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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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