UncleHuh?). There is no real emotion but, there is wonderment (can't say it's an emotion).!/media/508334-img-1978-inquisitive
    I have some that I feel really show emotion, but I can't help think the lack of it is what makes this shot.
    Either way, another good article.

  • Keith Skinner January 28, 2011 07:28 am

    All good points and excellent suggestions. I would add that one should also consider techniques that enhance the emotion. Shallow DOF, blurring, exposure choices, etc. that may add to the emotion and might not otherwise be considered for that shot.

  • Kiran January 28, 2011 05:28 am

    Love the way how easily you've explained to focus on emotions which actually is essential to produce quality photography.

  • Akame January 28, 2011 05:05 am

    I'm so glad I found this site. I've learned more in a few days than I did in a three-month course at the local college. This site is gold!

  • Neil January 28, 2011 05:05 am

    When i was backpacking and we got to the top of the mountain I took this shot of my two friends. i always felt like this shot conveyed emotion of mission accomplished.

  • George E. Norkus January 28, 2011 04:44 am

    As I read through your article, many of my past images came to mind and the ones with "emotion" really stood out.

    Very good article!

  • Mark Rowbottom January 28, 2011 04:34 am

    A great arterial
    Some day when I am travailing I Just don't take any photo because I have had enough, time to chill!!

  • Draku Zeos January 28, 2011 04:21 am

    Good to see an article about the non-technical side of photography. Cheer ho!

    One of the things I like about this site is that it isn't always all about gear, controls and techniques. Photography has the power to convey ideas and feelings just as any other form of self-expression. I think we've all known photographers who were all about the technical side of this great art form, but who were pretty clueless about the aspects of imaging which reach past what is in the picture and how it looks, and focus on the effect the image has on our mind, heart and soul. I've always said that the best photography is part technology, part technique/process and part personal self-expression. To learn about this art, we must learn about all three. To master this art, we must master all three.

    Very nice piece and I hope to see more like it here.

  • ScottC January 28, 2011 04:02 am

    Well explained, I've noticed later that listlessness or some other mood affected my photography. I think the best piece of advice is "put your camera down and observe". I've arrived at places, felt tired or aimless, and left the camera in the backpack. In less than an hour I knew what I was looking for and the camera was out. Second best advice, "return if you can", add to that try different perspectives with a different lens or two.

    Her back is turned, but I think the "enchantment" she must be feeling comes thru in this photo:

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer January 28, 2011 03:56 am

    I would agree, one's own emotions affect what you photograph and how you photograph. Returning to the same place or same spot is also very good advice. I have photographed the same places in my area quite often, without worry about repeating shots since conditions are never exactly the same.

    This shot I titled "Permanently Thinking . . . "

    Even though the subject is an inanimate object, it was realistically creepy looking.

  • David Johns January 28, 2011 03:37 am

    I liked your statement, "Photographers travel in a bubble". We need to participate to be part of the environment to truly show the emotions but not involved. Participate and involved are different words and meaning. I also learned in Scuba diving and Reading the Late John Wooden's books, "Be quick but don't hurry". Observe and enjoy.

  • Eric Nelson January 28, 2011 03:29 am

    Great article! A trick I use with upcoming shoots is to send out a "what to expect" letter along with suggestions on gettin into the right mindset.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck January 28, 2011 03:08 am


    This is a great article. One of the challenges that I have had when shooting in the studio is effectively directing models to compose the image I have in my mind. As I am learning, its all about the rapport one generates. I find that showing the models the outcome (I used a HD Monitor) helps then to tune their pose and get the Emotion I am looking for, like this shot:

    Red Dragon Models, San Diego:

    Regards, Erik
    Kerstenbeck Photographic Art

  • Dave January 28, 2011 02:52 am

    An emotionless photograph is a waste of pixels and time. The trick is making it come through for the viewer. Nice article!

  • Juergen Buergin January 28, 2011 01:54 am

    Great article, thanks! Yers: It's emotion, emotion, emotion and emotion. OK, maybe some more things too. Evoke a story with your photo, or try to surprise! Try not to be boring. That's all difficult to achieve, but emotion is my number one!
    BEst regards from Berlin!

  • THE aSTIG @ January 28, 2011 01:38 am

    You know what? I totally agree.

    I do car photography for my website. And sometimes when capturing an inanimate object such as a car, I've come to realize that you have to capture the emotion behind how the car was designed and what it was made to do. Not all shots and angles are appropriate to all cars. It really differs. So you really have to capture the EMOTION behind the vehicle and capture it at its best.

    This article helps you do just that. Thank you so much. More power!

  • THE aSTIG @ January 28, 2011 01:37 am

    You know what? I totally agree.

    I do car photography for my website. And sometimes when capturing an inanimate object such as a car, I've come to realize that you have to capture the emotion behind how the car was designed and what it was made to do. Not all shots and angles are appropriate to all cars. It really differs. So you really have to capture the EMOTION behind the vehicle and capture it at its best.

    This article helps you do just that. Thank you so much. More power!