The best photography often conveys emotions, but how do you create emotional photography? How do you add feelings to your photos so you can move the viewer and ensure they connect with the piece?
I’ve spent years honing my ability to infuse photos with emotions. And in this article, I’ll share my absolute favorite techniques – so that you can capture powerful, moving images, too!
Of course, not all viewers experience the same emotions in response to the same photos, so don’t feel pressure to convey specific feelings to everyone. Instead, use these tips, plus your personal emotions, to create powerful, one-of-a-kind images.
Let’s dive right in, starting with my first tip:
1. Identify your mood before shooting
The emotional state of the photographer – that’s you! – has the largest impact on the emotional quality of your photos.
So whenever you head out with your camera, before you take a single shot, or even look for a shot, ask yourself: How am I feeling today? Then let that emotion guide your shooting, and channel it into your photos.
After all, it’s tough to infuse an image with an emotion that you aren’t feeling. If you’re over the moon with happiness, you’ll struggle to find sad or bleak compositions. And if you’re down in the dumps, creating awe-inspiring or uplifting images won’t be easy.
So start by identifying your emotions. Look for compositions that align with those feelings.
At the same time, it’s often worth rechecking your feelings periodically throughout your photoshoot. Depending on the view, the light, chance encounters, etc., emotions can change, and you don’t want to miss out on emotionally resonant shots because you’re searching for the wrong thing.
By the way, sometimes, your emotional state might simply be “bored” or “bleh.” That’s okay; it happens to the best of us. When I look back through my travel photos, I’ll notice a dip in quality, and it often corresponds to my feelings at the time. On days like these, you might consider leaving your camera behind, watching a movie, or doing something creative that doesn’t pressure you to take powerful, emotional shots.
And don’t worry. Your boredom will pass, and pretty soon you’ll feel excited about photography again!
2. Simplify the shot (try using a telephoto lens)
In wide, busy, expansive scenes, emotions often get lost. Yes, the emotion might be there, but the viewer will have a hard time noticing – the image may fall a bit flat, at least from an emotional point of view.
So if you’re looking to create emotional photography, consider simplifying the shot. Exclude elements from your frame. Choose a perspective that highlights a single area of interest, not the entire scene.
An easy way to simplify is with focal length and/or compositional cropping. The longer the lens, the less you include in the shot, which can be a great way to emphasize certain subjects, so consider shooting with a 70-200mm lens rather than a wide-angle option.
That said, you can also simplify wide-angle images. Try getting down low, so that the subject is framed against a uniform sky. Or use natural framing to exclude distracting elements.
And you’re also free to “zoom with your feet” by moving forward to isolate people, natural features, and beautiful details.
3. Focus on faces
Faces are full of emotion. The eyes are the windows to the soul, after all, and often show anger, joy, sadness, love, and so much more.
Plus, faces can convey emotions through puffy eyes, tears, wrinkles, etc. So if you want feelings to really shine through, train your lens on people’s faces!
A word of caution, however: Do not rush up with your lens, thrust it into a person’s field of view, and snap a shot, especially if they’re feeling emotional. Instead, be respectful. Whenever possible, ask permission, especially if you don’t know the person. (I often just raise my eyebrows while pointing at my camera, and it works great.)
By the way, if you want top-notch emotional portraits, make sure to think about the lighting. Learn about lighting patterns and how they affect the viewer, because it’s easy to convey different emotions simply by changing the light’s position relative to the subject.
A final piece of advice: Don’t encourage your subjects toward specific emotions. If they’re feeling sad, take a sad photo; if they’re feeling happy, take a happy photo; if they’re feeling tired, take a tired photo…You get the idea. Yes, it’s good to head into a scene with specific feelings in mind, but you must be adaptable, depending on the content of the scene.
4. Set your camera down and observe
When I tell people to stop shooting and put the camera away, I often get criticized, yet it’s an important part of photography – especially photography infused with feelings.
Setting down your camera gives you time to observe the world. Just look around and see what pulls at your consciousness. Ask yourself: What interests me? What draws me? What do I want to capture? What matters to me about this scene?
These questions only take a minute or two, but they’ll help you identify new, emotionally resonant compositions, plus they might clarify your ideas about a scene and show you the way forward.
Also, when I shoot, I often travel in a bubble. So setting down the camera lets me feel the surroundings and its emotional content, which can, in turn, affect my own emotional state (this matters a great deal; see Tip 1!).
Sometimes, it can be enough to simply sit down or stand in place for a minute or two, just looking around and taking in the scenery. Other times, you might want to pack your camera in your bag and go for a walk. It depends on your mood, and I don’t recommend you force things, but a little break can go a long way.
5. Return to the same scenes repeatedly
Scenes look different on different days, and your feelings are different on different days, too.
Take advantage of that fact.
If you’re shooting a subject that you can return to, then do it. The street or beach or room or person will have a different feel on different days, especially if you’re photographing outdoors and the weather changes often.
Make sure you return to a location with an open mind. Don’t expect certain feelings, or you might be disappointed. Instead, clarify your emotions, then pretend you’re seeing the scene for the first time.
(Pro tip: Try changing up your approach each time you tackle the scene. Bring a different camera, use a different lens, shoot with a tripod, shoot a long exposure, etc. Anything to capture new emotional content!)
And who knows? If you return to the same scene/subject enough, you might even create a series, which can turn into a portfolio or an article or even a book.
Capturing emotional photography: final words
Conveying emotion is a surefire way to create powerful images that connect with the viewer. Feelings will elevate your work and give it more punch.
So remember the tips I’ve shared. Think about your own emotional state. And capture some gorgeous photos!
Now over to you:
Do you have any advice for capturing images full of feeling and emotion? Do you have examples of emotional photos? Share your thoughts (and shots!) in the comments below.