Secret to take great photos of people: the one thing that makes a huge difference

Introduction: read me!

Whether you're an established portrait photographer, aspiring street photographer or someone looking to just make better photos of their friends and family, this is for you.

I had some of the following questions when I found out that I like to take pictures of people: What to look for? What am I supposed to photograph? Okay, people but what exactly? Interesting people? People with a cool outfit?

Emotion. That's it. Forget about composition, lighting and perspective for now. If your photo has emotion, it's probably a good photo. One of those photos that just has that “something”. When you see that kind of a picture, you hear yourself saying: “This is good! This is definitely a keeper”.

Emotion vs shoes on Instagram

Why is it that some photos make us feel something and other's don't. They might be great photos in terms of composition, lighting and all that but they don't touch us the same way as some others.

Ever seen a picture of someone's shoes made by the owner of these particular shoes while he sits on a edge of a tall building dangling his legs? Instagram is full of these. While the originality of these pictures might be another topic for some other day, let's forget that for a minute and focus on that kind of a picture itself.

These photos are not necessarily bad. They have composition, usually great colors, look nice and clean. They are very well edited. I've seen a ton of these and they are cool. However, none of them have made me feel anything more than ”Wow, that's shot from a really tall place” or ”Oh, these are nice colors”. It's because there's not emotion attached.

Photos with emotion however, make us feel something. Something that touches us deeply. Something that's difficult to describe. We look at the picture and immediately a story unfolds in our heads. Sometimes different versions.

The law of state transference

Imagine you are super happy about something and can't wait to tell your friend about it. Since he lives right across the hallway, you rush over there, with a smile on your face and knock on the door. He opens the door and looks absolutely miserable. You see that and right then and there your state is totally different. Instead having a big grin on your face, you now look really worried and ask him: “What's wrong?” Your state has changed.

It works the other way as well. Ever heard of laughter being infectious? The basic gist is that whatever the other person feels, you start to feel the same way. When we see our friend who's sad, we feel sad as well. If he's happy, we feel happy. If someone is really nervous, we become nervous as well. The examples are countless. Of course, we don't feel the emotion at the same level. I don't mean that if we see someone crying, we immediately start crying but we feel something similar to a lesser extent.

Connecting this with photos that have emotion, it becomes perhaps more clear why some pictures make us feel something, while others not so much. When we see a picture of someone with a certain feeling, that feeling transfers on to us.

I want you to take a look at the following 2 photos. The first one I took in Tallinn, Estonia (February 2019) while the other one is made in Luxembourg (May 2019).

Tallinn, 2019

Luxembourg, 2019

I'm not asking which one do you like more but which one makes you feel more? For me it's the second one.

The "gesture"

This brings us to gestures. I got this from Eric Kim: “Look for gestures. Photos of people just with their hands by their side are generally not very interesting.” I agree with him. When you see a hand gesture, chances are there's emotion in it as well.

A gesture alone without seeing a persons eyes or face can also elicit emotions in us. Look at the photo below (Luxembourg, May 2019):

Luxembourg, 2019

Because we can imagine what he might be feeling, it can still have an effect on us. It's amazing how we can pick up the subtleties.

Peace out and get better not bitter