How to Capture Authentic Emotion
We spoke with Unsplash contributors Priscilla Du Preez and Sinitta Leunen about how they approach photographing genuine emotion.
Images of genuine emotion are some of the most sought after on Unsplash. Yet we also know that evoking strong emotion in a photograph can be a challenge to capture. At their worst, images portraying a specific emotion can look rehearsed, inauthentic, or worst of all — cheesy. But at their best, they can cause a profound and lasting reaction in the viewer.
We spoke with two Unsplash contributors that know a thing or two about capturing genuine emotion in their work. From their approach to photographing emotion, to their sources of inspiration — find their thoughts below.
Priscilla du Preez is a hobbyist photographer and aspiring archivist from Northern Alberta, Canada. While Priscilla has been contributing her work to Unsplash for 6 years, photography became a passion of hers over a decade ago in high school. Specifically, on a school field trip to Normandie, Priscilla vividly remembers taking an“ultra-cringe” photo of her friend’s footsteps in the sand. She says, “It is a terrible photo and I (hope that I have) come a long way since then, but ever since then photography’s felt natural.” Now, Priscilla uses photography as a tool to document space and time:“It’s a great way to freeze a little piece of history.”
Sinitta Leunen first got into photography when she was very young, but started taking it more seriously in her early teens. She would take photos of her friends, capture her holidays, and sometimes help out local shops. Sinitta explains,“At the beginning it was all for fun, up until the point I lost my mum and started struggling with depression.” It was then that she stopped taking any requests from friends to have their photos taken, and instead,“focused solely on expressing my own emotions and feelings.”
In search of simplicity
What’s at the heart of capturing genuine emotion? Appreciating simplicity. Sinitta believes that in a world where polished visuals and a need for perfection is common place, it is her “duty to show the world as it is and not touch or intevene too much.” She credits this philosophy to her mother, who aways told her: “Those who don’t value the small things, aren’t worth receiving the big things either.”
The focus on the ‘small things’ is a focus for Priscilla in her photography as well: “I’m quite drawn to simplicity. Real people. Real moments. These moments may not be interesting to anyone, but they invoke feelings of nostalgia in the future.”
On capturing genuine emotion
The truth is, photographing ‘real people’ and ‘real moments’ can be, well… awkward. It can be awkward for the subject, having their photo taken and being told to ‘look natural’. And Priscilla says it can be awkward as the photographer, especially if they are “trying to capture pure, human emotion.”
This often leads to forced and inauthentic results. So how to move past the awkwardness? Priscilla says, “I like to tell the models I’m working with to ignore me and to experience the mundane beauty of the present moment.”
She adds, “If you’re a new (or old!) photographer struggling to connect with your subjects or just having a hard time fostering a creative environment, try approaching your shoot like an experience. Tell your subjects, we’re just going to go out and chat and explore and see what we get up to, and let them interact with the environment they’re in, instead of trying to force something unnatural to happen.”
But most importantly? Don’t force anything. As Priscilla puts it: “The only way to capture something genuine, is to be genuine.”
Sinitta agrees, saying that if you want to capture an emotion, you have to feel that emotion: “It’s impossible to have someone cry in front of your lens while you’re behind the camera smiling from ear to ear.” So, if you want to capture smiling faces, you should joke around and be in a good mood. And if you want to capture anger, talk to your model about what you’re angry about. Ultimately, Sinitta says, “Honesty is a good starting point. It’s really as simple as that.”
Priscilla adds, “If you can develop a trust with the people you’re shooting, you will start creating beautiful, genuine works of art!”
A look back
Beyond capturing real moments with honesty, photographers often find it helpful to look to artistic references in music, art and more. For instance, Sinitta turns to classical art to learn about the basic principles around how to convey emotion. She explains, “I look at the use of colour, texture, and facial expressions in portraits.” Her top tip for photographers looking to capture genuine emotion? Learn about colour theory, and look at art. She says, “Go to museums and wander the halls. Take notes (either legit or mind notes) on what picture conveys what emotion and why. The same goes for music, study what makes a song a sad song and what makes an angry piece of music.”
It’s the use of colour that renders the photograph below so powerful in her mind. Sinitta explains that “the image was taken mid-lockdown. My mind was feeling trapped, and I was angry and sad almost 24/7. That emptiness is reflected in the white water that you can’t see through because my mind was foggy.”
Priscilla, too, has a keen interest at looking back at historical photographs which informs her work. Describing herself as an“aspiring archivist,” Priscilla spends hours looking at old photographs:“I imagine what life would have been life with a romantic eye for the beauty of what once was.” One that sticks out in her memory: An old vintage photograph on Unsplash.
“It evokes a sense of nostalgia and bittersweet sadness in me. I think many of our own family albums have a few similar scenes. Maybe a little throwback to my own childhood sadness of a dad that was never emotionally or physically present but did what he could to provide our family a better life? A lot of old photos generate a bittersweet reminder of parents doing the best they can, and it’s a painful yet touching emotion in my heart.”
Images have the ability to transport us to places we’ve never visited, to moments in time we’ve never experienced firsthand. Ultimately, images have the power to make us feel something. And while capturing genuine emotion on camera can often feel challenging for the photographer — the end result is always worth it.
From images of joy and laughter, to shots of those quiet moments of ennuit — the Unsplash library is home to thousands of images that showcase authentic emotion. If you're feeling inspired by the words of Sinitta and Priscilla, we invite you to submit your own images evoking genuine emotion, too.