What do you feel when you look at a photograph? Depending on the photograph you may feel happiness or sadness, it may calm you or excite you, or it may evoke numerous memories. A simple photograph can elicit such a wide range of emotions. But does everyone feel the same when they look at the same photograph? My simple answer is no they don’t.
Everyone has different memories, everyone has different emotional reactions to varying stimuli and, as such, you could say everyone perceives the world in a completely unique way. So when you present a photograph to someone, they will have their own personalised emotional response to it. Although this may seem apparent, it is something that is easily overlooked.
Do you see what I see?
To illustrate this, I will put up a few photos. Have a look at them and see how you feel and what you think about when you look at them. I will write below them the thoughts and feelings they evoke in me.
The first photo was recently taken in Miami. The initial feeling it evokes in me is that of warmth and heat. I can still almost tangibly feel the relentless heat and humidity that consumed me when I was outdoors there. And I can still almost smell the faint acrid and sour odour that hung in the humid air. However, the photo also fills me with happiness because I enjoyed my time there and also because the weather was brightening up at the time I took the shot and the forecast thunderstorms thankfully did not appear.
The next photo was taken up Glen Shee in Scotland. This photo fills me with mixed emotions. I feel happiness as I remember being there, in such a beautiful landscape, just as the sun was starting to break through the thick, dark clouds producing such a picturesque scene. There is also however a feeling of apprehension. Why? Well because I had just blown the exhaust manifold off the car and we were waiting for the breakdown truck to come out. The ensuing hassle still sticks vividly in my mind.
The last photo was taken at Monikie Country Park in Scotland. The first feeling it evokes in me is that of coldness. It was a freezing cold night I took the shot and the park was very icy. It also instills a sense of calm in me, not only because I remember the park being quiet and peaceful at the time but also because the soft colours in the sky instill a sense of serenity in me. Lastly, I feel happiness and contentment, not because of the memory of being there, because it was bitterly cold and the paths were treacherously slippery, but because I was able to get to a get a shot I was pleased with after freezing for ages waiting for the sun to go down.
So, surely if photographs can bring out these varied emotions in different people this should be seen as a good thing, so why then does it become an issue when taking and presenting your work. It becomes an issue because it is easy to assume that everyone will have a similar emotional response as you do, or to assume that they will have a specific emotional response which you desire them to have when viewing the photograph. And when they don’t have that desired response it can lead to confusion or disappointment for the photographer.
A good example of this is when people show holiday photos. Picture the scene; someone is on a hot, sun drenched beach enjoying a wonderful holiday. The air smells fresh and they can hear the gentle sound of the waves on shore. They are happy and the people around them are happy. Thus, they decide to take a photo of the beach and throw it up on Instagram so everyone else can enjoy this too. However, they are disappointed because the viewers don’t seem to enjoy the scene as much as the photographer does. Why? Because the people viewing it are not there. The viewers only have a single image to trigger their emotional response. They do not feel the atmosphere that the photographer is currently feeling and a single image cannot fully convey that. The photographer may disregard the artistic elements of the photo such as tonality, colour balance and composition because of their own personal emotional response to the photo is clouding their judgement and perception of what the photograph is actually showing.
Setting the Mood
It is impossible to make everyone have the emotional response you desire them to have about one of your photos due to their own unique personal feelings. However, there does tend to be intersubjective agreement over the general emotional response to certain artistic elements. I will give a few brief examples but there are many, and they require lengthy discussion which I will go into in later posts. Some of these can be achieved when actually taking the photo, others can be applied in post-processing.
- Colours can be seen as warm or cool and they tend to evoke this emotional response in the viewer. e.g. Cyan and magenta are seen as cool colours where orange is seen as warm. By using these colours selectively in your photos you can help create a warm or cold atmosphere for the viewer.
- Low key images (those with a lot of darks in them) tend to make the image appear moodier and perhaps even sinister, whereas high key images (those with a lot of lights in them) create a lighter mood and give it an almost dream-like feel.
- Adding specific elements to an image which help to suggest a certain mood or atmosphere. e.g. adding people laughing into your image is more likely to make the viewer feel happy.
Another aspect to consider is that you as the photographer will likely have a far different emotional response than that of many of it’s viewers. This is because you were at the location and you absorbed all the surrounding atmosphere of the area.
Because of this, it can be beneficial to try and detach yourself from the memories or feelings of the surrounding stimuli when taking the photo and try to view the image more pragmatically. This can maybe be helped by stopping and thinking about the photos you are taking as you take them. Study carefully what is in your viewfinder and try and focus on only that detached from your surroundings. Also, it may be beneficial to not present your photos just as you take them, but leaving them a while and then coming back later to review them. You will be more detached from the surrounding stimuli you experienced when taking the photo and perhaps look at the image in a different way.
Thus, instead of just thinking about your own emotional response to a photo, try to look at the photo in isolation from these feelings and try to make the photo convey the mood and feel you think the actual image does or will represent. This can be helped by applying certain artistic elements to the photo and perhaps waiting some time before reviewing, processing and presenting your image.
I will try and demonstrate this using one of the examples I used above.
As I said, when I look at this image it evokes feelings of warmth and happiness in me. However, I would not present this photo in the hope it would elicit these same emotions in others. By looking at the photo more pragmatically, I can see that the dark, stormy sky, gives the photo a cold, dramatic and moody feel to it. Thus, when I processed the photo I emphasised this in the hope that the finalised image would convey that feeling to many of its observers. I desaturated the colours and then pushed the resultant colours towards cooler hues. I cropped the image to provide more vertical emphasis and push the viewers eye towards the sky, and also increased the contrast in sky to draw the viewer’s eye towards it and hopefully emphasise the stormy nature of the weather.
This topic of emotional response is quite complicated and subjective but hopefully this short post has given some you food for thought which can be applied when taking and presenting you photographs.
Thanks for Reading,