Reading a Photograph

Reading a Photograph

howtoread-2.jpgIn 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.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography and leadership with

Some Older Comments

  • Paul February 29, 2012 03:35 am

    It's always nice when people 'get it', I mean capture what it is you are trying to say!

  • Hassan Alsaffar December 4, 2011 07:55 am

    For sure this post will make me read others photos in a new way now.


  • Rhem Lopez November 30, 2011 07:20 pm

    This articles are of great help not only to the newbies but also to the proffessional photographeres.For it may seem that the number 1 method would often be use rather than analyse what the photograph tries
    to convey. To the photographere mind, when he took that photo(s) he create a story in that moment. As an
    amateur in this field, I study photography and goes to galleries to study rhe works of professionals photographeres.

  • Kathy Wesserling November 29, 2011 02:18 am

    The funny thing is that whenever Newbies say that they don't know enough technically to critique a photo, I tell them that they DO know what they like or don't like. I tell them to write about what the photograph is saying to them (what emotion does it invoke?) That's pretty much what you've said in this article, but you've fleshed it out beautifully for all of us - experienced or not.

    (Unfortunately, horizon lines that aren't level wipe out every other thought I have about a picture! Technicalities do get in the way, sometimes! lolllllllll)

    This might end up as a duplicate - getting server-error messages.

  • Kathy Wesserling November 29, 2011 01:00 am

    The funny thing is that whenever Newbies say that they don't know enough technically to critique a photo, I tell them that they DO know what they like or don't like. I tell them to write about what the photograph is saying to them (what emotion does it invoke?) That's pretty much what you've said in this article, but you've fleshed it out beautifully for all of us - experienced or not.

    (Unfortunately, horizon lines that aren't level wipe out every other thought I have about a picture! Technicalities do get in the way, sometimes! lolllllllll)

  • Paul Broderick November 26, 2011 08:09 am

    In my way of taking photographs I would give more weight to number 5: "Does it make you a participant ..."
    I would want those seeing my work as feeling they are right beside me as I took the shot.
    Participation, putting yourself in the taking of the photo, that's the key.

    another great article. Thank you Christina and Darren.

  • Bernard Mendoza November 26, 2011 06:19 am

    If I may suggest an exercise that might assist in a greater ability to read a visual and at the same time, hopefully, enable the photographer to have both a more critical eye and also assist in their own compositions.
    View the image as you would the written word on a page (after all, the author of the photographs is doing the same as the author of the written word, telling you a story).
    Start at the tope left and scan through the picture just as you would a page in a book describing to yourself only that that you actually see - make no assumptions (harder than you think). You might be surprised what you will see if you slow down and take it all in (after all you wouldn't jump around the page of the written word).
    Once you have done this go back to the top left hand corner and start again but this time when you describe it to yourself you can make assumptions - having already absorbed what is on the page your assumptions art more likely to be educated.
    Once you have completed that exercise sit back, take a good look at the image and from all that you have already discovered try and work out what the author is trying to tell you.
    The major benefits of this exercise is that you do truly get a better understand of both the photograph and the photographer and it helps in ensuring whatever you as an author put on your page it's what you want your audience to read.

  • Sreelal Viswanathan November 25, 2011 07:28 pm

    The article highlights many things . I think that the fifth item (Number 5) is more relevant in photography when it equals with a write-up or any of the literature or even with a short film. Evaluation photography in terms of art is highlighted in this finding. Best wishes both to the writer and the Digital Photography.
    Sreelal Viswanathan.

  • Jen Wight November 25, 2011 05:02 pm

    What I think would help me would be step by step examples of someone looking at a photograph using this method. I know that each image will mean different things to each viewer - so maybe three diff photographers examining why they like a particular image.

  • GariRae November 25, 2011 05:02 am

    Naz, thanks for your responses and the links. However creative the images are, they still include people which provides "stories" different than landscapes, which tend to elicit emotion (if successful). I agree that one can tell landscape "stories" of contrasting subjects (large bs small trees) and I'll moat certainly take your suggestions. That said,I think that "reading" landscapes requires different questions than the article posed, questions beyond composition. I think that figuring out those questions would help me improve my "art" landscapes, without fully moving to journalistic landscapes. Anyway, I'll work on your recommendations - thanks again

  • Naz November 25, 2011 04:02 am

    you'll need to really look at each photo at that site as they usually have soem hidden or not so obvious connections within the photos- that photographer is really very creative- the photos should give ya some good ideas and help inspire you and get you out of a rut and make photography fun, even for boring old landscape photos lol

  • Naz November 25, 2011 03:57 am

    the following flicr stream shows some pretty creative photography garire to illustrate how to tell a story with a photo:

  • Naz November 25, 2011 03:35 am

    garire- using geometric compositons, you tell a story by connecting objects in a photo along diagonals and golden means etc- When you spot similarities in scenes, you can link them to tell a story- such as a ferry leaving a dock full of people waiting for the next round, or things like a stuffed toy dog and a real dog in a photo, or perhaps an old caqr with a moderne train (old/new), or perhaps a pile of chopped wood next to a young sapling tree, or maybe an ant hill in the foreground with mountains in the background

    Fuinding connections is 1/2 the fun, composing htem properly will result in pohotos that tell a story instead of being just a representation of what we see.

