Basic Strategies in Reading Photographs

Man studying pictures in gallery

Of course, you know what you like. But would you like to know more about how a photograph is composed? By learning what visual elements the artist uses to communicate with you, you may appreciate better why you like or don’t like a particular work of art. In the presentation below, the concepts are illustrated with photographic works. Click on the work for a larger image of it and then click on BACK to return to the presentation.

Nuovo thanks the Museum of Photographic Art (MOPA) in San Diego for allowing us to adopt one of their papers for this presentation. Artistic examples were added by Nuovo with permission the artist. All images are copyrighted by the photographer, Jack Leigh. All rights are reserved.

Objective

The objective of this article is to:

  • To develop visual literacy
  • Learn the basic vocabulary used in formal analyses in the visual arts
  • Combine content information with formal analysis to “read” (analyze) photographs

To enhance your appreciation of photography it is necessary to develop the skills to make careful visual analysis. While everyone can easily discuss the contents of photographs (“what you see”), most need more training to learn about formal analysis used in the visual arts. Formal analysis focuses on an artwork’s “formal” qualities, or those visual elements that give it form. These include: shape, size, texture, line, space, etc.

Formal analysis provides a basic common language in the visual arts. However, a description of a photograph based only on formal analysis would be incomplete. Photographers make decisions both about composition (arrangement of visual elements) as well as content (meaning) when taking photographs. Consequently, it is important to consider the artist’s intentions for making a photograph of a particular subject. Finally, the historical and social context in which a photograph was made must also be carefully considered.

An important note: each image offers a variety of interpretations. Therefore, the information provided in this resource for each photograph should be regarded as a starting point for discussion and not as a conclusive interpretation. There is no one correct answer when interpreting works of art. We encourage you to carefully examine photographs to develop your skills for analyzing photographs and to explore your own personal interpretations.

General Vocabulary Used in Photography

The following gallery demonstrates the basic vocabulary used in describing photographs.

Visual Elements

Practice the use of these words by asking the following questions

Composition of the Photograph

The words here will allow you to think about how visual elements combine within a photograph to create a composition.