The Power of Emotional Photography
What Does This Photo Make You Feel?
This month, I have been reading the book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On" by Jonah Berger. This book outlines the psychology behind what makes information go viral. I believe this book is a must read for entrepreneurs in any field, but it applies specifically to photographers. Why? Because it explains how we can connect to our subjects. It's the formula behind the psychology of success that we often sense, but sometimes struggle to grasp.
This formula is what has completely changed how I take photos.
The Big Number Three
"Contagious" outlines six key principals about why content is shared by others. The principles are really important, so here's a brief overview:
- Social Currency: showcase your client and subject.
- Triggers: making people remember your work.
- Emotion: messages that kindle a fire in our hearts.
- Public: making our products available.
- Practical Value: creating content that is useful to our clients.
- Stories: viral content always can be told as a story.
Whereas all these principles are extremely applicable to photographers, I want to focus on the one that really stood out to me. I'm calling it the big number three:
Have you ever looked at an image, and felt it's just missing something? You might have glanced and thought 'that's pretty', and then just moved on. What will stop you in your tracks, pause your browsing, make you suck your breathe in and mentally say to yourself, "wow, that's amazing!", is emotion.
In 2017, I began to really dig behind the technicalities of an image, and search for a deeper connection with my photographs. For years, I have captured the technical aspects of photography: focus, rule of thirds, consistency, exposure and so forth, but I kept feeling like I was missing something. Moving to Alabama gave me a chance to reevaluate my work. Once I closed my business last summer to work on the relaunch for HMM Portraits, I took the time to really examine the work of photographers I love, and study what made their images stand out to me.
I then went back to my roots as a photographer and asked myself, what inspires me to continue my work every day? And, most importantly, what do my images say?
Photographing What Reads
About four years ago, I began my journey in photography. I was a college intern working on Fort Bragg with zero experience and a Nikon D60. It was a point and shoot camera with a kit lens, but I was immediately enamored by the idea that I would be taking images of moments that would otherwise be lost forever. As time went on, and I found myself pulled toward to field of photojournalism, and I signed up for classes in photography and started to self educate. My photo editor was one of the key influencers in my early work. One of his valuable insights were the principals of a good photo, which were:
Photos that captured one or both of these elements were a sure way to get content that read well with audiences, and also told the story of what was happening at that moment. These photos encouraged readers in engage with my content: comment on pictures, share to their timelines, etc.
In "Contagious", Berger writes emotions that kindle arousal are those that inspire us to action. These arousal moments are what I looked for as a photojournalist. I wasn't just looking for passive feelings, like a gentle smile or subtle frown. No, it was much deeper than that. I wanted to photograph fierce moments. I looked for the fan screaming on the sideline as their favorite team scored a goal. I looked for the wife sobbing as her husband came through the door, finally home from a long deployment. I focused on soldiers cheering their comrades along during the last mile of a long run, exhaustion raw on their faces.
These emotions, like awe and excitement, make people want to share your photos. As photographers, our viewers and clients are most drawn to images that inspire them to awe, excitement, joy ... the photos that are powerful enough to tell a story all on their own, without needing a single word as explanation.
The biggest hurdle is actually being there to capture those moments. They cannot be manufactured, posed or created. They oftentimes simply just happen in the most unexpected ways. I found myself constantly waiting for these moments to appear before my lens, chasing after them, making myself as small as possible so my journalistic subjects would just ignore me and let life happen.
For some reason, portrait photography is frequently portraying in a different light. People think that portraits are about looking perfect, appearing a particular way, and standing is just the right pose. I thought like that for a while, too. It's often hard wired into our DNA as new photographers after looking at Vogue models and hoping that we can achieve the same airbrushed perfection in our subjects that appears in those glossy pages. But the years have convinced me that most clients want two things: to look great in their pictures and to portray the effortless emotion that happens when a photographer isn't present.
How is this possible?
Through unposed, candid photography. Photography that inspires passion in the hearts of our clients.
As photographers, we need to do away with the preconceived notions that photographs are just about looking great and sitting perfect. First of all, that eliminates the possibility of any emotion in an image. Secondly, it's stressful on clients to show up to a session feeling like they have to look a certain way or do something they are completely unfamiliar with, i.e. pose.
Every one of my clients, in one way or another, has expressed concern for how they will look in front of the camera. Even the most confident people get in their own heads, because photography is an incredibly exposing action. It shows the world who we are, which is why it is so important to capture the essence of our clients, their feelings, actions, and emotions. To help ease the transition between posed and candid photography, here are two tips for my photographer friends who are looking to incorporate more emotion into their images.
Dance the waltz. Play your guitar. Take a sip of coffee and savor it. What do these prompts have in common? They are all actions that incorporate motion into an image. Embrace the 'imperfections' that accompany candid moments: the windblown hair and nuanced expressions. You will discover that these are the heart and soul of your session. There are endless prompts that you can come up with. Begin by thinking about actions we engage in on a daily basis. Cooking, reading, and exercising are all common actions that can be transformed into emotive images. The list is limitless, and I encourage you to start listing activities your clients can engage in while on a shoot. Become creative with action, and you will find that motion creates that extra oomph. It makes your photos come alive.
I wish! But seriously, do what you can to let moments happen. This is why I often shoot with longer lenses (my 70-200 Nikkor 2.8G is rarely off my camera body). After encouraging my subjects to engage in an action, I step back and capture what unfolds. If they feel awkward, we go through a series of activities that help them engage with each other. These activities often incorporate (you guessed it!) motion. Clients are so much more comfortable if they have something to do during a session. If they're busy horseback riding or playing their guitar, they might even forget that you're there. That's what you want. Also, refrain from fussing or being overly picky about a shot. Make small adjustments as low key as possible, and never, ever, tell a client that they are doing something wrong. This will make them instantly self conscious. Instead, focus on encouraging them to interact with the other members of the session, or if they're alone, with their location and props.
Well, that's all for now friends! Please take a minute to share your thoughts in the comments, and also check out the resources I've listed below. Till next time,
~Peace & Love
Shameless plug, because it's been such a great read. You can purchase "Contagious" on Amazon for only $10. Also, because sharing is caring, here are a few blogs to explore to get you started on the inspiration for capturing emotional moments. These are photographers who I have followed for years, and whose work has truly inspired me to dream big and never give up in pursuing the beautiful moments that life brings our way.