Capturing a Sense of Awe
April 26th, 2017 by David LaBelle

Tourists gaze up at the most iconic landmark in Florence, Italy: the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower, otherwise known as the Duomo.
Photos by David LaBelle

I saw it at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s old city, and see it over and again at the foot of the breathtaking, 375-foot-tall Duomo in Florence, Italy: that awestruck gaze washing over so many stunned and humbled faces.

Even when anticipated, such moments are able to capture us so completely our eyes water and our skin tingles.

For just a few seconds, we are bathed in the quiet wonder of the moment.

It is during these brief moments people actually experience the glory and feel the wonder, before they try to capture what is passing through their eyes.

I am confident I wore a similar awestruck expression at first sight of each of my four children.

However brief, this is a magical time, before the visitor awakens from their temporary trance and lifts their smartphone camera to make a record of the sight, or before they awaken and feel compelled to kiss in the shadow of the majestic site.

There is a phrase used when shooting film called the “latent image.” It is that hopeful time between the moment the shutter is pressed and negatives or prints are processed.

Essentially, latent means the hidden or concealed, but existing. I have always loved that thought, that state.

It might be a stunning sunrise or a spectacular sunset that stills us, wrapping around us in a reverent silence.

Or it can be coming face to face with a beloved celebrity that temporarily paralyzes us so much we are afraid to breathe, lest our breath pushes away the moment.

As a primarily documentary “moment” photographer, these fleeting capsules of authentic, unrehearsed emotion are what I hunger to witness and capture.

I have learned during these “trance” times that if I keep my distance and move slowly, the entranced are so focused with what fills their eyes they see neither me nor my camera.

While you can never plan for what you will feel when you see a breathtaking sight, you can prepare yourself to capture that sense of awe on the faces of others—especially if you have scouted the site and know where people are most likely to get their first glimpse of majesty.

The wonderful thing and difficult challenge about shooting authentic human moments is there is never a do-over. You cannot ask someone do to a thing again with the same expression.

There simply is never a second first time.


David LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He applies many of the lessons he learned during his magical boyhood years in rural California to photography. For more information, visit