Troves have been written on the techniques of photography and what makes a good picture. Composition, light, editing, the right camera — all of these factor into what makes a photograph successful. And while there are technical benchmarks that qualify a photo as “good” or “bad,” we often see pictures that are technically strong, but just don’t feel special. We’re talking about the emotional impact of a photo; the story a picture communicates, its staying power, the mood it evokes, and what that picture makes you think of. The emotional elements of photography are those special qualities that make some pictures stand out, and render others forgettable. Like any art form, photography is subjective, but here we examine the emotional elements behind pictures and how to capture, in your own work. photography that is special, powerful, and unforgettable.
We’ve spoken about the emotional core of a photo before and how important it is, but lets revisit the subject. In school we learn that good books are memorable and generate emotion because there is an element of “why do we care” behind the story. There’s something at play in the novel that speaks to our inner lives, that tells us this is something worth paying attention to. If pictures are worth a thousand words, then photography must also evoke emotion. Good pictures communicate value, send a message, and generate feeling. Naturally, some subject matters contain a clearer “why do we care” message than others, but any good picture can communicate value: about a moment, a subject, or person.
So how do you generate pictures with emotional value? And how do you know when yours has that special something.
Consider a common scenario: you’re on vacation. The setting is unique and special. The breeze is warm and the sunset is striking, and you’ve just finished an outdoor meal with friends and family at a wonderful restaurant. You leave feeling uplifted, renewed, and connected, and upon leaving you spot a beautiful flower growing near the beachy exit. You flip open your phone, position the flower in the middle of the frame, and click, you’ve taken a picture that reminds you of just how special you felt — how truly special the moment was — when you took the picture.
We see a lot of pictures submitted alongside a story that communicates this same scenario. It was taken during a moment of importance or significance for the photographer. The problem is, too often, these pictures — while incredibly special as a memento — aren’t communicating an emotional message. The photo isn’t very memorable, even though your experience was. So how do you produce pictures that capture emotional value?
You must think about what your image portrays as a stand alone picture. What it evokes separate from the story behind why you took it. It needs to be the story itself. It needs to communicate value. An easy way to do this, to use the example from above, is to incorporate context. Don’t put so much pressure on the flower. Include background, foreground, or other elements to the picture that allow the viewer to understand why the context of the picture is significant. Show us why the moment was special. That’s very hard for a flower to do by itself.
Conversely, sometimes there is too much happening in a photo and the image needs focus, or simplification. While these notions are opposites, they go hand in hand with the idea of understanding what is significant about what you are trying to capture and limiting or expanding your picture to include only those important essentials.
Composition and Technique
Even if you are a beginner, you must think about basic elements of composition and technique and how they help to produce a striking image. An easy way to play with composition is to move the subject of your picture around to see if there are any interesting visual effects that can be made with a composition change. Take the image we chose for this post, for example. Taken at a different angle, this picture would lack impact. However, by working the composition of the photo to situate the man’s head directly in the center of the woman’s glasses, and to capture the gaze of the woman meeting the gaze of her viewers generates a playful, and also powerful, image. There are many rules to effective composition, but it is perhaps one of the easiest elements to change in your photography and can sometimes yield great effects.
What Makes This Photo Special?
Is it color? Pattern? Mood? Lighting? Whatever the reason you are taking the picture, think about this question and ask yourself: what makes this photo special? Then, lean into the answer. Photograph that. You might think first, what makes this moment special? And then explore and play around with how you can capture that visually. This is where talent and practice come into play, but it is exactly what you need to think about every time you take a photo. When you do, you’ll find your work has more life, energy, and impact — it becomes memorable — in a way that it wasn’t before.
Once your work starts to generate emotion, you will notice a style and personality starts to present itself in your work. This is the notion of developing your own point of view as a photographer — that special something you bring to every picture. In writing we call it voice. In photography it is a visual style or emotional significance that can be expected from each image. Think about how your work will elevate into real, visual storytelling when you start to consider what you are trying to capture behind each picture, and how that meaning translates via your own style. In this way, you will become a truly memorable and talented photographer.