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5 Ways to Capture Emotion

(© Ian Plant) The best photographs strike an emotional chord, forging a connection between the image and the viewer. When I say “capture emotion,” I’m not necessarily talking about capturing the emotion of your subject, or even creating a specific mood with your photograph. What I’m really talking about is finding a way to connect emotionally with your viewer. Here’s five ways to establish that connection.

Choice of subject matter: Viewers forge emotional connections with subjects that are meaningful to them, or that inspire or awe them. For the image below, my subject was an old waterman plying his trade on the Chesapeake Bay, scraping crabs from the shallow waters. The theme this photo evokes—a way of life that is a throwback to older times, soon to be forgotten—invites a feeling of nostalgia, perhaps even some sadness.

Energy and motion: Photographs that capture a sense of vitality, energy, and motion are more likely to trigger an emotional response than those that are relatively static. Dynamic compositions can help create energy, as well as long exposures that capture motion over time. For the photo below, I used the progression of waves leading from foreground to background to help lead the eye deep into the scene, whereas the dramatic clouds in the background help frame the old crabber and focus attention on him. The overall effect is dynamic, helping engage the viewer’s interest.

Color and light: Although psychologists are quick to point out that the effect of color on human mood is often exaggerated, color nonetheless can have a profound impact on the emotional response a photograph triggers. Reds and yellows are typically perceived as “warm” and can attract attention and evoke feelings of warmth and comfort. On the opposite side of the color wheel, blues are typically perceived as “cool” and can evoke feelings of calm or even sadness. Likewise, light can trigger an emotional response: photographs that are bright and luminous will likely trigger a more energetic and positive response, whereas dark photographs will appear to be moodier and will likely signal sadness to viewers. For this image, I chose a golden color palette (coaxed along by a warm white balance setting) to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and hope.

Moment: Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase “the decisive moment,” referring to the peak moment when two or more disparate elements interact in a meaningful way. Photographers like Cartier-Bresson relied on capturing convergences of motion, shape, and expression to create their art. Although this is arguably related to my point about energy and motion above, “moment” also encompasses the convergence of compositional elements in a pleasing way, as well as the moment when your subject does something that tells a story. For this image, I waited for the moment when the waterman lifted one of his crab scrapes out of the water. His upraised hand visually interacts with other compositional elements in the photo, creating an obvious focal point that attracts the viewer’s attention and curiosity. The moment also captures the waterman engaging in a key element of his trade, thus helping to tell his story.

Invitations to participate: Anything that invites the viewer into the scene is important when trying to forge an emotional bond. A simple yet powerful example of this is eye contact with the subject. Composition, of course, can be useful in encouraging the viewer’s eye to travel deeper into the scene, which gets the viewer involved on a deeper emotional level as well. I used both techniques to invite viewers to participate in this photo.

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