How to Create Emotion in Photography, Part 1

It’s even more important today to differentiate yourself as a photogapher.


Largely, the main thing separating professional photographers from the rest of the pack is the ability to create images that have an emotional affect on audiences. Your average photographer can make a good-looking image of the Eiffel Tower — the professional gets you to feel the soul of Paris. A good photographer gets a nice portrait at golden hour — the professional makes you long to be there. The normal photographer shows you their road trip — the professional makes it yours. This subtle distinction is obvious to the viewer but a complicated and elusive skillset that pushes past obvious imagery into deeper territories and establishes a voice in photography.

In this series, we will discuss the elements that work together to create emotion in photography. As image after image come across the screen from every known location, it’s even more important today to differentiate yourself as a photogapher — and this is all done through emotion.

In this first exploration, we’ll tackle context.

How Context Adds

In emotionally-driven photography, many stars align. It is usually a cross-section of what you are seeing in the image and what you know about the context, or the things outside the image, that complete the story.

I’m reminded of McCullin’s photograph from the Vietnam War, titled “Shell Shocked U.S. Marine.” Taken in 1968 during the battle for the city of Hue, McCullin came across this soldier who had been sitting unresponsive for quite some time. McCullin walked right up to him and took the shot and, as witnessed in the image, the soldier didn’t even register the photographer, essentially defining the notion of a “thousand yard stare”.

Could you create an image of the same composition and quality? Of course. You could even give your model the direction to look past the photographer (something we do all the time) — but it would never have the impact of McCullin’s image without an added context as deeply affecting as the Vietnam War.

You don’t always have to be told the context, either. In Mary Ellen Mark’s image of “the smoking girl” the photograph was part of a larger series about a school for “problem children” in North Carolina. The key figure in the image wears makeup, fake nails and smokes a cigarette at the much-too-young age of 9. Without even knowing the context of the school, you still feel it in the image because we have reference in or minds for normal settings and behaviors and contexts for children and everything about this photo tells you we are not someplace normal.

The reason context is so important in a photograph is that it completes the story. As I’ve discussed before, a photograph is not a story, it is a scene. And scenes can be beautiful, eerie, provocative or sexy — but they can’t tell you the entire story. But the human mind can fill in what is missing with context. So, if we know about the Vietnam War, then an image of a shell shocked Marine becomes much more than an image. In fact, with the right shot in the right context, a photograph can become the emblem of an entire event. And that is extremely powerful, and often very emotional, as witnessed in the “Tank Man” image at the top of the article, for which no words are needed to express just how emotional it is and for which the context is front and center.

Establishing An Assignment Mindset

Most photographs that stand the test of time are associated with an assignment. Reason being, context is already established in the request for a photographer. With an assignment, a photographer is not trying to add context to a scene that doesn’t have much of one — it’s there. The photographer simply needs to go capture scenes within it, as Widener did at Tiananmen Square (and then hid his roll of film in the toilet as Chinese authorities raided his room).

It’s far harder to try to find the context of something you just happen to be in front of. And even harder when the thing you’re shooting is beautiful. So powerful is the call to photograph beauty for beauty’s sake, it causes even great photographers to lose a sense of context all together. But for those who want to do something more with their images and really create emotion, we must have the assignment that takes us past obvious beauty and into the dark forest of humanity. This means letting go of your spiral staircases, urban landscapes, models and sunsets and establishing an assignment.

“But I don’t have an assignment,” you say? I relate. I’m often waiting for a call, too. But while I can’t control whether I’m chosen for an assignment, I can control my own mindset. And I try to maintain this photojournalistic mindset no matter where I am.

If you’re traveling, consider yourself on assignment when you go. In this mindset, you will be more likely to do some research about the location — its history, current political environment, unique characteristics, etc. — and this can lead to shots that aren’t the ones everyone takes when they go.

A few years back, I traveled to Eastern Europe, through Hungary and Romania. I took this assignment mindset while I was there and it took me off the beaten path of the same shots of Budapest and familiar castles and vistas that everyone takes (though I took those, too). The images that really have withstood the test of time were those ones where I ventured into lesser-known territories and captured an untouched humanity. It was the mindset of being on assignment that got me to stop the car and chase after this young shepherd.