How It Looks or Feels
September 25th, 2016 by David LaBelle
Rockies fans react to a come-from-behind home run at Coors Field in Denver.

Rockies fans react to a come-from-behind home run at Coors Field in Denver.

“Don’t just show me what somebody is doing, show me how your subject feels about what they are doing,” I teach.

I see thousands of photographs a year of people doing things: fishing, fighting, building, dancing and, most recently, hunting Pokémon. But few published images reveal how someone feels about what they are doing.

Most photos published in journalistic publications are of portraits or people doing something. Real, spontaneous moments are rare because they require too much of an investment of time to capture. They are too expensive to produce. Consequently, we are bombarded with a plethora of published pictures that are mere records, proof the photographed showed up. I call these “We were there” pictures.

But pictures that express honest human emotion get my attention. Just as words or actions can reveal the intent or character of our heart, captured fragments of our expressions or gestures can say a lot about what we feel.

Emotions are born in the heart, climb up into the eyes and move the muscles on the face. We see joy, sadness, anxiety, fear, hope, love and many subtle emotions.

Here are a few thoughts/techniques that should help you make more real pictures:

  • Ask questions that evoke expressions. The next time you are photographing somebody doing something, ask them why they do a particular thing. What does it mean to them? Be prepared to capture the answer in the emotion the face and body language offer. This one technique can be the difference between making photographs that engage or those dismissed with a casual glance.
  • Observe and anticipate. Wait for fleeting moments when your subject quits doing, drops their guard and momentarily internalizes the experience. Be quiet, watch and anticipate those unguarded moments when people quit posing and reveal how they feel about what it is they are doing. Are they bored, excited, indifferent? The visual story-teller is separated from the photographer by the ability to capture real, unguarded moments. Documenting beautiful human behavior requires observation, anticipation, patience and quick reflexes.
  • It is not over when it is over. Stay alert. Often it is when the cameras are turned off and a microphone removed that the subject reveals the most and offers the richest, honest emotion.
  • Consider captions. Help the reader share the experience by explaining what your subject’s expression is in reaction to. What question was asked that stirred the expression?
  • Challenge yourself to show the “why.” Photographs that tell me why, not just how, are usually rich with informational and emotional layers.

One of the best examples of “why” came from a student in a basic photography class.

The assignment was to spend some time with a subject, visit him or her several times and produce a biographical profile on the individual with a narrative line.

The student captured pictures of a young woman working at her job as a server, doing chores and resting at home. But her best pictures were of the heavyset woman working out feverishly at a gym. She even provided a detail picture of the woman’s dinner plate at home showing the tiny portions of healthy food. It was obvious the woman was on a plan to lose weight. But why?

Her final picture in the essay—a beautiful, old-fashioned wedding dress hanging in the young woman’s closet—whispered her motivation.

No more words were needed. With one photograph, the student had answered the “why.” The young woman was getting married soon and wanted to be able to fit into the dress her mother had worn when she married.

Remember: There is a huge difference between what someone looks like when they are doing and how they feel about what they are doing.

daveL_mug_2011David 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