Why emotions are so important in your photography

Some photographs arouse powerful emotions. Emotions are as much an essential part of photographs as composition. So how do we integrate them into our images?

Like all art, photos can evoke powerful feelings. You might be driven to tears of joy by some, while others might make you laugh out loud. Some can make you cry in despair and others can make you boil with anger. However, many of them might not cause any emotional reaction and you will look at them with indifference.

Great photographs can evoke both 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 as: a strong mental or instinctual feeling such as love or fear. It’s probably not very useful. This is a limited description and does not cover physiological manifestations such as a lump in the throat, butterflies in the stomach, or the pain 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 guide our behavior and motivate our actions. Emotions are a mixture of mental states, biological and psychological expressions, and physical changes. If your photos can provoke them, then they are successful. But how to achieve it?

First, we must recognize that the viewer is different from the photographer. Whether the photo brings positive or negative feelings is subjective, depending on the viewer’s belief system. I could look at snapshots of my son as a child or photos of my friends and relatives who have since passed away, and they would evoke different emotions for me than they would for you. You would experience a smaller emotional response because you wouldn’t have that personal connection.

Conversely, you might be looking at an image of something you feel positively about while I might not be reacting to it. Meanwhile, someone else might have a negative response to the image.

For example, Les is a staunch Republican and took a picture of Donald Trump at a rally. This photo now hangs proudly on the office wall. Les’s co-worker Jo disagrees with everything the ex-president stands for and feels nothing but hate looking at the photo. Jo is a boudoir photographer who considers his photographic art and is satisfied with his results. However, Sam, another boudoir photographer, looks at Jo’s photos with disdain, thinking they lack style and look like cheap 1970s pornography. Meanwhile, Max is angry at the photos. of Sam because they sexualize women. Meanwhile, Max’s 10-year-old sees the pictures and laughs amusedly.

A photographer cannot dictate how his viewers will feel. They can only produce images that provoke an emotional reaction and hope that others will feel something too.

Second, we must remember that, like most works of art, a photograph can produce two different reactions simultaneously. The image may be something that our audience finds objectionable. However, they can still appreciate the positive merits of that photo, such as composition, tonal control, or even the risks the photographer took in taking it.

In other words, liking a photo is not the same as liking its content. Nevertheless, some viewers will be unable to separate their emotional reaction to the content of the image from the image itself. It is not uncommon for a photographer to be abused for posting a photo of an emotional subject online while recording an event. Unfortunately, not everyone has the intelligence to differentiate between subject and photographer’s intent when applying their creative skills.

Third, the more extreme the subject and the closer it is to personal experience and timeline, the greater the emotional response. Take the following image as an example.

Most people are unlikely to know who the subject is and not react to it emotionally. But this shoddy image is all that’s left of Billy Grohl.

Who is he? He’s a mass killer. Despite his heinous crimes, our emotional reaction to this image will likely 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 his crimes, for many the photo will still produce less of an emotional reaction than a photo of, say, Richard Nixon because the latter is closer to the present and is a real memory in the lives of many people. the spirits.

In turn, for most people, the image of Nixon will evoke less emotion – positive or negative – than a photo of Donald Trump. As we saw earlier, a photo of Trump can bring feelings of delight to some but anger and contempt to others. But either way, it’s likely to be a powerful reaction because his presidency is still fresh in most people’s minds.

Do we, as photographic artists, want to produce a negative reaction from our viewers? Maybe we should. Negative reactions to images are more substantial than positive reactions. So looking at a frowning subject is much more powerful than looking at a smiling subject. This probably explains why so many portraits are done with the model looking not very happy.

Is defining a photograph as art more likely to elicit an emotional experience than a journalistic image? Surprisingly, positive feelings are dampened in art, unlike in the non-art context. In other words, a photo of a smiling person will have more emotional impact in a documentary image than an art photograph.

However, there is little change in viewers’ feelings when negative emotions are depicted, whether the context of the image is artistic or non-artistic. In other words, negative emotions such as disgust and anger are equally strong if the image is either art or journalism.

When we put emotions in a photograph, we should consider the “smoothness of processing”. It is the ease with which the mind processes information. Simply put, smoother images – those that are easier to understand – are liked more by people. Therefore, making the emotions obvious in a photo will result in the image being liked more than one with increased complexity where the emotions are harder to decipher.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take pictures that are harder to understand. However, they won’t appeal to such a wide audience if you do.

Central to all aesthetic experiences is their ability to arouse emotions in the viewer. That’s the whole point of art. However, viewers’ understanding of the complexity of feelings included in an image depends on their emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is directly related to a person’s IQ. Therefore, and to put it bluntly, someone who is intelligent is more likely to have a broader and deeper emotional understanding. Therefore, they are more able to read the emotional nuances of images than someone with lower intelligence. Likewise, the smarter the photographer, the greater their ability to incorporate emotions into their photos.

Of course, there are even more definitions of intelligence than there are emotions, so what we mean by intelligence is open to more debate than is possible here. In addition, there are limits to IQ tests. Nevertheless, you can see this theory at work in the images posted on different news websites. For example, images on lowbrow sites, such as Mail Online, tap into a limited range of core emotions, such as lust and anger. When you go upmarket, the range of emotions represented in the photos is more multiple because the readership is, in general, more intelligent. The lesson we take from this is to direct our images to 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 enjoyed and learned something from this article. If so, please read my latest article on a related topic about what type of photographer you are.

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