Many photographers seek to show not just what a scene looked like, but also what it felt like to be there. It’s not easy to convey the senses of seeing, listening, taste, smell, and touch through a photo but with taking some time to give a little thought to how you can trigger the viewer’s senses, you can transport someone to a different place and time through your images.
Kate Densmore is a documentary photographer based in Arizona who understands the importance of taking her clients back to specific moments with their families and making those who view her photos feel as though they were there by appealing to all of their senses.
Kate, who teaches photographers these skills and others through her Voice and Visual Intent workshop and in her forthcoming book “Stories of Home The Art of Photographing Family” shares her tips for incorporating all five sense into photographs here:
This sense is the most obvious when it comes to photography. After all, photography is a medium based on the sense of sight, both when creating an image, and when consuming an image. So how do you go beyond the obvious when creating a photograph that conveys a sense of sight? Try thinking about sight in terms of perspective. Perspective is really what makes your sight – where you stand – unique. Perspective can tell a story that relates to how you see the world on a personal level. Think of perspective in literary terms, and then creating photographs that have that same sense of storytelling perspective. It can be as simple as creating an image with a participatory, “first person” perspective, or a more observational “third person” perspective. For example, you can shoot a photo from the perspective of a child to show how the child sees a scene.
Close your eyes, right now, where ever you are. What do you hear? And how could you show that in a photograph? This might be one of the most challenging senses to incorporate into a photograph, because it seems so at odds with a medium that is so heavily based on how something looks rather than how it sounds. With video becoming a more and more popular choice, a moving photograph is one option. But if you really think about it, even in a moving photograph, or a short film clip, it’s often the sense of movement that conveys sound. In still photos, sound can be conveyed through the moving mouth of a child, the movement of the wind in the leaves, or the implied sound of footsteps falling as someone walks. So with that in mind, capturing implied movement in a still photograph can convey that same sense of sound. For example, an image with someone walking across a room, with one leg caught mid-motion, is going to have a stronger sense of movement, and implied sound, than the moment right before or after, where both feet are on the ground. It’s also easier for the viewer’s imagination to fill in the lack bit of information – the sound of those footfalls – if the photograph conveys that sense of movement.
They say that you eat with your eyes – meaning that our sense of appetite and anticipation of a good meal starts first with what we see. So with that in mind, creating a photograph that conveys a sense of taste isn’t nearly as difficult as it might first seem. Think about the feeling of that first bite of strawberry, or the first sip of tea. The way we experience the sense of how each of those things tastes starts long before the item hits our tongue. We anticipate the moment by taking in the color, the texture, the shape, the smell, the temperature – it all comes together to create the full experience. In a photograph, it’s not too difficult to focus on color, shape, and texture, to create that same feeling of anticipation of taste and even create a sense of taste in the viewer.
Smell is closely tied to taste, both in the real world, and in a photograph. You can use the same tips above to create an image that has that sense of smell, at least in terms of food. But what about smells where you don’t necessarily also taste the item? For example, one of my Kate’s favorite things about where she lives is the smell – she lives in a pine forest in northern Arizona, and when she steps out of my front door, the smell of the pine and the dirt and everything else in nature combine to create a sense of home that is unique to this area. Capturing that in a photograph isn’t quite as easy as creating a sense of anticipation. But, you can still include that sense of smell in a photograph by including more of the environment. In this case, if a photographer wanted to include a suggestion of that pine smell, including pine trees helps. If you are a street photographer wanting to capture the morning smells of food carts getting started for the morning, capturing the carts and the vendors, and maybe even some steam or smoke as they fire up the grills can add that context. Pay attention to what triggers the sense of smell you are trying to convey and include it in the frame.
Touch is one of Kate’s favorite senses to capture in a photograph. She loves that feeling she gets from some photographs, where she wants to reach out and touch something in it. For Kate, her daughters’ hair is something that draws her in every time. It’s almost always the texture – that tactile feeling of almost being able to reach out and touch it, even in a photograph – that she strives for. Photographers can also increase the sense of touch in their images by focusing on details that create a sense of texture. We all know what it feels like to hold a loved one’s hand. Or to push a strand of hair out of someone’s face. Or the way the sun feels on our face on a hot summer afternoon. Those are all details that trigger a sense of touch — small snippets of a larger moment that is happening. By focusing on those details in a photograph, you can convey that same sense of touch in a stronger way.
With a little thought you can add extra depth to your photos by incorporating all five senses into photos.
Jamie Davis Smith