When I first started in photography, I took exclusively portraits. I didn’t give much thought to the emotional weight of my images because defining and capturing emotion in portraits can seem like a no-brainer, right? There are steps I, as the photographer, can take to ensure genuine emotion is displayed, and that it is enhanced by my light, settings, and post processing (that’s a post for another day!), but the actual emotion is easy for us, as viewers to read. We are hard-wired to read emotion in other humans’ faces. And we subconsciously attach those emotions to the image displayed before us.
How does that translate, though, in an image with no people? How can a photographer ensure that a viewer experiences a similar emotional connection to a landscape or still life as he or she would to a portrait? The answers are surprisingly similar to those for portrait work! Maybe you don’t think about these as much when photographing people, but the weight of all of these factors combined can make for a strong emotional message, with or without a human face involved.
Color. Studying color theory is fascinating. We, as human beings, attach certain feelings or moods to individual colors themselves. For example, blue can give us feelings of peace and serenity, or it can also be associated with depression. Red is a color we affiliate with passion or aggression. Take a look at a this link below for a detailed color wheel with explanations of the emotions we often attach to each color.
So simply by paying attention to what colors you are including in your images (and just as important, those that you are excluding!), you can help steer your viewers toward a certain emotion.
Lack of Color. Just as important as color can be the absence of color. Converting an image to black and white strips color details and makes a viewer focus more on the subject matter itself, as well as the light and shadows present. It can create a feeling of tension in a viewer, especially in high contrast, hard light situations. Or it can evoke a feeling of peacefulness by making an image monochromatic and easier on the viewer’s eyes.
Light and Shadows. Just as in portraiture, light plays a huge role in the emotion of non-human images. You can recreate the feeling of a cozy winter evening by setting up a still life scene in warm light, surrounded by long, soft shadows. Or you can create tension or aggression by photographing a still life in hard, direct light, possibly leaving your subject partially in shadow. Light (and its absence, shadows) is undoubtedly one of the biggest players in an image’s emotions.
Number. Often in photographic compositions, humans find odd numbers more pleasing than even. Want to create a sense of loneliness or solitude? Photograph just one subject. Want to evoke a feeling of camaraderie or togetherness? Photograph many of the same object.
Sometimes having no human faces can actually add or increase emotion to an image that would otherwise be influenced by a person’s expression. The next time you view an image that strikes you, try to break down the elements that cause your reaction. See if you can replicate that idea in some of your own landscape, macro, or still life work!