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The Secret to Emotive Images

As photographers and advertisers we'd love to know why certain images resonate more than others. Is there a secret formula to engagement?


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I posted the image above on Instagram recently and it quickly became one of my most commented on posts of all time! It's really simple, showing my father standing on the inside of a window while I stepped back and forth on the outside so our faces merge. Titled "Like Father Like Son"... it's a play on reflections which was a bit of fun.

Honestly I was surprised. I didn't understand why this was getting so much reaction until my friend Mario from explained... "For a single shot it's crazy how much you can read into it. Your dad just instantly comes across like a great guy too - like it would be a lifetimes blessing to learn from him, it just seems like he's really wise and humble".

Others commented that it came across as such an emotional image. So I looked again and sure I can see how it might be... but my fathers face is so familiar to me that it just looks like dad and as the creator I feel like my familiarity with the work is creating this emotional barrier. As Mario explained "I call it the artistic burden of never experiencing your work like others see it." So True.


If we're destined to be blind to the emotion in our own work... we should look to others for inspiration. So forgetting my own work for a moment, what is it in other peoples images that sparks ? It's usually something that I can relate to and it can be as simple as a snap... like the image below from Instagram that inspired me to comment the other day. It has a sense of raw wild energy... it reminds of that feeling when I'm so hyped and excited about something I just want to scream and shout! As you get older those moments get fewer but I remember that feeling from long ago and this sparks that memory and it sparks my imagination. I can imagine myself picking up arms full of autumn leaves and just throwing them with abandon and a roar!

This is why I love to follow back people on Instagram that are not necessarily award winning photographers or instafamous feeds... at times they can be too perfect. I'm often more inspired by everyday life, the universal moments. There are plenty of universal moments we all share, the obvious are those which remind us of our own loved ones... babies, children, old people, cute animals. No doubt that's where my cinemagraph struck a chord, the face of a father can remind people of the father they don't see enough, never had... or is already gone. Yeah they're cliches but they truly work to engage our emotion. Nobody knows this better than clever advertisers, the amount of smultzy emotion laid thick on some TV ads nowadays makes me want to vomit like I've been force fed a barrel of candy floss! So be authentic... we're quite emotionally intelligent nowadays so don't fake it, we'll know.

The wheel of emotion above by Robert Plutchik shows the complex layers of emotion we all experience through life, but it mostly boils down to four key areas;

  • Happy

  • Sad

  • Afraid/surprised

  • Angry/disgusted

So what do people like to share with others the most? Probably the extremes... happiness & anger! But mostly we want to share happiness. I'm very likely to add my comment to something that makes me angry but in truth I'm less likely to share that content on to others, I just want to voice my opinion, get the anger off my chest quick and move on. Something that provides happiness makes me want to comment too, if only a short praise (rather than a long angry rant!)... and most importantly I'll want to share that content on to others afterwards. Whether it's altruistic or selfish satisfaction we all love to give.

Then there are struggles and frustrations we all share too, working late, getting up early (see below), stuck in traffic, longing for summer, longing for travel... even sadness and loss. They're different emotions but we want to engage for that sense of community, for confirmation that others feel the same frustrations too. These images draw us to engage in conversation and that helps on so many levels!


There's nothing worse than an actor who totally hams up the emotion, over-acting is the biggest mistake made by inexperienced actors & actresses whether it's the school play or a film school short. You need to leave room for the viewer to project their own experiences, giving just enough pause and expression to draw us completely into that moment. Likewise a photo which forces emotion becomes too cheesy. Documentary photography captures some of the most real and heart wrenching scenes from around the world and you can't plan that.

When I'm planning a shot for a client I sometimes want to say... "Give me the product, I'll find the right moment and give you something great!" - some of my best work comes from spur of the moment shots. Recreating a moment based on an agreed concept is much harder, they can sound great on paper but it's much harder than you'd think to pull it off unless there's a decent budget. Hey don't get me wrong I love the challenge of crafting an image and I love to paint with lighting to bring magic to a scene and the reality is for commercial work a documentary feel is not right for everyone. My personal style is somewhere in between, it's magical realism. I specialise in a documentary feel with a little extra polish and a touch of magic. But I've honestly had to walk away from jobs that are looking for a style that is simply not mine because it takes more time than it's worth for me and ends up costing the client if they don't get what they had in mind. Managing expectations is key. You also have to be careful not to water down and narrow creative opportunities with too many voices and opinions. At times those multiple voices can be all your own... so don't over-think it... just get out and shoot!

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