Understanding a Photo Visually and Semantically

Photograph of Antelop Canyon in black and white. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
This photograph in black and white of Antelop Canyon could be interpreted in different ways.

Step 1: Visual Comprehension

The visual understanding of a photo is called image semiology.

It is organized around 9 very precise criteria.

  1. The shooting angle and the point of view. For me this is the most difficult point with framing. It is the position of the camera in relation to the main photographic element (also called the subject). If you photograph at the level of the subject, you will create a feeling of objectivity because just as you look at the hours will be at the same level as the subject. If you photograph in low angle, the subject will be more important. If you photograph in high angle, that is to say with your camera placed above the subject, you will crush it. Its importance will decrease because you give the impression of dominating it.
  2. The framing. It defines all the photographic elements that you are going to integrate in your photograph. You offer your audience or the viewer a window on the scene you want to photograph. The framing can be rectangular or square. It all depends on the type of photos you present. If you choose rectangular framing, it can be:
    - Horizontal. In this case the scene evokes calm, tranquility, distance from the main photographic element.
    - Vertical. In this case you show a close scene. It is a framing that also favors the action.
  3. The composition. I remind you that composition is the way to organize the photographic elements in a harmonious way in the chosen framing.
  4. The scale of the plans. It is purely descriptive. It allows to give the viewer a common referent for a photo. It is established by taking the human scale as a reference.
    - General plan: landscape.
    - Overall plan: a subject in its environment.
    - Medium shot: one subject in full view.
    - Close-up shot: a live subject cut between the waist and the chest.
    - Close-up: face. - Very close-up: details of a face or a face.
  5. Depth. This is a technique that I use a lot in environmental wildlife and landscape photography. It is about the existence of several planes in a photograph: foreground, background, background.
  6. The off screen. Off screen is a creative technique that you can use with living beings. The subject is looking in a given direction other than towards you.
    But what he is looking at is not in the scene the field is defined by the whole scene you have chosen to frame.
    The off field evokes questioning, suggestion. It also inspires introspection.
    As for the field, it allows you to fix the look of hours in the space you have chosen. The field allows you to orientate the gaze of hours by imposing visual limits on it.
    The off screen allows you to create the dream. You give the viewer the opportunity to ask questions. Moreover, it can escape from the scene and thus from the photo. Visually, these are two very important elements.
  7. The light. For me, the light is after the decor the most important element in the construction of an animal scene, a landscape or underwater. I evoke these three photographic themes because they are the ones I practice. If you are reading this article but you evolve in other themes, you may have your own priorities. In this paragraph, I evoke natural light as well as artificial light. I use both sources in underwater photography as well as in wildlife photography, especially for passerines.
    The light allows to show details, textures. But in my opinion, it should be used mainly to create modeling. The light creates shadows that create the modeling that creates the relief and thus the 3 dimensions. Never forget that we always try, you and I, as photographers, to show the beautiful, to share our states of mind by freezing a 3-dimensional space on a 2-dimensional support.
  8. Colors and black and white. Colors are used to represent reality. They allow you to show scenes as faithfully as possible. If you use colors, you try to be as objective as possible to the framing and composition.
    Black and white is an artistic technique because you interpret the scene you see. You show gradations of gray. Black and white is a creative technique. It allows you to go straight to the point, to be directive.
  9. The tone. The general tonality of a photo is its visual aspect in terms of the distribution of tones and gradation levels between them. There are three main types of tonality:
    - The dark tone. In this case the photo is rather dark with low lights or dark colors.
    - The clear tone. The photo is rather built with highlights or bright colors.
    - The neutral tone. The photo is neither dark nor light. It is also called balanced tone.
    The visual understanding of the tonality allows you to better understand the atmosphere created by a photo. Tonality is one of the elements of the photographic language to express yourself.

To summarize this step #1 dedicated to the visual understanding of a photo, I advise you to learn by heart these different criteria.

So, when you are faced with a picture by another photographer and you are inspired, you will understand why.

If you need to analyze one of your photos, you will also be able to better understand and refine your photographic approach.

Once this first step is over, you just have to move on to the second step: the ones I call semantics.

Step 2: Semantic Understanding

By definition, semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic units and their combination.

If I apply this definition to photography, photographic semantics is the study of photographic meaning and language.

I explained in a previous article that photography has its own language and codes. They allow you to convey your messages, your emotions.

If you really want to understand a photograph you must absolutely master the photographic language.

This particular language will allow you to build your photos in a more consistent way. They will be interesting because you will be able to give them meaning. You will also be able to read the photos of the photographers who inspire you.

To understand the semantics of a photograph is to understand the meaning of its content. It is to understand why the photographer has chosen to assemble the photographic elements in a certain way.

Understanding the semantics of a photograph allows you to better build your own images. When you frame, compose, choose a point of view, you will arrange the photographic elements of your scene to express yourself.

I think that now you begin to perceive the importance of photographic semantics to understand the photos you have in front of you.

Semantic understanding is just as important as semiological (visual) understanding. If I had to simplify my point, I would say that semantic understanding and the container and semantic understanding and the content a picture.

I recognize that I am not able to establish a link or dialectical relationship between the two elements of analysis. I do not know if this link really exists. In the absence of being able to bring tangible elements to establish a relationship between the two, I will simply propose the two steps separately.

In order to understand a photograph semantically, you need to call upon your life experiences, your emotions and especially your photographic culture.

It is thanks to this arsenal of knowledge and tools that you will be able to decipher the meaning of photos.

I am certain and I have already noticed that a simply emotional or aesthetic reading of an image can lead to an interesting decoding for a photo. The problem I have found with this method is that it is an empirical analysis. Over time, people who analyze only in this way find themselves confronted with a lack of ideas. Analyses always become identical and redundant.

A broad general photographic culture allows to refine the semantic understanding but specially to establish the creative processes that will result to realize your future images.

To conclude this paragraph concerning the semantic understanding of a photo I advise you to try to be as systematic as possible and to appeal to your photographic consciousness. But above all think about using your photographic culture.

Case Study: Understanding a Figurative Photo


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