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What is Expressive Photography and How Can it Change Your Photography Practice?

Updated May 2024


I recently came across the term expressive photography and was interested to know what it was.

My understanding is that this is an approach to photography which, as well as being concerned with the technical and creative aspects of photography, also considers the personal journey of the photographer and how photography fits into and enhances this journey.

The emphasis in expressive photography tends to be on making images of those things to which we are personally drawn, even if they were not the images others would make, because the motivation for making the images comes from within.

We use many methods of self-expression in life – speech, writing, art and music, to name but some.

Photography as a means of expression is followed by those who allow photography to help them along their own path of self-discovery.


In expressive photography, the process of image making is more important than the outcome.

Expressive photography involves being open to opportunities which arise rather than actively trying to control the process.

Expressive photography is about living creatively and responding creatively to what surrounds us through the images we make.


One of the main strengths of this approach to photography, for an amateur photographer, is that you are taking photographs for yourself, not to please others or to impress a social media audience.

The pressure to create a particular type of image is lifted and there is freedom to experiment and to do what you enjoy doing.


I took this image on my way home from my morning walk. I saw the barrier reflected in the puddle and thought it made a nice image. I just had my phone with me so I didn’t have any decisions to make about which might be the best lens to use.

I’m not sure if anyone else would like it, but the point is that on this occasion I was happy to capture this image.


It is hard to get a definitive definition of expressive photography, and it may even mean different things to different people.

Essentially it seems to focus on how you, as photographer, are feeling, and how you express these emotions through your photography, rather than concentrating too much on camera settings.

The name suggests that in this type of photography you are asking the question,

What do I want to express in the photographs I am taking?


In this instance I just turned to my left and saw the double rainbow with the colours reflected in the puddle on the ground.

When I saw the double rainbow, it sparked an emotional reaction that begged me to take the photograph.

I took a few shots, some with my camera and others with my phone, to try and capture both the rainbow and its reflection, in an attempt to express what I felt on seeing the image.

Expressive photography tends to put an emphasis on being present in the moment and engaging with the subject rather than with the camera. This is my interpretation of the term, and I am open to contradiction from those who are more familiar with the concept.

Expressive photography will not appeal to everyone.

Many photographers will believe that you need strict planning and control over the creation of images and that it is not useful to leave this to ‘chance’. I agree that we need to plan and I don't think lack of planning or structure is what expressive photography advocates. Rather, it makes space for the unexpected as well as the planned, and doesn't get too concerned if plans change.

On the other hand, there are those who simply enjoy documenting aspects of their lives and showing their photos on social media and will have no desire to go any deeper with their photography, so for them expressive photography may sound like overkill.

But there are those who strive to use photography as a means of self-expression, for whom technical correctness and external validation are not the main concerns, and who see the value of developing their knowledge of expressive photography and what it means to their photography.

There are a few characteristics that define this approach to photography.

Rather than being about the final image it is in a sense more about the relationship between photographer and image, about the personal and artistic development of the photographer through the medium of photography.

# Having belief in yourself is important.

This might sound simplistic but, in a world where there are lots of ‘guides’ telling us how we should do our photography, it can be hard to listen to the voice within and follow our own path. Yet if we want to use photography to express ourselves and our vision of the world then this step is a vital one.

Yes, we do need to learn technical skills to the extent that knowing the correct camera settings becomes second nature. It is only then that the camera simply becomes a tool, and the rest comes from the mind of the photographer.

# Having passion for your subject is key in expressive photography.

If you have a real passion for the environments in which you make your images, you will be able to express yourself through these images. When you invest part of yourself – your energy and passion – you give an essential quality to your images that may be lacking if you concentrate only on technical excellence.

I have always been passionate about the Irish landscape.

I love to walk, explore, discover, and sometimes just sit and observe.

I love the mountains and the hills, the valleys and lakes.

Walking along lough shores in the evening is one of my many delights in life.

I love the coast, especially hidden coves and out-of-the-way vast stretches of golden sand.

I love the skies that cover us, often dark and intriguing but sometimes lit up in glorious light.


I love trees, in every season. They are part of our living landscape, always changing, home to thousands of lifeforms, sometimes strong and majestic, sometimes thin and fragile.

I particularly love autumn and winter landscapes, especially in a woodland, when a rugged beauty emerges.

It might be a crisp autumn day with a carpet of colour on the woodland floor, or a foggy morning where trees are separated from their neighbours and make very clear subjects in an image.

It might be a day when snow has covered the landscape with a winter blanket or simply a brief moment when a recent shower has left the landscape elements glistening.

All these times can give us that feeling of connectedness and being at one with nature.

In addition to landscape photography I also have a passion for street photography. I love the candid nature of this type of photography; capturing people as they go about their daily lives, seeing little things that others might miss and photographing scenes that draw my eye. I love the colours, smells, patterns and textures to be found in places different from the place in which I live and I try to convey my fascination in my images.

house patterns

# Closely related to passion is engagement with our subject and our environment.

We discover this by noticing what it is that draws us.

What is it that takes you off the beaten track, both literally and metaphorically?

What is it that makes you stop and observe?


Is it an unusual feature in the landscape?


Is it the way light is playing with your subject or an unexpected burst of colour?



Is it a particular cloud formation in the sky?

Is it something intangible, something you can’t pin down, but you just feel drawn to stop and look?

For me it is often the latter, a pull towards something that I want to investigate or just admire.

Sometimes, as in the image below, what we are drawn to photograph makes no sense to anyone but ourselves.

water pump

Sometimes the draw will result in an image, sometimes it won’t and on these occasions a final image doesn’t matter. The experience is what is important and is what gives an outing its meaning and richness.

When we know that we are being drawn by our subject and begin to look for a composition it is then that we begin to make our choices.

What will I include?

What will I exclude from the frame?

Where will I stand?

Can I get a better perspective?

These are decisions that all photographers are called to make but in expressive photography they are based more on our sense of engagement with our subject than with capturing a perfect image.

And we make these choices based on what appeals to us, not on what would please others.

# Following your instincts is key to success.

Being spontaneous opens us up to embrace the unexpected.

Make an image when you feel like making an image, don’t analyse whether it’s good or bad. You can always discard it later but at least give your gut instincts a chance to create something without judgement. Have the freedom to experiment, to try out new ways of doing things, ways that suit you.

When you are making images for yourself, responding through photography to how you are on a particular day, you can do as you wish without anxiety that you are not doing it right.


On this occasion, from a balcony overlooking a Portuguese skyline, I wanted to capture a bird flying overhead to give the scene that something extra, something to bring the scene alive. My patience finally paid off.

# Know that there are no failures, only learning experiences.

All your images will either turn out as expressions of how you were thinking and feeling at the time you made them, or as opportunities to learn more about your vision and how you want it to be reflected in your photography.

Expressive photography is not about judgement or criticism or good or bad.

It is about the image we create in this moment and why we create this image.

It is our response to our environment through our photography.


Is expressive photography for you?

How do you view your photography?

  • Do you go out to ‘capture’ an image, to get ‘great shots’ or do you go out to observe, to listen, to wait, to wonder, to feel?

  • Do you chase the image, or do you allow the image to reveal itself to you?

  • Do you experiment, do you enjoy finding your own ways of doing things?

  • Do you do photography for you and no-one else?

  • Do you have fun?

Your answers to these questions will let you know if expressive photography is for you.



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