How to Read a Photograph

Sometimes you look at a photograph, but you don’t like it. Other times, you feel awe-inspired.  In other words, when you look at a photograph, you like what you see, and you want to take the same type of image with your camera. Perhaps your not sure why.

Your first impression is important. But so is how the photographer composed the photograph, the point of interest, and technical considerations, such as whether the photographer used a shallow depth of field to put the back ground out of focus,  or deep depth of field to capture background details.

As well, sometimes a photographer creates a black and white print. Other times, the photographer creates a coloured print. You ask yourself: What is the intention of the photographer? Colour evokes emotion and creates a mood. On the other hand, black and white force the viewer to look line, shape,form, texture, pattern, which are principles of design. And so, there are many aspects to consider when looking at a photograph.

Sometimes humdrum images are interesting. Often the photographer has put to use the principles of design. By learning to read a photograph, you can find out why the image works, why people like it. You can also apply this knowledge of reading a photograph to create your own awe-inspiring images.

According to Michael Freeman, who wrote “The Photographer’s Vision”, you can determine a great deal from a photograph by reading it. He suggested that you consider ten questions  when analyzing your own work or another photographer’s images. The following are the ten questions you should answer:

  1. What is your first impression? Do you like the image? What do you like about it? What don’t you like about it? Would you like to take a photograph like the print you are viewing?
  2. Was the shot planned or unplanned? Taken in a studio? Select from a chance encounter. A decisive moment in time?
  3. What is the genre? Portrait. Landscape. Architecture. Travel. Macro. Action. Street photography. Fashion. Still life.
  4. Consider the photographer’s intention. Is the photographer documenting reality? Or is the photographer interpreting reality from his own vision? Or invention something from the image? Does the photographer want to document reality? Create an abstraction? Interpret reality from a new perspective?
  5. Consider the style of the photographer. For instance, Annie Liebovitz creates portraits, using props, costumes, dramatic lighting, and posing. Minimalism? Surrealism? Abstraction? Realism?
  6. Consider the process of creating the print. Where was the photograph taken? What type of aperture or shutter was selected? What type of lens was used? Wide angle? Zoom? Macro? Normal? Planned or unplanned? Image editing? What sort of editing? Were filters used? Special effects?  Printing paper? Matte? Glossy?
  7. What is the intended use? Single print? Commercial use? Photo Essay? Personal use? Web? Photo book? Display on the wall? To sell real estate? Publish in a fashion magazine? Represent an art form?
  8. What is the situation or context of the photograph? Setup in the studio?  A dramatic moment on location? An act of God? Earthquake. Tsunami. Snow storm. Urban. Rural.
  9. What technical details are obvious? Lens aperture setting. Shutter speed. Focal Length. Use of filters. Image editing in Photoshop or Lightroom.
  10. Does the image work? In other words, does the image tell a story, share an idea, expresses something?