The Single Most Important Element In Every Great Photograph And Why You Should Include It In Yours


Photographers are, at heart, exhibitionists. We crave people seeing our photographs and telling us how good they are, it gives us a warm fuzzy feeling and deep down and that's why we do it. Whether you print and show to your friends or upload and share on Flickr or Facebook the one thing you want is for people to like what you have done. But how do you make sure that the photographs you take are going to be what people want to look at?

Snow Capped
Why is this landscape picture of Snowdon likely to be more popular than the one of the road below? (Photo by Richard Walker Photography)

Why Creating an Emotional Connection is Key

If you can make a photograph that creates some kind of emotional connection with the viewer you're onto a winner, and if you can make a photograph that creates an emotional connection with lots of viewers, perhaps even thousands, then you've hit the jackpot.

This is why pictures of cute children and animals always do well, but it doesn't mean that you need to stop shooting landscapes or urban decay and shoot cute. You can create an emotional connection with any type of photography and it's not necessarily the subject that creates the connection.

Take the concept of golden hour. One of the first things you learn about landscape photography is to try and shoot during golden hour, but why? Well, during golden hour the light is softer and has a red hue to it making the landscape look warm and inviting.

During the day the light is more blue and harsh. And what do the majority of people in this world like best out of warm and inviting or harsh? Of course the viewer is unaware of this, the whole process is subliminal, but that is what is happening – the viewer is drawn to the warmth of the image, they are emotionally connecting with it.

But, there is no doubt that if your subject sparks some emotion in the viewer as well as the feel of the image then that is a bonus.

Take this photo of a road between autumn trees. Although it ticks many boxes in terms of composition (leading lines, rule of thirds, etc), and the lighting is warm enough to make some sort of connection with people who love autumn colours, it's less likely to be popular than the one above because it's not a recognisable place. More people will have an emotional connection with Snowdon than with a road in Buckinghamshire, even if it does lead to a fairly well know National Trust property.

This doesn't mean it's a bad picture, it doesn't mean that no-one will like it, it simply means that the more ways in which you can connect with the viewer emotionally the better.

There is no getting away from it, the more a photograph stirs some kind of emotion in you, the more you like that photograph, no matter whether it is happiness, sadness, fun, fear or anything else.

This is why the best selling landscapes are generally of famous places where the buyer has either been or wants to go. It's why parents all over the world spend a fortune on photographs of their own children, not other peoples'. It's why teenage girls have posters of Justin Beiber on their walls and teenage boys have famous footballers. It's why……..well, you get the picture.

The image below connects emotionally in 2 ways. Firstly, it's clearly going to grab the attention of animal lovers just because the subject is a newborn lamb and they are cute, so we can tick the cute box. But it is also an emotional moment. It is the very first touch between a mother and her offspring and the emotion contained in that moment hopefully transfers to the viewer, ticking the tenderness and love boxes – at least that was the idea. You can read more about how I got this shot here.

Less Than A Minute Old
An emotional subject captured at an emotional moment, 2 for the price of 1. Any technical deficiencies of this image are hopefully made up for by the emotion. (Photo by Richard Walker Photography)

So when you next pick up your camera think about how you can create an emotional connection with your audience. Sure, you may take a technically fantastic shot of that fire hydrant but who's heart strings will it tug at? Who is really going to want to give it more than a passing glance? If you can wait until that cute little dog comes along and does what little dogs do against fire hydrants you will at least stir the humour emotion in a few people.

About Author

Award Winning Landscape Photographer - Winner of the Olympus Global Photo Contest 2017

I have come to photography via a fairly unusual route. It was my first iPhone that really got me into photography and started me out on the path that I now find myself on. In 2009 during a cycling trip around the Lake District I took a photograph of Buttermere using an HDR app. It was my first well-composed shot and from that moment I was hooked.

I have always loved exploring the countryside of the UK whether on foot or by bicycle and it is this sense of exploration that I attempt to portray in my photography. I always try and capture a moment rather than simply a scene and I try to express how it felt to be at that place at that moment.

Good advice as we photography teachers tend to sacrifice emo connections in favor of aesthetic ‘formalism’. However, if I see another ‘cute’ cat photo in my class, I may puke down my student’s shirt….involuntarily of course.

A good article. Thank you. I just started exhibiting my photographs last year and it’s true that the best sellers were those with ‘an emotional connection’. My ‘competition’ winning prints didn’t necessarily do as well.

A well-written and concise article that breaks a rather abstract idea down into a few nuggets that an amateur like me can understand and employ. Nicely done.

you could also argue that the picture of Snowdon also uses the reflected light to amplify all those elements about it that are attractive in the first place. Clear blue sky, “golden hour” lighting, the “wow” factor of the mirror-image in the lake PLUS the emotional connection = winner

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *