How to create pictures of emotions? This is a question that I have been often asked, especially by photography students, several of whom have emailed me to ask how I convey emotions in photography. They find that the above picture depicting loneliness very successfully conveyed the loneliness of the cripple.
I don't know because I did not study this subject (or anything else) in photography school, nor did I deliberately set out to do what is called “emotions photography” or "emotive photography”. Much of it came naturally.
So I have to think a bit about how I capture pictures of emotions.
The latest questions, from a UK photography student called Vicky
provides a starting point for discussion. She asked: Do you think it is important for the face to be in shot or do you think that body language can convey emotions on its own?
Well, the above picture depicting loneliness already provides an answer – the face is not important although, in most instances, facial expression is the primarily means of conveying an emotion.
Body language obviously plays a part in the above picture. If the crippled man had been sitting straight rather than with his head and neck bent so sharply, the photograph would not have conveyed the emotion as successfully.
But then, this was something beyond my control. I did not tell him to sit that way. If I try to create pictures of emotions by getting a model to sit in a particular pose, I doubt if I will succeed.
Apart from the body language, I think what makes this stand out amongst pictures of emotions is the scene itself – bleak, empty, dirty and the fact that the cripple is outside the series of concentric circles on the ground, as if he is “outside”, an outcast, of society.
Another point to consider is how color, or black and white, affects the mood. The original picture was in color, taken on color slide. After some photoshop enhancements (because the original scan was badly done and the entire picture had a strong blue cast), it looks like this:
Normally, one would expect that a black and white photograph does a better job of conveying moods and emotions.
But in this case, I feel both do a good job at conveying pictures of emotions. What do you think?
Finally, while I was writing this, I wondered if stronger contrast would help. So I adjusted the contrast of the above black and white picture to produce this:
The picture looks snappier but somehow, I feel the mood is totally spoilt. I feel the poorer contrast of the original picture adds to the bleakness and sadess of this emotive photograph.
Again, what do you think? Feel free to email me to share your views.
Let's look now aat some of my other pictures of emotions.
This photograph of an Indian girl, amidst the bustle of Thaipusam celebrations in an Indian temple, captures her pensive mood. She seems to be in deep thought.
I did not purposely set out to capture her mood to add to my series of pictures of emotions. I noticed her, I stole a shot. That's all.
I had, in another page on candid portrait photography, cropped the picture and de-saturated the colors, turning it into a near-black and white photograph.
But here again, I feel the scene – the fact that there are other people around her, doing their own things – enhanced the mood of the picture.
Pictures of emotions as a subject
The subject matter helps, too, in conveying emotions in photography. A lot of my photographs focus on prayer, or rather, people praying, and when I think about pictures of emotions, I thought of this.
Technically, this picture is not good. The girl is too dark, the people in the background are too bright and distracting. But I like it both for the mood and the emotion that it conveys. I can feel the intensity of her prayer.
When talking about pictures of emotions, it is important to differentiate between mood and emotions. Mood is determined by the overall feel of the picture – whether it is dark and gloomy or bright and cheerful, and so on.
In the above example, the dark mood adds to the emotion. But the next picture, taken in bright sunlight (and therefore technically much better) equally stands out among pictures of emotions – because the man is so, well, emotional.
Although this is a close-up portrait, it shows a side view and not his full facial expression. Is the full facial expression necessary for pictures of emotions? I don't think so.
I did not have the opportunity to take a frontal view, but as I try to imagine it, I don't think it would be better. His closed eyes and slightly gaping mouth are much better captured from this angle. Here again, it was not planned. I happened to be at the right place.
Besides the facial expression, emotions can be conveyed by other features as well. Like the sweat on this man's face.
Do you get the feeling that the sweat did not come from some physical exercise such as jogging? I am a biased judge because I know what the man had been through – a gruelling Buddhist prayer ritual called “three steps one bow”.
But I think if he had been jogging or playing tennis, the emotions conveyed by this picture would have been totally different.
Here is another in the pictures of emotions series, one of my favourites, where a few drops of sweat help convey the emotions of the subject.
A lot of these pictures of emotions were, as I mentioned, unplanned. They just turned out this way. That's why I find it hard to explain how to create pictures of emotions.
To a large extent, I feel that photography reflects the personality of the photographic artist. The fact that I am able to create pictures of emotions could well be that I am more of a feeling person – just as I am not a glamour person who can take glamour photographs, or a glossy person who can create technically brilliant still life pictures for glossy advertisements.
Perhaps the only tip I can give is to observe carefully – with sensitivity – and wait for the right moment to press that shutter.
I have not always been successful in capturing pictures of emotions, however. Consider this picture of an Indian musician, taken during the festival of Thsipusam…
He looks serious, as if concentrating intensely. But if you were at the scene, the mood was entirely different – the music was upbeat and lively. So did I fail to convey the emotion? Or did I succeed in capturing the true emotion beneath the surface liveliness and cheerfulness?