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My first experience with photography was a black and white film photography class in high school. We were given one roll of film per week, and told to, “go capture something compelling.” Though learning photography on a fully manual, very low-tech camera, resulted in a bit of a learning curve when I switched over to digital (hello metering modes, back button focus, and exposure compensation!), one of the most important things that my first black and white photography class taught me was the importance of capturing emotion in photography.
Ted Grant–an amazing Canadian photojournalist–has said, “When you photograph people in color, you photograph their clothes. But when you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls!” While I’ve certainly seen my fair share of color photos that beautifully capture emotion, I also relate to Grant’s words very much.
In a sense, black and white photography strips away all the extras, and forces you to think about things like contrast and emotion, in a way that isn’t always be as crucial when you’re shooting in color. Whether intentional or not, it can be easy to use color and props as a sort of crutch in photography. I love a photo of a toddler licking a giant multi-colored lollipop just as much as the next person. But, the tendency with images like that can sometimes be for the color and the whimsy to carry the image, rather than the emotion.
Starting in black and white photography taught me that it’s not enough to have perfectly matched clothing, or a brightly colored chandelier hanging from a tree in the woods. It’s not enough to stand someone in front of a beautiful backdrop and tell them to smile. Compelling photographs do more than that. They give you a glimpse into what the person being photographed is feeling right at that moment.
If you’ve never had experience shooting exclusively in black and white, I highly suggest giving it a try. Most digital cameras have the capacity to shoot black and white right in camera (consult your manual). It’s a really great exercise to occasionally force yourself to do so. Grab a friend, and go shoot 50 or 100 frames in black and white.
I do recommend shooting black and white right in camera for this exercise, because it completely eliminates color from the equation. It’s a quick and easy way to see which images are successful in black and white, and which are not. It also helps train your brain to “think” in black and white. Once you’ve completed this quick exercise, take a look at your images. Are your black and white images compelling? If not, one of the reasons may be that the images are lacking emotion.
As a photographer, there’s no exact science to capturing emotion in your photos. Some children will be naturally expressive, and some couples will be naturally affectionate. Other people may need a bit of help getting comfortable enough to express themselves in front of the camera. As always, building rapport with the people that you’re photographing, before and during the session, will go a long way in helping them relax and feel comfortable.
In my experience, the key to capturing emotion, is helping your subjects to actually feel the same emotion that you’re trying to capture during the session. One simple and effective tip is to remember that humans naturally mimic the emotions and attitudes of those around them. As the photographer, if you come into the session laughing and joking around, it’s much more likely that the people you’re photographing will start to laugh and joke around as well.
So, keep a book of silly knock knock jokes tucked into your camera bag, or come prepared to tell a funny story that happened to you recently. If you’re having a bad day, make the conscious decision to leave it behind for the duration of your session, and even fake it until you make it if you must. It really does make a difference!
When photographing couples, asking them to tell you a story about how they met, got engaged, or the best part of their wedding, are all topics that can help cultivate real emotions during your session. Ask the question, then wait and watch carefully, with camera in hand, for interaction between the couple during the story.
For kids, try asking them about their favorite movie, TV show, or the best part of their week so far. If you don’t have children around the same age as the ones you’re photographing, it’s a good idea to ask the parents in advance about the sorts of books, songs, TV shows, movies, and/or sports their children enjoy so that you can prepare thoughtful questions that will allow them to talk about the things they love.
As funny as it sounds, another method that’s really effective in making people laugh is to actually ask them to fake laugh. Ask them to be silly and to give you their biggest and deepest Santa Claus chuckle. It will feel weird and awkward, but the end result is usually that everyone around starts genuinely laughing, and that’s the moment you’re waiting for as the photographer.
During family sessions, getting mom or dad to play along and be over-the-top silly, almost always helps elicit laughs from the kids. It’s a good idea to tell the parents in advance that you’re going to ask them to be silly and ridiculous, but that if they just roll with it, the kids will smile and laugh in a natural way. They won’t if you just say, “look here and smile!”
I no longer shoot exclusively in black and white, nor am I arguing that black and white photography is the only way to capture emotional images. Ones that capture real emotions will be compelling whether they are processed in color or in black and white. However, upon reflecting on my personal journey in photography, I can clearly see that beginning with black and white photography forced me to prioritize emotion in my images over color, props, and styling, in a way that has strengthened my photography overall.
Do you struggle with capturing genuine emotion in your images, or does it come easily for you? Do you have any other tips about capturing emotion to share? Please share in the comments below.