How to Photograph Life :: Digital Photo Secrets

How to Photograph Life

by David Peterson 0 comments

A wise man once said, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it." OK it wasn't exactly a wise man, it was Matthew Broderick in the 1986 film Ferris Bueller's Day Off. But you can't deny the truth in those words. I bet there are times when you stop and think to yourself, "The year is over and I totally missed it." That's a small tragedy, and it happens to all of us.

Life does move fast. One day you wake up and realize with a shock that the baby you were holding in your arms not so long ago is now a snarky tween who sneaks your mascara and texts her BFF at 2 in the morning. And there will come a time when you wake up and realize, too, that a loved one has left this Earth, and regret that you didn't spend more time forging memories with that person, loving him and appreciating the time you had together.

I'm not trying to be a downer, but sometimes we all need a little slap across the face.

Imagine being a person born 200 years ago, when your life expectancy was short, infant mortality was high and there were no cameras available to the average family. In those days people often paid for "post-mortem" photographs, which were exactly what the name says. Because photographing your loved one wasn't something that you could do on a regular basis, families would often pay photographers to take photos of their loved ones after death—often seated in lifelike poses—because that was literally the only photographic memory they would have of that person. While the person was healthy, the expense of hiring a photographer was not something most people could afford, and a post-mortem photo was quite often the only image of that person that existed after death. It seems morbid to modern people, but in those times it was done out of a desperate need to hold onto the memories of a departed person, to prevent that person's face from fading from memory.

Imagine if you had no photos of the people you loved, only your own memories. Would that be enough?

Modern people don't need post-mortem photography because modern people have cameras of their own. But most of us don't spend enough time thinking about our collection of photographs, and wondering if it's really enough. Does that collection of selfies and snapshots you have really do justice to your time on Earth? Have you only captured your loved ones faces, the way those post-mortem images did? Or have you really captured the essence of who those people are? If your answer doesn't satisfy you, it's time to start really thinking about your photography and your life and how you can use one to bring meaning and memory to the other.

Untitled by Flickr user Krisztina Tordai


A wise woman once said, "This isn't living, it's just not dying." OK it wasn't exactly a wise woman, it was Eep in the 2013 film The Croods, but again, wise words. Life isn't just the business of getting up in the morning, going about your day and then going to bed again at night. Life is the good stuff, it's the joy in your child's face, it's the care your mom puts into her blueberry scones, it's the experience of standing at the edge of a ravine and watching the sun come up. And above all, it's being mindful of those moments, of really experiencing them while they're happening. And if you can do that, you can capture some true sense of those moments with your camera—and you can relive them in a small way every time you look at those images.

The key to photographing life is to be present in it, and to have a camera with you at all times. As much as we are derided for being too dependent on our phones, the truth is that our phones are just the tools we need to make sure that important moments aren't lost forever. But to really capture life, you need to do more than just take selfies, or snaps of your family on vacation, or even the daily routine that so many of us forget to photograph. Sure, those things are important but they lack heart. To really capture life, you need to include emotion in your images. You need to capture dreams, love, happiness and humanity. You may also need to capture grief, disappointment and boredom, because those things are part of life, too.

The very first step in this process should be a personal one. You should be willing to ask yourself what makes you happy, and specifically, what people in your life make you happy. If you can answer those questions, then that is the first step towards capturing meaningful images of life in general and your life in particular. Find the people who make you most happy and then ask yourself what it is about each of those people that you love, or what it is about them that brings you joy. Ultimately, it's not so simple as "Well, I love her because she's my daughter." Of course you love her because she's your daughter, but what characteristics does she have that would make you love her regardless of whether or not you were related to her? Let's say, for example, that your nine-year-old loves animals. She spends her summer afternoons outside chasing and catching lizards and she raises butterflies every spring. You should not only be trying to capture her engaged in those activities, you should also try to capture the joy that she experiences when she engages in those activities. Capture her studiousness as she studies the blue belly of a lizard she just caught. Capture the thrill in her face as one of her butterflies lands on her fingertip just before flying off into the world. Your photos should not just be about an activity, they should be about the emotions that the people you love experience during that activity. Sometimes the expression on someone's faces captures the essence of who that person is. You should always be ready for that moment, and have a camera available for when it happens. These are the kinds of moments that you are going to love looking back at when that child grows up and becomes a snarky teenager.

