Are You Seeing the Funny Side? How to Capture Humor in Photography

By Federico Alegria / February 3, 2017

Last Updated on by

“There is a fine line between good clean fun, and tackiness.”

~ Elliott Erwitt

Humor In Photography – The Moment

Capturing humor in a studio setting is a complex job that requires intelligence, patience, care, delicacy and respect. And, if that isn’t hard enough, capturing humor in uncontrolled situations is an even more massive challenge – but why?

Humor triggers laughter, and making someone laugh is not that easy (to most). If it was, everybody would be a comedian (wouldn't that be funny) – and that’s why working with humor is indeed complex.

Human beings respond to humor in different ways depending on age, culture, and most of all, their unique “sense of humor.”

humor in photography

Image by Frank Winkler

Natural vs Controlled Situations

I truly believe that capturing humorous incidents on the streets or in any other uncontrolled scenario is much more difficult than doing it in controlled situations. I’m not diminishing concept photography; I'm just saying that because often, humor which occurs in uncontrolled situations is usually brief.

Timing is Everything

It has to be subtle enough to make you laugh without jeopardizing the subjects' integrity and situation. Finding humor in real-life circumstances requires patience, luck, being present at the perfect time and place, and a well-bred eye for seeing subtle humor that might escape others.

Image by Never Edit

Image by Never Edit

When learning how to capture great humor in photography, under controlled situations, the results can be that of ingenious art when done right.

The deal around the “concept” must be taken with meticulous care by the photographers when working something around humor. Sometimes humor is focused on a deeper topic.

Just look at satire, and you'll get my point. Humor can be used as an intelligent way to transmit an idea or concern.

The Thin Line Between Humor and Vulnerability

The biggest challenge, and probably the main reason why humor is considered such a complex theme in photography, is drawing the line that divides a photo from being seen as “deriding” and something that suggests that “we’re laughing with you, not at you”.

Capturing people in vulnerable situations and publishing them as “humor” is just not cool, and goes against many ethical standards I believe in. When that line is not so obvious, but a person asks you to delete a picture of them, please do so.

Don't be rude, keep cool, otherwise this can inflict deep collateral damage to other photographers.

Image by Per Gosche

Image by Per Gosche

Shooting people in vulnerable situations is valid from my personal point of view. On one condition, when the aim of doing so is to produce a social statement of complaint.

Photography is a powerful tool, but it’s important to define the meaning behind the decision to make a photograph.

Let's Talk About Empathy

Do you find it hard to define a photograph as acceptable or unacceptable?

Just ask yourself if you’d like to be photographed in the same circumstances. And it doesn't stop there – add to that simple equation some broader perspective on empathy. Don’t limit yourself to comparing things like apples and peaches.

Having a camera pointed at our face isn’t so pleasant when the photographer is a total stranger. Try to be as quick as possible when snapping pictures of strangers, and even quicker if you find the scene or situation you’re about to capture is funny.

Does Culture Come into this?

Image by Unsplash

Image by Unsplash

Humor depends a lot on culture. If this wasn't true, there wouldn't be debates on why people from country X don’t get Y type of jokes – classic examples are those of various English-speaking nations like the US, UK & Australia (to name only a few).

Therefore, the cultural aspect is something you need to consider when capturing humor on the streets or when targeting a specific audience (when working in concept photography).

Whether or not you’re seeking to evoke humor, remember to use your social skills when diving into cultures different to yours.

And Juxtaposition?

Image by Gratisography

Image by Gratisography

If capturing a “decisive moment” wasn't hard enough, capturing humor is about delivering a specific message inside the decisive moment. Explaining this type of juxtaposition for me is easier when I put it like this:

Juxtaposition is the interaction of subjects that otherwise would present dull meanings when captured alone.

Humor is not expressed by the subjects in many cases. Humor is constructed by the interaction of a subject or subjects with their context.

Humor is born when these elements combine at an exact moment of time to result in a playful message.

The Master of Humor in Photography, Elliott Erwitt

“Observing the images of Elliott Erwitt is the best way I can illustrate the greatness of humor. Erwitt is not just a master of the popular “decisive moment”, but a master of capturing humor through irony and absurd situations in uncontrolled situations.” because he is still alive and well jajaja.

He stated once that:

“Making people laugh is one of the highest achievements you can have. And when you can make them laugh and cry, alternately, like Chaplin does, now that's the highest of all possible achievements. I don't know that I aim for it, but I recognize it as the supreme goal.”

Image by Elliott Erwitt wikicommons

Image by Elliott Erwitt wikicommons

Wise words from somebody who truly understands how to capture humor in photography. By contemplating his photographs, you'll realize that humor doesn't even exist in the scene itself, but it can manifest itself in the photograph.

Show your pictures offline once in a while and watch people's reactions. You might be making people laugh, but “likes” are not necessarily telling you that.

Watch a video where the man explains some things.

My Take on Humor in Photography

As a street photographer, you don't seek humor; humor finds you – and it's picky.

Which is yet another reason why I never tire of telling people this: never walk without a camera. Always have it with you, like your closest companion.

Make it a habit, make it feel strange to walk around without its trusty strap slung from your shoulder. Amazing moments happen without planning. They don’t ring any alarms. They just happen. And humor is even rarer. It is serendipitous.


Capturing Great Humor in Photography – Top Takeaways

  • Be ready with your camera. If a moment looks as though it's about to reveal itself in a humorous way, have your finger over the shutter button and be ready to snap some quick shots. If you're a stranger, make it quick, otherwise, it's fine to make a “joke” of it.
  • Know when capturing people in vulnerable situations is art and when it's plain ridiculing.
  • Using juxtaposition within this context is about capturing a “story” within a photograph. Sometimes an ordinary image with little or no context can be transformed into something really quite funny when pieces are all put together correctly.

Further Resources

Further Learning

Just because you're focused on capturing humor, doesn't mean your attention to available light goes out the proverbial window.
Check this EXCELLENT course guide by Photography Concentrate “Fantastic Fundamental Light Skills”.


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About the author

Federico Alegria

Federico is one of our staff writers and has 10 years of experience in making documentary photography, he is currently working in long-term photo essays and you can see more of his work here. He is also a professor at a design-focused University, and is currently pursuing his PhD (and of course, his thesis is around Photography). His work has been featured in museums, newspapers and magazines. He is currently based in El Salvador.

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