Impart Emotion to a Photograph | NZ Photo Art

Impart Emotion to a Photograph

Impart Emotion to a Photograph

Some photos just capture your attention and you don’t know why? And often it is something simple, like a doorway or a burnt tree. You stare at them as if the photo wants to tell you something. Most probably it is because the photo has a story to tell. The photographer was able to capture a visual expression of their own emotion, rather than simply a factual record of what was in front of the camera. The photos which display emotions are the ones that are treasured. It’s the way the photo made you feel that leaves a lasting memory.

“What use is having a great depth of field, if there is not an adequate depth of feeling?” – William Eugene Smith

But how do you impart emotion and feeling in a photograph to appeals to our senses so that we can feel a connection to the photo? How do you convey a mood in a photo to pull the viewer into the scene? Start by taking time to record your feelings about a scene you photograph. Think to yourself, “What emotion am I trying to convey?” This emotion will impact the story you want to tell through the photo. Cameras were designed to only capture what is in front of the lens. The camera does not know the photographer’s feelings and does not automatically capture the emotions generated by the landscape. A camera is only a machine, a mechanical recording device.

“Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.”  –  Yousuf Karsh

Often people ask my opinion of which photo I suggest they enlarge or use to display from a series of photos they shot. After I analyse the images technical merits and make a suggestion, people often select something completely different, one with many technical faults. Why? Because the photo which the person has an emotional connection to is far more important for him/her than just a good or beautiful picture.

If you followed my recent blog articles you will have a good idea how to use different kinds of lighting (natural light and artificial light) for good illumination photos, understanding the characteristics of light, using light modifiers, how to use shadows to create a sense of dimension and depth, understanding your camera and how to control your camera. You should be able to take really beautiful photos. Today I would like to put the “cherry on the cake” and try to give some advice on how to take memorable photos, photos with emotion, photos who tells a story, photos that almost come alive.

This is a topic for an entire book, but I’m just going to share some ideas and touch on a few techniques on how to add emotion to photographs. There are tons of other ideas as well, and some of them might not work for you. These are just ideas and not rules. I am a strong believer that when you work in a creative environment like photography, to follow rules will limit your creativity. To master photography is not to follow the rules, but rather to understand them. To understand the photographic principles that define photography can unlock your full potential as a photographer.

I’m going to share some ideas on how to photograph people & animals while capturing the emotion of the person/s or animals photographed, photographing landscapes/scenery where you want to share your emotion while in the scene, and how to communicate motion within a still photo.


People naturally convey different moods and emotions by their facial expression, body language, clothing, hair style, etc. Everyone loves looking good on a photo. Parents want photos of their children with a clean face and a friendly smile to show off with their beautiful kids. I also have children, and understand this desire. However, those photos will only mean something to your children’s loved ones. To capture true emotion of the person photographed, and to evoke feeling in the viewer will not be found in a “look-into-the-camera, smile-and-say-cheese” photo. To capture true emotion in your pictures, rather photograph someone doing what they love, or going about their daily lives without drawing attention to the camera. These are the photos which show our loved ones as they truly are. Great photos are the ones who conveys emotion, whether it is happiness, surprise, sorrow, or disgust. All of us have felt these emotions at one time or another, and therefore one can connect with a photo if the photographer successfully conveys those emotions in the photo.

Some Techniques:


Often an emotion gets lost in a busy scene. A wide angle view of an event might show the size, but the feel of the event is best conveyed on the faces of individual people in the crowd. Zooming in on faces may tell the difference between a large crowd who is standing around, or a crowd having fun.

When photographing people, don’t be scared to sometimes have their hair or a part of their head outside the picture frame. Usually eyes expose many emotion of the person or animal photographed. Zooming in to make their eyes a prominent part of the photo will also help to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer.


The angle you shoot from is also an important technique. Capturing your subject at eye level will connecting you directly with the person on an equal footing, while shooting from a higher angle by elevating the camera above your subject, will make the person seem smaller and more vulnerable. Shooting from a lower angle by kneeling or even lying down on the ground will makes the subject appear larger, giving the person more power and strength.

Usually we try to get the horizon perfectly level in our photos, but sometimes tilting the camera can create drama and excitement in a photo.


