The two things which I think make a great photograph: composition and emotion.
There are tons of articles and videos online about how to compose and frame a good photograph. But how do we capture emotion and soul in a photograph?
Why do we need emotions in a photograph?
First of all, I think that capturing emotion and soul is more important than capturing a good composition. Because I prefer a poorly composed photo with emotion and depth, rather than a well-composed photograph with no soul. To me, a photograph without emotion is dead.
Empathize with your subject
One of the key ways to create emotion in your photos is to create some sort of empathy with your subject. The empathy can show love and compassion (if your subjects look lost, miserable, or isolated). Or you can empathize with a subject in a positive way (feeling the joy they do, the happiness they do, or the positive energy they do).
So when I look at my own photos, or the photos of others— I look at the subjects in a photograph and ask myself, “Can I feel the same emotions that they do?”
They can show emotions in different ways— through their body language (are they hunched over, standing upright, or leaning a certain way?) People show emotion through hand gestures (how they position their hand to their chin, to their hips, or their face). People show emotion through their eyes— if they are looking straight at the photographer, if they are looking into the distance, or looking at someone else in the frame.
Try this out: look at a photograph you’ve shot (or someone else has shot) that has an interesting hand-gesture. Then mimic that hand-gesture yourself and think to yourself: what kind of emotions or feelings do I get from that subject?
Light and emotion
Another thing that brings emotion to a scene — the light. If you capture beautiful morning light, you get a sense of serenity, of new beginnings, and adventure.
If you capture the calm of a sunset, you think of closure, a bittersweet ending, or the end of a good day.
What I love about Alex Webb’s work is that many of his photographs show great emotion through the light he captures.
Golden light brings me feelings of positivity, hope, and love.
Cool light (neon colors late at night, or at ‘blue hour’) bring feelings of melancholy, sadness, or contemplation.
The light of a bright flash (shot head on) can make a scene feel more edgy, dynamic, or intense.
Experiment with different lighting situations. Experiment shooting in the harsh light, during golden hour, or using an external flash. Shoot through soft window lighting, or in situations where there is fluorescent or artificial lighting. See how you can get different types of light to affect the mood of a scene.
Color and emotion
Closely tied with light, color will change the emotion of a scene dramatically.
Deep reds will bring an emotion of intensity, passion, and love.
The color green can bring emotions of envy, serenity, or of calm (however you were raised culturally affects your emotions towards certain colors).
The color yellow commands attention and anxiety (this is why most traffic signs are painted bright yellow, or why items on sale are highlighted yellow).
The color blue reminds us of the ocean— which is calm and tranquil.
The color purple reminds us of royalty (ancient kings used to wear purple).
The color orange is bright and cheerful— like blooming flowers or a ripe orange.
Think about all the different colors of the rainbow— and how you might think the emotions of certain colors affect you.
Monochrome and emotion
When we think of black and white, we think of timelessness, nostalgia, melancholy, and the past.
Generally, the modern public sees black and white photos as more “retro” and “artistic.” For me, I generally see more depressing or moody photos shot in black and white. Generally, colorful photos tend to be more upbeat and happy.
Of course this is a very crude generalization. There are a lot of black and white photos that bring great joy, while a lot of colorful photos which bring great misery.
So when you decide to shoot monochrome or color— don’t think about how it makes the photo look. Think about how it makes the photo feel.
How do your photos make you feel?
So once again, when it comes to judging your own photos— don’t think to yourself, “Are my photos good or not.” Think to yourself, “How do my photos make me feel? What kind of emotions do my photos bring out in me? Do they make me happy and uplifted, or contemplative and moody?”
A photo with emotion is relate-able. A photo that is relate-able is memorable, and stays in your mind an in your heart.
Of course, a great photo should have a strong composition and strong emotions. But when in doubt, aim for capturing strong emotion.
Shoot with your heart,