Use Color to Bring Emotion to Your Photography

Have you ever seen one of those pictures of a small child starving in Africa and have something tug at your heart? Have you ever seen a cover on a magazine and picked it up just because of that photo? Have you ever bought a product because of a picture of someone else using the product and how happy they looked? If you said yes to any of these, don’t worry; you’re not alone. Advertising is a $200 billion a year business . . . and most of it relies on photographs that have emotional impact.

How to bring emotion to your pictures

Photo by United Nations Photo; ISO 400, f/2.8, 1/125-second exposure.

So the obvious question is, “What is it that transforms a two-dimensional piece of paper into a three-dimensional image that yanks at our heartstrings?”

Emotional intimacy is what touches people and, more often than not, causes them to take action. Look at it this way—the worse thing a parent can do to a child is to NOT let that child know they are loved. Likewise, a photograph that does not evoke emotions or feelings in the viewer has robbed the viewer. Your job as is not just to “document” or “point and shoot.” Your job is to touch the hearts of those who have not experienced what you have. Remember, what comes from the heart goes to the heart.

You have to realize that all art seeks to express emotion, and you as a photographer are also an artist. No offense to craftsmen around the world, but they have a pattern, and the results are always known. If you connect “A” to “B” to “C,” you have a clock, for example; you always have a clock. There is no doubt in your mind that you are making a clock. The artist, on the other hand, may start out looking for joy, but may end up with something that reminds us of sorrow or pain. Obviously, not every viewer will have the same emotions that you had when taking the photograph, but as long as they feel something, that’s OK.

Color is often overlooked or not talked about in great detail in the world of photography. Have you ever noticed someone walking down the street with clothes that were loud and out of place? It almost gives you a headache just thinking about it. But why is that? Different colors invoke different emotions. Some are positive, and some are negative, depending on the viewer’s perspective.

Here are some colors and their perceived emotional values:


Positive: sense of power, strength, action, passion, sexuality

Negative: anger, impatience, violence, forcefulness, revenge

how color portrays emotion in photography

Photo by Goggins World; ISO 80, f/3.5, 1/125-second exposure.


Positive: caution, brightness, intelligence, joy

Negative: criticism, laziness, cynicism

emotion and color in photography

Photo by Macarena Constanza; ISO 200, f/5.6, 1/500-second exposure.


Positive: tranquility, peace, love, comfort, harmony

Negative: fear, coldness, depression

best colors to evoke the right emotion in photos

Photo by Jae C.; ISO 100, f/4.5, 1/250-second exposure.


Positive: courage, confidence, warmth, energy

Negative: ignorance, inferiority, slowness

how to use color for emotional photos

Photo by Mike Monaghan; ISO 100, f/1.4, 1.6-second exposure.


Positive: royalty, sophistication, religious

Negative: bruised, beaten, foreboding

guide to use color for emotion in photography

Photo by Oli4.D; ISO 800, f/3.5, 1/40-second exposure.


Positive: money, health, nature, growth, soothing

Negative: envy, greed, guilt, jealousy

show emotion with colors in photos

Photo by James Blann; ISO 200, f/8.0, 1/320-second exposure.


Positive: dramatic, classy, committed, serious

Negative: evil, darkness, death, coldness

using color for emotion techniques

Photo by gato-gato-gato; ISO 1250, f/1.4, 1/60-second exposure.


Positive: pure, fresh, goodness, heavenly

Negative: blind, cold, bitter, distant

ways to use color to bring emotion to photos

Photo by Shawn Kent; ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/6000-second exposure.

If you want to understand emotion in photography, then you need to understand color as an emotion. If you’re ready to take your work to the next level, try shooting 40 shots of each of the colors listed above. The subject matter is not important, but you must shoot half those shots as positive and half as negative.

Trying to create emotion in photography often means getting inside your viewer’s head. Different people have different life experiences, thus they view the world differently. If you want your work to reach as many people as possible, then you have to be able to view things from as many different perspectives as possible. Take the challenge to see if you really understand color. Once you do, your world of photography will never be the same.

About the Author:
Award winning writer / photographer Tedric Garrison has 30 years experience in photography ( As a Graphic Art Major, he has a unique perspective. His photo eBook “Your Creative Edge” proves creativity can be taught. Today, he shares his wealth of knowledge with the world through his website.

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