Lighting also creates mood in a picture. For instance, backlighting is a dramatic and moody type of lighting. Using hard lights creates strong and harsh shadows across a person’s face, and tends to add a lot of emotion (e.g. in some instances aggression), while soft lights can add a calm and peaceful mood to a picture.


Weather can create different moods in a photo as well. We can’t control the weather, but we can certainly use it to our advantage. Rainy weather usually creates a moody atmosphere and can evoke feelings of sadness and loneliness, while sunshine usually evokes feelings of happiness, excitement and freedom. Dark stormy clouds will add drama to any picture, whereas white fluffy clouds create a care-free, happy feeling.


Colour can also change the mood of a picture. Your subject may wear cheerful, colourful clothing or darker clothing for a more morbid atmosphere. You can also add a splash of colour with a prop such as an umbrella to lighten the mood.


Capturing movement is a powerful tool to add emotion to a picture. Capturing someone while jumping (with your camera set on a fast shutter speed to freeze the action) can create a fun, joyful and exciting picture. If you capture a moving subject with a slower shutter speed to add motion blur, you convey a sense of speed and urgency which create feelings of tension in the picture.


How do we convey a mood in a landscape to pull the viewer into the scene? How do we capture a scene or landscape that evokes a certain feeling that makes the viewer engage with the photo or that transports them to another time or place? After all, we have no control over a landscape or the weather. Timing is key.


Usually we have no control over the light and weather conditions while photographing landscapes. However, weather conditions and light can be powerful factors in creating different kinds of moods and atmospheres within a scene. The golden and blue hours are usually the best times of the day to create atmosphere in a scene.

During the ‘golden hour’ the light is soft and warm with a golden tint, which adds a pleasing feel to a landscape. Things just look more dynamic in the golden hour. During the ‘blue hour’ you get a soft multicoloured lighting that gives a calm and peaceful mood to a landscape. (See blog article ‘Natural light‘ for an explanation of what the “Golden” and “Blue Hours” are.)

Fog and mist usually creates a mysterious atmosphere which can intrigue the viewer as to what lies beyond the mist. We have to use our imagination and it may even evoke feelings of fear and anxiety.

Shooting when the light is low often creates a moody atmosphere. A more dramatic mood can be created by allowing lots of tonal contrast, e.g. very light and very dark areas in your photo. More shadows and darker areas in the picture help to convey a sense of mystery, and can evoke feelings of suspense, gloom and fear.


Shutter speed is one of the most powerful creative tools in photography, and can communicate motion within a still photo. Shutter speed can be used to freeze a fast-moving subject, or exaggerate the appearance of motion such as blurring a flowing stream while keeping everything else sharp and un-blurred.

With still photography we have the ability to freeze a moment in life. It is magical because we can’t see the world in that way, e.g. to freeze a bird in flight. Our eyes don’t have a pause button to stop a moment in time.


There are photographs that need to indicate what happens before or after the moment the photo is captured, photos that visually convey energy. Images that communicate motion. Scenes can come alive in your photographs if you learn how to convey motion. Whenever something is moving, you can get in touch with its motion.

Movement can communicate mood or can give your viewer a sense of speed and action.

You can also use long exposures to dramatize scenes (e.g. trees rustling in the wind, the haste of people on a busy city block), or to create a dreamy, painterly look for landscapes. Moving water presents great opportunities to capture long exposures in order to convey motion. This helps express grace and serenity. Shutter speeds of one second or longer can make waterfalls or cascading streams appear silky, or can transform waves into a smooth, creamy sea. Relatively faster shutter speeds help convey the feeling of power or strength to waterfalls or a stormy ocean.

Most modern cameras offer a few “flash sync” modes. “Rear Curtain Sync” is when the flash fires at almost the end of the shutter duration, causing the subject to freeze at the end of the motion blur trail. “Front Curtain Sync” triggers the flash at the start of the shutter duration, resulting in the subject freezing at the beginning of the motion blur trail.


To impart emotion and feeling in a photo is not always easy, and sometimes you also need some luck. It requires some thinking before you shoot, but can be a lot of fun. With social media and most people owning cameras these days, we are exposed to endless beautiful pictures. However, the ones that appeal to our senses, the ones that we treasure and remember, are the ones that we feel emotionally connected to.

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