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analyzing a photograph

by JuliannaKunstler.com

Visual Literacy is all about decoding meanings from images (of various kinds).

The way to approach this task is to follow the 3 steps:

1. What do I see?

2. How does it make me feel?

3. What is the image trying to tell me?


credit BBC

image 1

image 2


1. What do I see?

Meet the photo. What do you notice first?


  • What type of photo is it? (can be more than one):
    • portrait
    • landscape
    • event
    • family
    • documentary
    • selfie
    • aerial / satellite
    • panoramic
    • action
    • posed
    • architectural
    • candid
    • other
  • What is the subject matter? What is the image about? Who and what are in the image? What people, objects, or activities can you see in the picture?
  • Who do you think took the photo?
  • Where is it from? Are there any clues to where it was taken?
  • When is it from? Any historical reference? Are there any clues to when it was taken? What was happening at this time in history?
  • Are there any clues to why it was taken?

2. How does it make me feel?

What is your emotional response to the image?

  • peace / serenity / tranquility
  • anger
  • uneasiness
  • energy
  • sadness
  • compassion
  • loneliness
  • pride
  • etc......

How are the following techniques affect your response?

  • Colors - how are they used in the image? what effect do they have on you? is there a dominant color? are warm colors or cool colors used in th image? do dark tones or light have more prominence? how vibrant the colors are?
  • Angle - The vantage point or direction from which the artist photographs the subject.
  • Symbols - are there any symbols used in the image? what do you think they represent? are the colors symbolic?
  • Light: Light is one of the most powerful tools of the photographer. The manipulation of light and dark and the sharpness of contrast between light and dark contribute to the mood a photograph conveys. What type of lighting used? what mood does it create? what type of lighting is used? what mood does it create? is there a strong light source?
  • Focus: The clarity or blurriness of the image. The range between the nearest and farthest things that appear in clear focus defines the photograph’s depth of field. are there blurred (out-of-focus) areas? what the photo is focusing on? does focus support the illusion of depth? does focusing help to emphasize an area?
  • Framing: Framing in photography refers to the technique of drawing focus to the subject in the photo by blocking other parts of the image with something in the scene. is framing technique is used in the image? do some parts of the scene draw your attention to a certain area?
  • Composition: what is a focal point? are left and right sides of the image visually balanced? do any visual elements repeat? is there a flow in the composition?

3. What is the image trying to tell me?

In photographic art, the most important communication is that of emotion. You want the viewer to share your feeling of when you were there. Communicating a scene or an object in photography is similar to communicating in writing. Like a visual poetry.

  • What questions does this photograph raise in your mind?
  • Based on what you have observed, what can you infer from this photograph?

Landscape photographers aim to communicate a spatial perspective (where things are in relation to the viewer). They will communicate depth through composition, focus, focal length and light. They usually want everything to be in focus, so that it feels like you are there in the scene, but to invite you into the scene, the landscaper will use objects carefully to invite you in.

A skilled photographer can use sharpness to communicate. This works as communication because it is holding your attention on a very specific part of the image. Focus is one way of isolating the subject from the background.

There are many reasons why you might want to crop an image. When the main subject/object is cropped - you focus on what's important.


4. Add a Caption

Based on your reflection to the photograph, write (or find a quote or a message) to use as a caption for this photograph.


Credits: Media Literacy in the K–12 Classroom, Frank W. Baker. www.iste.org, www.icelandaurora.com