  • Naz November 25, 2011 03:25 am

    learn geometric compositions- Masters like Cartier Bresson used it extensively in their photogophy as did all the major masters in art- and there was a reason that they did- because the principles worked and made the photos much more organized and cohesive- the mind loves cohesiveness and looks for connections- Bresson would go to a scene and study the angles uintil the composition was right, then waqit until his subjects hit the diagonals-

    Discovering that these master photographers used such composiotnjs was a real eye opener, and went a long way toward describing why most photos just simply don't seem to work- although most photos are nice, they could be much nicer with the right compositions. There is aq reason why Bresson didn't say "and then I click the shutter button' but rather said 'and then... BANG! I nail the shot! (or somehting liek that- He was set up and prepared and had his composition all worked out in advanced, then waited until his subjects hit the diagonals, and then ... BANG! He3 nails the shot

  • Egil Saeboe November 24, 2011 07:26 pm

    Thanks for the article.

    One should be very aware that reading a photograph is an entirely subjective affair, as the six points in the article clearly show, the reader being the active part all the way. Thus all the thousand words or more will be coming from the viewer´s own mind, based on his/her personal knowledge and experience of the world. Hence captions in the newspapers to help us interpret the photos correctly, if a precise communication of information is the purpose. If there are no caption we are all more or less left to ourselves reading the photos and making them tell us (our own) stories (based entirely on our personal understanding of the world).

    Photographs are always more or less ambiguous and we should remember this whether we read them or make them. A photographer will never know for sure what a viewer will read into his/her photograph. If you want to convey a specific message you must really know your target audience and know what thoughts and feelings your photo (the objects, the persons and their clothes, hairstyle etc., the colours, the lighting and so on) will evoke.

  • Patty @ Photography Backdrop November 24, 2011 06:32 pm

    A photographer's mind is really much more creative than an ordinary audience or viewer of a certain photography. They can read the author's mind well.

  • Henry K November 24, 2011 05:46 pm

    Ian, your post hits the nail on the head and I believe it brings some light in the mind of many photographers - mostly amatures. I have always believed that, there is some gap insofar as understand what the person who clicked the shutter as he/she saw the picture at that moment and the critique by a professional photoanalyist who will go into the details of the photograph - 'composition, exposure etc and suggestions of croping to take out some distractions, the rules of third etc, which I think is very good. However, I have been concerned with this 'gap' of trying to understand the photo and what was the message, if any, by the person who took it. Unless that person has undergone some tuition - as most of the people buy cameras to take pictures of whatever attracts their eyes at a given moment; without considering if the picture carries or should carry a message (tell a story) or not. Then, how accurate are the comments of the critique? This is a good article and I believe it opens eyes of many who are interested in photography. I'm loving it Jeff.

  • Eda Johanna Cartagena November 24, 2011 03:25 pm

    I love your photography tips.. how I wish I could have my own professional camera and start experiment and explore the world of photography.. thanks to all of your staff... I will expect more lessons from you to keep me inform of the techniques and knowledge on photography.. God speed...!

  • GariRae November 24, 2011 11:34 am

    The questions posed in the article are great for people images...but I'm having a difficult time using them to evaluation landscapes, nature, and architectural shots. The aim of these is to elicit some level of emotional response from the viewer, but using the questions as posed might be difficult.

  • georges bococi November 24, 2011 10:23 am

    Crap. Sorry but i cant learn a thing from this article. Where is the point . Sorry once again but its a waste of time reading this .

  • raghavendra November 24, 2011 04:01 am

    This is a brilliant article. Many people see the pictures,
    one might have taken a picture with his aspect,
    but people have different aspect

    In this i have tried the reflection in a mysteries way.

    This is a picture of rain drop,
    but most people focus is not on the rain drop!

  • THE aSTIG @ November 23, 2011 08:04 pm

    This is totally true. I competely agree, especially in my fielf of photography.

    I do Car Photography for

    When I was starting out, I thought it was really simple. I just filled the entire frame with the car. Then I started observing how the professionals do it. I saw I was leages away from creating professional shots. So I started reading their photograps and seeing how it all links together in harmony. Subject and background, the thought it provokes when you look at the photo, the emotions that it conveys.

    Nowadays, if you check out my site, you'll see that the photos are already of professional grade, and I have gone a long way into perfecting my craft. I was once an amateur, but because I learned how to read photographs, I was on my way to becoming a pro.

  • Fuzzypiggy November 23, 2011 07:45 pm

    Well put!

    When I speak to other snappers hardly any of them visit gallery's, photographic or traditional art. They don't seem interested in studying other people's work, try hard to work out why someone wanted that viewpoint, that object, that person and why in those exact places in the frame. My pictures started getting better when I stopped poking the camera buttons and started looking at other pictures to work out what was happening and why. I now find I spend far more time looking at my scenes before getting the camera out. I will walk around and try hard to think of other images and paintings I have seen and try to work out what that artist did then and how I can use that type of viewpoint and light to improve mine.

