Expressing Emotion in Photography

In 2006 I found my passion for photography while I was studying to become a mechanical engineer. Today, I will be sharing on how various aspects from principles of classical fine arts, Indian Nāṭya Śāstra (नाट्य शास्त्र) & recent research in the field of 'Affective Image Classification' can be used to express emotions in photography.

Human emotions, while maintaining universality, can be classified into four categories in terms of positive or negative & exciting or calming. There are three types of tools that are commonly used to convey emotion in photography; facial expression, symbolism & composition. Let's look at how the elements of composition can be used to express emotions in each category:

Positive – Exciting (Excitement, Wonder, Awe, surprised)

Funny bride

This category is the most dominant in the advertising industry and is characterized by warm white balance and contrasting vibrant warm colors, low tonal contrast, highlights dominated, open body language, catch-light in the eyes, gaze above the horizon, more balanced diffused light, diagonal lines, curved angles, triangular or circular (in motion) shape formation, asymmetry, smooth texture, etc.

Negative - Exciting (Anger, Rage, Disgust, Fury)

Man in gas mask

This category is the most dominant in Sociopolitical campaigns and is characterized by cool white balance and high contrast & dominant darker tones of black, red, brown, muddy yellow, zig-zag lines, irregular lines, sharp angles, defensive or offensive body language, restricted gaze, harsh light with deep shadows,Unnatural Shapes with irregular geometry & sharp angles, asymmetry, rough & pointy texture, etc.

Positive - Calming (Happy, calm, peaceful, content)


This category is the most dominant inhome decoration, advertising in the medical industry, travel industry, etc and is characterized by warm tones, highlights dominated, low contrast, pastel colors, analogous color schemes, back-lit subjects, silhouettes in sunset light, open body language, wide open fields, gaze above the horizon, diffused light, horizontal lines, parallel curvy lines, circular or rectangular shape formation, symmetry & smooth texture.

Negative – Calming (sad, anxious, annoyed, worried)

Terrified woman on wall

This category is not very popular in commercial photography but it is frequently used by filmmakers and is characterized by cool tones, almost monochromatic, deep shadows, jarring high contrast, black, green, muddy yellow, red dominant, closed body language, weak pointed light source at a distance, long shadows, closed spaces, corners, closed body language, restricted gaze, horizontal & vertical lines, irregular lines, sharp acute angles, incomplete & irregular shape formation, texture of decay, metal, rust, dirt etc.

It's important to understand that all the elements may not appear in a single photograph and an image may be composed with elements from different categories to create compelling work but it will all depend on your vision about the final product. I'll end with two keys to improve - Experiment & Practice.

Photo credits: Jose Antonio Sanchez Reyes, Melinda Nagy, Mykola Velychko.

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October 30, 2018


Thanks William

October 30, 2018


Great job in illustrating those aspects of emotion with perfect photographs. William.

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