In my mind there is one particular difference between photographers and viewers: We photographers know that there is more to a photo than meets the eye.
Photographers like to critique photos – deliberately pointing out how the photo could have been improved by this or that. But what percentage of the time do we look at a photo and allow ourselves to get lost in it? How often do we take a moment to really evaluate what the creator intended to communicate?
Personally, I know that I ought to devote more time in the exploration of reading photographs. Acknowledging this need for growth, I’ve done my research and found a few tips from the pros. The next time you see a photograph from National Geographic, or a portrait from an art gallery, walk yourself through the following list. You’ll be excited to see with a completely new perspective.
1. Start with First Impressions: What do you notice?
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is this picture saying to you? Allow yourself to take in all the elements collectively, and then tuck your observations away for a moment. As you look at more specific details you may be surprised that your first impressions aren’t always accurate.
2. Evaluate the content
What time is this photo taking place? Determine not just time of day but the occasion as well. Where is the setting located – in both a general and broad sense? This alone will influence the story being communicated if there are different cultures involved.
3. Relationships: Subject to subject or subject to viewer
What can you see about the people within the picture? How close are they? How do they feel about each other? Also consider if there is anything being said between the subject and you as the viewer. Are there emotions that meant to be communicated to you? What does this leave you feeling?
4. Concepts: Actions and connections within the setting
Sometimes subtle details within a photo can make a dynamic impact on the message. Hand gestures, direction of gazes, etc. What do all these details communicate about the message of the image?
5. View: Does it make you a participant or a viewer?
Powerful photos are often the ones that draw us in and make us a participant rather than those that leave us as simply a viewer. How does this influence your take and feeling about the photo?
6. Direction: Where does it take / leave you?
This question goes beyond simply eye flow. After evaluating all the subtleties and details, ask yourself how they all come together to support the overall message or idea of the image. What thoughts do you have? What conclusions are you drawn to?
It takes a little bit of practice to uncover the mysteries that often are hidden from plain view, but then that is what makes art exciting isn’t it?
Other resource for developing your ability to read photographs: Master Photographers: How to read a Photograph by Ian Jeffery, and The Photographers Vision by Michael Freeman.