Capturing Emotion and Feeling in Your Photos


So here I am on a cool chilly morning, and decided to post this article to the B&H Insights blog. 

I was going over some photos last night, and the ones I was drawn to most were the ones in which some sort of emotion was captured in the photo. I'm not a huge fan of posed photos, unless they are posed/candid at the same time.

For my style of photography, I prefer to capture “moments” just like many of the readers of this website do. Maybe why I love shooting Leica cameras so much is because I feel they are kind of perfect for this type of photo. Sure, a huge Nikon D3s could also capture emotion and a moment, but I do not want my wrist to kill me when I am out shooting for an hour on the street, or just in every day use :)

Now, I am not saying that a non-Leica cannot capture emotion…not at all! I am even going to show samples here that were shot with the huge Canon 1D Mk IV, which is an amazing camera. To me, any camera can capture that special moment, and capture the emotion. I just like Leicas for their size, and I enjoy shooting a rangefinder. But I must admit, the Canon 1D MKIV was awesome to shoot a show with.

So how do we capture emotion in a photograph? Well, first we have to find a moment. Snapping a posed image of your cat or your kids will get you a nice photograph to frame, but if you try a little bit harder and take your time getting a more candid photograph, then you may end up with something much more special. Onto some examples!

Here is an image I shot at a Seal concert while on the road with him in Europe. Sure, I took many shots of Seal and his band, but what about the audience? The audience is there to enjoy the show, to see their favorite performer, and they are part of the show as well! Some of my favorite shots were taken of the crowd! This one I really like. I shot it with a Canon 1D MKIV and noticed all of these fans who were in awe of the man they were there to see. They were intense, they were having fun, and I wanted to capture it. A moment.

I sat there and waitied for a moment I liked. I fired one shot, and one only. This was the result.

The woman on the left looking up, excited to be there, up so close; the person behind her, clapping hands; the man to the right, taking video; and his girlfriend to his right watching the performance. Then we have a guy about to take a drink, but at the same time, never taking his eyes off of Seal. The man to the right is just enjoying the show. There is so much going on in this photo, and it's filled with a realness that packs it with emotion.

Another shot of the crowd, but of one woman in particular, who was absolutely loving the show. She was intense, never taking her eyes off of the stage. Singing every word, smiling, and just as happy as can be. I spotted her and watched her for a few minutes then snapped the image below, isolating her face and smile from everything else. I did this by waiting for the moment, and using a large aperture to make sure she was the main subject in this photo. I already had this envisioned in my head, as my brain seems to tell my eyes to view things at F1. :) This was shot with a Leica M9 and 50mm Noctilux at f/0.95.

One more that I never published… Seal after 90 –100 minutes of being on stage, does a fist pump for the roaring crowd. At this moment, he is enjoying the crowd as much as they are enjoying him. I wanted to capture the joy on his face, and think I succeeded. Shot with the Canon 1DMKIV. Again, one shot, and one shot only. Even with a DSLR, I keep it on center spot focus, and single shot. I wait for the moments instead of hoping to get one out of every 100 shots I fire. That is the key…

Which leads me into a small rant about these rapid fire shooters who do that (rapid fire) with hopes they get a good shot. I was shooting a show once where the photographer next to me just kept firing away his Nikon D3, and he must have shot 3,500 images that night, while I shot 150. I just can't imagine sitting there and going through 3,000+ shots after an event. No way! Again, for me it is all about waiting for the moment. Keep your eye through the viewfinder, and wait for it. Visualize, then fire one shot. You may not nail every single one, but your keeper rate will be high.

So let's move on to more everyday situations. When shooting a concert we have tons of opportunities to capture feeling and emotion, not only in the performance, but also the audience. When out and about with your camera, how do you capture those candid moments, or avoid posed pictures that everyone seems to do so well?

Well, first of all, don't worry about the rules all the time. Think outside the box, and always have your camera with you. This is where it pays to have something small like an Olympus E-P2, or a Panasonic GF1, or even a Leica M9 or especially a Leica X1 (it's so small and light, and the IQ is fantastic). With these cameras, you can easily concentrate on capturing “moments in time” instead of just the same old posed images.

Think Outside of the Box

Don't be afraid to get off angles, cut off heads, or have your focus off a bit. Sometimes images like these can be very thought provoking and mysterious. Take your shots when your subjects are relaxed and may not even be aware you are photographing them.

Also, there are times when you can take a posed shot and turn it into a shot full of emotion. Here is one I shot about 10 months ago or so. My son was with his friend, and I asked them to try on these 3D glasses that came with some horror DVD. The first few shots, they sat there and smiled. I didn't want that—I wanted a natural reaction! So I started telling jokes and acting goofy. They loosened up, started laughing and having fun. I then got these two shots.

This is another one where my son was posing so I put my camera down to my side—he thought I was done and he made this oddball face. This wasn’t posed but he didn’t even know I lifted the camera up to snap! This is more of a goofy moment, but still, it's a real moment and not a faked one :)

My nephew John was on the phone in a deep discussion with his father and had no idea I was taking his picture. Shot with an M9 and 50 Summilux in low light at high ISO, but it still works. He was worried about something and it shows in his face. It’s one of those serious moments which can also be quite interesting.

Again, the key: Have your camera, wait for it, and don't let your subject know! Raise the camera when you see the moment coming, or it is there. My son…he is so used to me taking his picture that he usually makes a mean face or raises his hand. But here, he had no idea I was going to take the pic! I was using a Sony NEX5 and I had it down where I could see the LCD, and since it was away from my face, he was just talking and laughing about something. I snapped and caught his happiness at that moment :)

So the next time you are out shooting or just hanging around the house looking for something to take pictures of, remember to wait for the moment. Snapping blindly will lead to dull photos. When it comes to people photographs, take your time and watch your surroundings. Keep an eye out at all times. Walk the streets and be on the lookout! You will usually come away with some great moments and memories.

I will leave you with a few more shots…

Let us know your tips on how to capture those candid emotions and feelings in the comments below.