The good ... and the bad

Of course that doesn't mean you shouldn't photograph the snarky teenager—there is something really wonderful about a child's growing sense of independence, even if that means that she spends a lot less time chasing lizards and butterflies. That snarkiness is part of life too, so although I would never recommend following a tween around with your camera when she's in a particularly snarky mood because that could be hazardous to both your health and to the health of your camera. But I do think that truth is the essence of good photography and that you should never shy away from an opportunity to capture it.

The things you love

Now what about the things in life that bring you happiness but may not have necessarily have anything to do with individual people? I'm talking about hobbies, passions, and pursuits. Everybody has activities that bring them joy—if you are a quilter, for example, your stash of fabric is probably your happy place. Have you ever thought about photographing it? Have you ever thought about photographing your collection of thread, your sewing machine, your unfinished projects, or heirloom quilts that your grandmother handed down to you?


Places also have great meaning for us. Do you have a favorite place, a place that brings you solitude and peace? You should photograph that place, but not in a strictly documentary way. Instead, think about the emotion that that place inspires in you and try to capture some essence of that feeling. You may be able to do this with the light—if it's a place that makes you feel deeply reflective or even moody, you may even want to photograph it on a stormy afternoon. Or you could try photographing it during the golden hour, which tends to be the most warm and peaceful time of day as well as being the best time overall for capturing natural beauty.

The hard stuff

Now what about capturing more difficult emotions such as grief and disappointment? These are all parts of life, too, and if you fail to capture them, then your photographic history is not telling the complete truth about what it was like to live your life.

The key to photographing difficult emotion is to be sensitive, and to be open and honest about what you are doing with your camera. No one who is experiencing grief, loneliness or frustration will appreciate having a camera stuck his face without warning. So the trick is to make sure that you are honest with the person—you'd like to take a photograph, you promise that you will not take any photographs that the person doesn't approve of, and you promise to stop taking photographs whenever the person requests it. Let him know the images won't be shared with anyone but close family and friends, and respect his wishes if he decides that he'd rather not be photographed.

Let's say for example that you're moving out of your family's home and into a bigger one. It's the only home that your child has ever known, and she's having some mixed emotions about the idea of leaving her childhood bedroom behind. This is exactly the kind of life moment that you want to capture for your family album. It's a moment of transition, a milestone, the end of one chapter in her life and the beginning of another. Ask her to go up to her empty bedroom just before the moving truck departs and pose for a few pictures. Don't ask her to say cheese, obviously, and try to discourage her from looking at the camera and giving it her usual cheeky grin. Chances are you won't have to do that anyway, because she may just be feeling naturally gloomy. If you're not getting sort of emotion that you want, ask her to talk about the experience of leaving her home. That may be beneficial for her psychologically, and it will also provide you with the opportunity to capture the moment. End the session by asking her what she's looking forward to about the new house—that may help lift her spirits and will also give you another photo to add to the series.

Of course don't neglect all of those photos of loving and living in that bedroom during those times before you decide to move. Those are important parts of a life story, too.


The trick to really effectively photographing life, is to just make sure that you're capturing emotion. Unexpected emotion, or predictable emotion, it doesn't matter as long as it accurately shows in the person's face and is able to translate to an image. If you can bring these things to life and capture them in a meaningful way, then you truly can put memories down on paper for yourself, your future self and for future generations. A wise man once said: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on." And that really was a wise man (poet Robert Frost). Those are words to remember any time you're doing anything with anyone you love. And make sure you have a camera.


  1. Always have a camera
  2. Look for emotion and meaningful moments
  3. Ask yourself what makes you happy, and photograph that
  4. Ask yourself what you love about family and friend
  5. Shoot the good and the bad
  6. Photograph your hobbies and passions
  7. Photograph your favorite places
  8. Document grief, too

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.