Tips to Understand a Figurative Photo and an Abstract Photo

Photograph of a young ibex in Ethiopia in black and white. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
This photograph of a young ibex can be read by different ways.

Case Study: Understanding a Figurative Photo

Red deer stag in the fog during the rut of the deer in France.

To illustrate the first example, I chose a photograph taken during the deer slamming in France during one morning.

I knew that the deer use this flow under a cherry tree to go from one foreground to another meadow on the other side of the cherry tree (this is the tree on the right of the picture).

It is a good place to make a blind because the sun comes from the right. This allows me to photograph with the sun at 90 degrees. It is ideal for me to have beautiful models.

That morning, the fog had its appearance. The sun was totally obscured.

I waited patiently in the shelter of my hiding place in a bramble on the edge of a meadow. A gentle slope goes up towards the tree. It is not apparent because I placed myself high up on the other side of the meadow.

The deer came out of an antler on my left. I took a few pictures, but they are of no interest. The deer is in the meadow, but the back is very dark.

Luck was with me. He decided to take the path to the left of the cherry tree. This is what I had been waiting for days.

Here is the description of the picture. I am going to apply my method to make people understand this photo which is so important to me.

The first step is semiological analysis. This involves analyzing the visual elements of the photograph.

  1. The shooting angle and the point of view. As I already told you, I am slightly high. I am located at about 150 meters from the deer. As is often the case with deer, I like photos at eye level. I am its equal.
  2. The framing. I chose a horizontal framing to accentuate the calm and tranquility of the photo. This very morning, no bird was singing. The silence was total. My camera is hidden in a noise-cancelling muffle to attenuate all the clicks. I chose to integrate a tree to show the safe side and give a scale of value. By placing it on the right so as to stick it against the edge of the picture, I force the viewer to go towards the deer. The foreground is present without taking too much space. The viewer can easily enter the photo.
  3. The composition. The photographic elements are the tree for the reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph. The herbs in silhouette show that nature is intact. I am in a wild region.
  4. The scale of the plans. I have chosen an overall plan. This is the technique I use most often in my animal photos. I want to show wild animals in their natural environment. Often the scenery is very present in my photos. The animal is small.
  5. Depth. I chose to integrate a foreground to bring the gaze towards the animal. The background is masked by fog.
  6. The off screen. Once again, I used the off screen. The animal is looking ahead. We do not know where he is going and what he is looking at.
  7. The light. It is soft. It accentuates the dreamlike and ethereal aspect of the scene. I developed the photo in high key.
  8. Black and white. I chose black and white. This creative technique allows me to focus the attention on the deer. It is perfectly adapted to the high key.
  9. The tone. My photo has a clear tone. It is perfectly adapted to the softness, the quietness, and the dreaminess of the photo. I give a beautiful part to the space.

The second step to understanding this picture of a deer taken in the fog and during the deer's bellow, is the semiological understanding. This is the meaning of the photo.

This photo evokes freedom, the paths I take in my travels or in my life. I do not always know where I am going. I often make mistakes. I take reference marks (here materialized by a tree which is of good size). But I often make mistakes.

Freedom of movement is essential for me. I do not like being locked up. I like to go where I go. The high key allows me to accentuate this feeling of evanescence. I like to dream about beautiful projects, beautiful encounters. By closing the photo on the right and a little on the left, I want to show that I am not upside down. I like to let myself go during my travels, but I always know what I want.

Photographing the deer from behind allows me to accentuate this feeling of freedom that I wanted to express. I took another picture of the deer looking to the side. It is also beautiful, but it evokes more the side of looking back on the past. It does not quite fit me. I like to look to the future and wait for new adventures.

This photo expresses my optimism and my joy of life to go towards the unknown.

Case Study: Understanding an Abstract Photo

Abstract photograph of Petrified Forest en Arizona. Photograph in color by Amar Guillen, photographer

For this second photo, I chose an abstract photo. I made it in the United States on a fossilized tree trunk several million years old. This photo is part of the art photo collection entitled: the energy of time. I applied a personal recipe of filters to accentuate the colors and give light and evanescent effects.

Let us go to the first step of my method: semiological analysis.

  1. The shooting angle and the point of view. The fossilized tree is placed on the ground. I am lying down to have the trunk facing my face.
  2. The framing. I chose a horizontal framing to show the strength of the photo. I wanted to show stability and confidence.
  3. The composition. I chose the trunk of the tree. The wall is perfectly straight.
  4. The scale of the plans. I chose a close-up for details.
  5. Depth. The photo is flat because I wanted to evoke an explosion with a lot of energy.
  6. The light. It is strong in the center. It becomes black on the sides. This vignetting makes it easier to read.
  7. The color. I chose the color and cold tones. It is paradoxical enough to evoke energy, but I wanted to go against time.
  8. The tone. My photo has a clear tone.

Let us now move on to semantic analysis: this is the second step of my method to understand pictures.

Even if the tree is fossilized, the rings are clearly visible. These are the concentric circles that start in the center. This radial effect evokes energy. The streaks show that there can be side effects in the emission of energy.

I chose cold and bright tones to make the viewer wonder. The photo, even if it is bright and stable, is not easy to read and understand. This is the principle of abstraction. Everyone can see what they want. The shape of the trunk and the rings are easily identifiable and readable, but what is beyond? That is the whole question.


I hope that this article has helped you to better understand all the subtleties surrounding the way to understand a photograph. Keep in mind that understanding an image) is a two-step process:

  • Visual understanding (semiology).
  • A semantic understanding.

Remember also that understanding a photograph is above all, connecting you to the photographic world of its creator.

This allows you to enter another world with its codes and atmospheres.

Sometimes, for some photos, understanding is just a few words, a few thoughts.

Sometimes you will have to face more complex, more subtle, more constructed universes. In this case you will have to call upon your photographic culture.

But in any case, never confuse understanding with judging.

Be humble, patient, constant, persevering, and persistent because the road to excellence is long.


I Want to Help You to Create Interesting Photos