What makes being human so much fun is that we are constantly expressing ourselves. From the clothes we wear, to how we exercise our vocabulary, we are screaming – either with our voices or with subliminal cues – how we feel or choose to identify. As humans, we are barraged every single millisecond with stimuli. Because we are equipped with a very efficient brain, the detritus of each waking moment is filtered through and what we actually end up processing is a very nominal amount. Psychologist Richard Gregory argues that 90% of the information our eyes see is lost by the time it reaches our brains. Though this might be a shocking amount, the brain needs to perform and prioritize other tasks at the same time it is absorbing everything presented visually, auditorily, and otherwise.

As this is a mighty task, the brain needs to fill in gaps using the information it has stored from past experiences to actively construct our perception of reality. By combining previously stored information, we can resurrect moments and almost relive them just by thinking about them. One of the most powerful triggers for us when constructing these memories is emotion. Great American poet Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This statement absolutely holds true. At the end of the day, emotions rule how we recall things from years past and they drive how we react to stimuli in the present.

A version of Plutchik’s wheel of emotions

Psychologist Robert Pluctchik made it his mission to provide a framework to illustrate the diversity of emotions and how they can transform from one to another. This is called the Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. On this wheel, there are 8 primary emotions: anger, anticipation, joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness and disgust. In the above depiction, you can see that these primary emotions reside in the middle section of each petal. This is because emotions can range in intensity. The darker the color on the wheel, the more intense that emotion or feeling is. Each petal is also correlated to a specific hue. Depending on the vibrancy of the hue, the emotional reference can differ. For example, hues of red can be associated with passion, vigor, or action. Hues of blue are indicative of nature, stability, depth, or when used in certain applications, sadness. Living creatures are gifted with the ability to not only express emotion but the ability to read emotion as well. Have you ever gotten home and realized that your mother had a bad day just by the way she pursed her mouth? It is from those details that we are able to infer situations without even having to have a conversation.

In order to connect with viewers, visual storytelling mediums like photography and videography use psychology and design principles, like the Gestalt theory, to help communicate ideas. Today, I’d like to break down the “joy” petal of the Plutchik’s wheel and explore how still photography can act as a form of stimuli that can capture a particular feeling and, in turn, trigger our own emotional response.

Serenity, Joy, & Ecstasy

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Source: Unsplash

Serenity: When we think of serenity, some might envision a spa while others (like me) might think of their bed. By definition, it is the feeling of being calm, peaceful, and untroubled. While it is an emotion that is light in intensity, the effect it has on the body and mind is significant. In the above picture, we see a person sitting cross-legged at the end of a dock. The surrounding environment emanates a calm vibe. Cool tones like blues and greens are generally relaxing as they remind us of the outdoors. This image can also be read as exuding serenity because other than the person sitting in the photo, and the dock itself, there is no human presence. No crowds or honking cars or obnoxious billboards, just nature. As a symbol in art, water is often equated to serenity due to its purity, expanse/depth, and even the calming noises it makes. 

To further the emotion of serenity, this photo uses symmetry, space, and linear perspective to satisfy our need for perfection and simplicity. Although we cannot see the person’s face, we can assume that they are comfortable from their pose. Their hands, which show no signs of stress, are positioned behind them and their shoulders are relaxed. From these details, the emotion of serenity is definitely illustrated within this photo.

Source: Shutterstock

Joy: The feeling of joy is something that is often confused with happiness. While they are similar, there are distinct differences between the two. Happiness is an emotion that ranges from contentment all the way to intense pleasure. Caused by earthly experience and material objects, the feeling of happiness only sticks around for a short period of time until it either is replaced with a negative emotion or wears off. Joy, on the other hand, is a stronger emotion triggered by spiritual experience, gratitude, and thankfulness. Unlike the outward appearance of happiness, those who experience joy are more reserved in their expression.

In the above photo, we see a mother lovingly embrace her baby. Her head is bowed to look at the child as it sleeps. This photo exudes joy as it shows the sacrifice and unconditional love of a new parent. Most parents only have a singular wish for their child, and that is for them to be happy and healthy – and we can assume this mother is thankful for having a healthy baby. Although we cannot see the expression of her mouth, we can tell that she is smiling due to her lifted, full and rosy cheeks. 

This picture also uses specific artistic devices to help communicate the evasive feeling of joy. The first being the religious parallels. Mother and child imagery and the word ‘joy’ itself are elements that are very evocative of the Christian religion. The second thing it uses in order to communicate joy is intentional cropping. Joy itself is a very intimate emotion. By cropping tightly on the subjects, and focusing on the child, we feel like we are included in this moment. The muted, neutral colors of the scene strip it of intensity that might be associated with happiness. To further separate this emotion from happiness, the body language of the figures is natural and contained – emphasizing personal fulfillment and quiet elation.

Source: Pexels

Ecstasy: At the core of the “joy” petal, is the most intense emotion of ecstasy. Defined as an overwhelming feeling of joyful excitement or euphoria, this emotion is often correlated to religious rapture or a trancelike elation that would result in the lack of conscious self-control. In fact, this emotion is so intense and transformative that an amphetamine-based drug is named after it. According to Einstein, ecstasy is “the finest emotion of which we are capable” and “the germ of all art and all true science.” Those are some heavy words, Einstein.

For most people, ecstasy is often experienced through sexual apprehension and satisfaction. The photo above is an example of just that. In the frame, we see a couple in a private moment that exudes sensual energy. We do not know if they are about to kiss, or they already have and are letting the emotion flow over them as they linger in each other’s embrace. Both figures have their eyes closed, and mouths parted, a sign of connected passion. Like the previous image, this photo hones in on the subjects to create an intimate setting. The closed curtains make us feel even more voyeuristic as this is something they clearly wanted no one to see. The color of the curtains also provides another layer of complexity. On the Plutchik wheel, joy is represented by the color yellow. As ecstasy is considered the most intense emotion on the petal, it almost makes sense that the ochre curtains contribute to the sexual energy in this piece. Lastly, the photo uses an intense warming filter, high contrast, and emphasizes shadows in order to add depth, zeal, and a hipster-like aesthetic that suits the individuals captured in this moment.

Coming Down

Did you find yourself experiencing the listed emotions as you looked at these photos? If you did, we can assume that your brain has stored enough visual and emotional information in order for you to “fill in the gaps.” A still photo might not provide all the context you need to know about a moment, but the cues that the Plutchik wheel and Gestalt theory provide helps us to infer a scenario not too far off from the truth.

This week, I challenge you to take a look at your Instagram and examine what you post. Can you identify patterns in subject, color scheme, or emotion? If you do find a pattern, what do you think this says about you? Social media is an expression of ourselves and by examining your own, it is possible to understand the feeling – or vibe – you exude to others and how they might react to it. I’m curious to see what you all learn. 


Busche, L. (2019, May 15). Simplicity, symmetry and more: Gestalt theory and the design principles it gave birth to. Retrieved from https://www.canva.com/learn/gestalt-theory/.

Cao, J. (2018, June 11). Web design color theory: how to create the right emotions with color in web design. Retrieved from https://thenextweb.com/dd/2015/04/07/how-to-create-the-right-emotions-with-color-in-web-design/.

Donaldson, Melissa. Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Six Seconds The Emotional Intelligence Network. Retrieved from https://www.6seconds.org/2017/04/27/plutchiks-model-of-emotions/ 

Happiness vs Joy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.diffen.com/difference/Happiness_vs_Joy

Mcleod, S. (2018). Visual Perception Theory. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/perception-theories.html

The Psychology of Ecstasy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201501/the-psychology-ecstasy

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