Photography is talking in a visual language. Often this language is not even known by the viewer, but our job is making him feel it – somehow.
The feel, a mood, the emotional side of photography, might be one of the most difficult tasks in shooting and post processing.
But it is worth the effort to try and learn. Adding an emotional side to your images is another step out of the randomness of just taking “nice pictures”.
This post will sound very strange at first, I am well aware. But both of us, you and I, will have to live with that. Give it a try.
NOTE: I haven’t studied psychology and probably I never will. The following is my own point of view, my own approach. Not to be mistaken as a scientific analysis!
Before being capable of including emotions in a photograph we have to be aware of them ourselves first. And that’s where the problems start.
Past decade our environment has shifted towards a purely technical life: smartphones, apps, algorithms give us the feel of being in control over everything. The holy grail of efficiency is one reason we ended up here. Efficiency is an emotions killer. Don’t feel, just function – fast.
Therefore often we try to hide our real emotions or worse, not even let them come up. Sure, in the end we want to have our emotions under control to some extent, but in modern societies we might have gone a step too far.
In regular life we might want to take decisions with our brain (though I am not sure whether that is best if looking at the state of our world). However, in photography mostly we need to follow our heart and instinct. Learn listening to them.
Emotions require senses. As children we had senses much more developed but for whatever reason they tend to get lost when growing up. We get prepared to fit a standardized grid.
Knowing that our senses might need a little push the question is how to activate them again.
If your daily life is packed from the first minute to the last with stress and appointments I have bad news. You won’t make this step. Being deeply sensible and emotional, that means increasing emotional intelligence, needs regular practice. It takes time, self reflection, and a lot of relaxation.
Catch an extra deep breath. Again. And again. This technique will let you calm down and help concentrate. Take half an hour time – at least!
Listen to all the various sounds around. First you will hear the most present only, but after just a little while the medium present ones will come through. Try to hear what happens in the background, the very quiet sounds. You can even make out directions. Figure out which materials cause a specific sound. For example then examine the details of each sound whether it is linear, whether it swings or shows any patterns. Are there emotions connected to the sounds?
Try to smell what is going on around you. Wherever you are in a city or in nature you will discover hundreds of smells in any place. First again just the main smell will show up, but quickly your senses will take up the less prominent ones if you try and allow for.
Touch objects when walking around, feeling for the details of their surfaces and their shapes. I mean not just to touch them but to figure out which kind of emotions might be connected to them.
During your next dinner try to figure out where a certain taste is created. Try to figure out the ingredients, the herbs and spices in a meal just by concentrating on the taste.
In summary: Strengthen your senses and examine your emotions when senses “discover” something.
TIPP: Usually closing your eyes helps concentrating on just one sense when smelling, hearing, tasting, or touching things.
That’s all just a bit of exercise we can do every day for widening our sensuality. It is not yet really useful for photography, I agree. We’ll need one more step.
For photography just feeling emotions is not enough. We have to know how to trigger them. That means exploring our own feelings.
Something sad happened? Don’t try to get rid of the feelings to quickly get back into working mode. Do the opposite, live the feelings, even increase them, go through the worst, actively. Something good happened? Try to figure out those emotions you go through. Examine deeply when, why, and how does it feel. You feel melancholic, or maybe you are in a very strange mood? Live it (without bothering your partner. It’s not his fault you are into an art kind of hobby). Think you got the point.
Having figured out our own feel now we have to translate our emotions into terms more suitable for photography: Is your feel color or black and white, selenium toned or sepia, does it feel blurry or focused, soft or harsh, do you feel symmetric or asymmetric, is the feel yellow or blue or green, orange or red, misty or clear, cold or warm, balanced or off balance?
Try to create those emotions in a photo by varying light conditions, aperture, cropping of the frame.
Once starting to be aware of our own emotions we might want to figure out the emotions of others, as last even of things. I am sure you are able of showing empathy already, but we want to go extreme.
Look at people, situations, things, feeling into them, feeling life from their perspective by diving deep into their emotions. How would you translate their situation into visual language?
After a while of allowing for the emotional side in us to gain importance again, it will be easier to create emotions in our photography. Or better said, not opening up a certain level of emotions will make it impossible to create those in a photo.
Discover Emotions in Photos
As a next step figuring out how others solve the task can be a great source of learning. Not for copying but for getting an idea how it works.
Look at touching photos, be it landscape, nature, portrait, commercial, wedding, or whatever. Try to figure out which emotions they trigger and how they do. Is it the light, is it the focus, or is it the composition, is it an expression, is it a special moment, is it color, a shift in the temperature, or the reduction to black and white?
Once you start to feel these things by yourself, once it starts to be second nature, once you are capable of being a truly emotional person, you will start to see emotions creep into your own photography. Don’t worry, it is a good sign, not just for shooting!
But there still is a major problem. Having opened up yourself more for the emotional side of life does not mean the viewer of your photo is capable of doing the same. If he is, well, that’s great news. But if he isn’t, how to reach out to him? You are then speaking in a language he does not understand.
There are two options: Throw a whole bucket of emotions at the viewer in the photo, yelling at him visually until he gets your point. Or use emotions in a more subtle way and risk (or know) to not reach out to a great portion of viewers.
How prominent you want the emotions in your photos to be is a matter of your style, the project, or even each single photograph. It’s a decision to be made. Your decision.
Practice Shooting Emotional
If you want to create the emotion of being protected would you then shoot a child walking along a street alone or hand in hand with a man – or a woman? Would it be a business person, or a cowboy, or …. What difference does it make to the emotional side if you shoot this scene all in focus or with a blurry background? Do colors change the emotion of the scene and if yes, which ones?
Now, head out and take photos of your city creating a sad feeling, or hostile, or angry, or fragile, or threatened, melancholic or happy cheering, or young and nerdy, or old and settled, or make me laugh whenever I think of your town, or make me want to move there tomorrow, or make me want to donate all my money immediately for improving your lives, or…
There are plenty of emotions you can trigger with a photo or a photo series. Often it’s even the same subjects you can shoot, just in different light and mood, with different post processing. In the end you will find your own language.
Don’t let emotions enter your images just by chance. Be creative, be in control!
Have fun out there and take your time to learn: weeks, months, years. I also still do each day.