Some photographs raise potent emotions. Emotions are as much an essential element of photographs as composition. So, how do we embed them into our images?
Like all art, photos can elicit powerful feelings. You might be driven to tears of joy by some, while others might make you roar with laughter. Some might make you cry with despair, and others may make you seethe with anger. However, many you see might not bring about any emotional response, and you will view them with indifference.
Great photographs can evoke positive and negative emotions, and those that do are more powerful than those that lack them.
What are emotions? My Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: a strong mental or instinctive feeling such as love or fear. That is probably not very helpful. It is a limited description and fails to cover physiological manifestations such as a lump in the throat, butterflies in the stomach, or the ache of a broken heart. There is no scientific consensus on a definition, but we all instinctively know what emotions are and what they do to us. They drive our behaviors and motivate our actions. Emotions are a mixture of mental states, biological and psychological expressions, and physical changes. If your photos can bring those about, then they are successful. But how do we achieve that?
Firstly, we must recognize that the viewer is different from the photographer. Whether the photo brings positive or negative feelings is subjective, depending upon the belief system of the viewer. I could look at snaps of my son when he was a child or pictures of my friends and relatives who have since died, and they would stir up different emotions for me than they would for you. You would experience a smaller emotional response because you would lack that personal connection.
Conversely, you could look at a picture of something you feel positively about while I might not react to it. Meanwhile, someone else could have a negative response to the image.
For example, Les is a staunch Republican and took a photo of Donald Trump at a rally. That picture now hangs on the wall of the office with pride. Les’s colleague, Jo, disagrees with everything the ex-president stands for and feels nothing but loathing when looking at the picture. Jo is a boudoir photographer who considers their photography art and is pleased with their results. However, Sam, another boudoir photographer, looks at Jo’s photos with disdain, thinking they lack style and are akin to cheap 1970s pornography. Meanwhile, Max is angry at Sam’s pictures because they sexualize women. Meanwhile, Max’s 10-year-old child sees the pictures and giggles at them with amusement.
A photographer can’t dictate what their viewers will feel. They can only produce images that provoke an emotional response and hope others will feel something too.
Secondly, we should remember that, like most art, a photograph can produce two different reactions simultaneously. The image may be something our audience finds unpleasant. However, they can still appreciate that photo’s positive merits, such as the composition, tonal control, or even the risks the photographer went through when taking it.
In other words, liking a photo is not the same as liking its content. Interesting, some viewers will be unable to separate their emotional response to the picture’s contents from the image itself. It is not unusual for a photographer to receive abuse for posting a photograph online of an emotive subject when all they were doing was recording an event. Sadly, not everyone has the intelligence to differentiate between the subject matter and the photographer’s intent when applying their creative skills.
Thirdly, the more extreme the subject and the closer to one’s personal experience and chronology, the greater the emotional response. Take the following image as an example.
Most people are unlikely to know who the subject is and have no emotional reaction to it. But this poor-quality picture is all that remains of Billy Grohl.
Who is he? He’s a mass murderer. Despite his heinous crimes, our emotional reaction to this picture is likely to be less than our reaction to someone who is not a mass murderer and is alive today or was part of our recent history. Grohl is thought to have killed over 100 victims in the early 1900s. There will be exceptions, but even knowing of his crimes, for many, the picture will still produce less of an emotional response than a photo of, say, Richard Nixon because the latter is closer to the present and is a real memory in many people’s minds.
In turn, for most people, Nixon’s image will evoke less emotion – positive or negative – than a picture of Donald Trump. As we saw earlier, a Trump photo may bring feelings of pleasure for some but anger and scorn for others. But either way, it is likely to be a potent reaction as his presidency is still fresh in the minds of most people.
Do we, as photographic artists, want to produce an adverse response from our viewers? Maybe we should. Negative reactions to images are more substantial than positive ones. So, viewing a frowning subject is far more potent than if the subject smiles. This probably explains why so many portraits are shot with the model not looking very happy.
Is defining a photograph as art more likely to elicit an emotional experience than a journalistic image? Surprisingly, positive feelings are attenuated in art, as opposed to when they are in the non-art context. In other words, a photo of a smiling person will have more emotional impact when in a documentary image than an art photograph.
However, there is little change in the viewers’ feelings when negative emotions are depicted, whether the picture’s context is either art or non-art. In other words, negative emotions such as disgust and anger are just as strong if the image is either art or journalism.
When putting emotions into a photograph, we should consider “Processing Fluency.” That is the ease with which the mind processes information. Put simply, more fluent images – those that are more easily understood – are liked more by people. According to, making emotions evident in a photo will result in the picture being appreciated more than one with increased complexity where emotions are harder to decipher.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take images that are harder to understand. However, they won’t appeal to as broad an audience if you do.
The central element of all aesthetic experiences is their ability to arouse emotions in the observer. That is the whole point of art. However, the viewers’ understanding of the complexity of feelings included in an image is down to their emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is directly linked to a person’s IQ. Therefore, and putting it bluntly, someone who is clever is more likely to have a broader range and depth of emotional understanding. Accordingly, they are more able to read the emotional nuances of images than someone with lower intelligence. Similarly, the more intelligent the photographer is, the greater their ability to embed emotions into their pictures.
Of course, there are even more definitions of intelligence than there are of emotions, so what we mean by intelligence is open to a more extended debate than is possible here. Even, there are limitations to IQ tests. Interest, you can see this theory at work in images displayed on different news websites. For example, images on lowbrow sites, such as Mail Online, tap into a limited range of base emotions, such as lust and anger. When you move upmarket, the range of emotions portrayed in photos is more multifaceted because the readership is, generally, more intelligent. The lesson we learn from this is to aim our images at our desired audience.
Do you consider the emotional impact of your photos? It will be great to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
I hope you have enjoyed and learned something from this article. If you have, then please read my last one on a related topic of what type of photographer you are.