    Don't just study photos, study other art forms too, traditional paintings and sculpture to try to understand what was in the head of the artist to took it, drew it, painted it or sculpted it.

  • Judy Weiser November 23, 2011 04:36 pm

    Those who liked this article and are interested in learning more about the kinds of questions that you can ask any photograph in order to learn more about it (and the meaning and feelings it creates in you, the viewer), might want to explore the topics of "PhotoTherapy" and "Therapeutic Photography", that is about exactly this approach to using photos for increasing self-insight and communication with others, as well as being very helpful tools in the hands of trained mental health professionals for helping clients with emotional or family problems, when "just talking" during the therapy session doesn't work very well. More information at: (read the definitions on the entry page and then click the tree to enter the main site). If you look particularly at the pages that discuss using photos as "projectives" you'll find more about this topic...
    (and there's also a Facebook Group related to all this -- open membership -- see:

  • Nancy November 23, 2011 02:42 pm

    As someone who deals with the intersection of education and 'visual literacy' I was intrigued by the content of your article. However, I ended up frustrated (in a good way -- if that's at all possible) that you did not provide us with the answers to the questions as it related to the image posted in the article. Was that deliberate on your part?

  • Nancy November 23, 2011 02:39 pm

    OK, being heavily involved in the intersection of education and 'visual literacy' I was intrigued by the content of your article. However.....I was frustrated at the end when you provided no answers to the questions as it related to the image posted. Was that deliberate?

  • ccting November 23, 2011 10:36 am

    Nice... I am a noob, and i started photography learning by reading photographs..However, these criteria are new to me.

  • Scottc November 23, 2011 10:34 am

    A great article and an interesting methodology for a different "take" as well. It's very easy to become too focused on technique and not look within.

  • Mandy November 23, 2011 09:27 am

    Photographs tell stories just like art does, and just like art you need to practice 'seeing' the story.

    And this article has got some great ideas to do it, thanks

  • lucas November 23, 2011 09:11 am

    Great article. It's very helpful, specially for begginers as me, to not only say "nice photo", but also to analize why we found it "nice". Even we can refine the term "nice" to "moving", "encouraging", or whatever that photo make us feel inside. I think it's a matter of taking about one minute longer observing each photo instead of just looking one after another like some crazy movie. Congrats. Lucas.

  • Danothy November 23, 2011 07:10 am

    Useful article in my view. Finding advice on how to appreciate photography is hard to come by, and this article gives some salient points that would certainly guide my learning curve.

  • Bekah November 23, 2011 06:01 am

    Whenever I see a photograph I particularly like, I try and think, "what do I like about it?" and then I try (often unsuccessfully) to determine how they created that aspect of the image, and attempt to recreate it.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer November 23, 2011 04:35 am

    Not just Nat Geo & gallery photos, but almost every photo I come across in a magazine, sign or display I go through a similar process to analyze the photo. I also think about how the photo was made, and what it took to do it.

    Here is what happens when you take a shot without thinking:

  • Keivan Zavari November 23, 2011 03:59 am

    Very interesting to read. To be honest some of them I hadn't thought about but do like to read it.
    Sometimes I shoot with a deep idea behind, but of course not all the time! :-)

    this one I took with thinking and waiting:

  • Mike T November 23, 2011 03:50 am

    Thanks for this! Some of this stuff I do and I didn't even notice that I was doing it. I also get the idea of being "sucked in" to a photo.

    I will be using that concept more as I take my own photos.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck November 23, 2011 02:21 am


    Great article! All Phtotography does not have to be Journalistic, but I do agree that an image should draw the viewer into the story. It is hard to explain the energy of Time's Square in NYC - simply vibrant.

    Here I tried to grab the energy with a nightime, wide angle shot.

  • Mridula November 23, 2011 01:52 am

    I wonder if the ones that I take convey that they were taken in a rush? For example this lot?

    I wonder if the one posted in the post means it was an intimate moment between mother and child and either the photographer knew them or the people in the pic were not aware that the pic was being taken?

  • Dewan Demmer November 23, 2011 01:49 am

    I really started doing a lot of the above since my one photo-shoot in particular ... problem is I am now so critical of it I leave it be and have decided to post the rest later when I am more comfortable:

    Sometimes its hard to step away and not be overly critical.

  • Dewan Demmer November 23, 2011 01:46 am

    I like this article, its a nice way to get us to look at our own work and try get us to step back and give a valid opinion on our own work.
    1st Impressions can be hard, personally I just go with do I like it or not, if not then I work at find to find out why, this probably because I work by how I feel about something.
    The evaluation of content generally happens when I take the picture.
    I work on the relationship with viewer even when its not about the viewer it still must relate
    I struggle on concepts, I can visualise a work with a concept once I have one ... something I am working on
    Point number 5 for me lead directly to relationship between you and picture something picked up on in 4.
    Point 6. perhaps flesh out that comment it bit, i am think that at this point once the user has self criticised we would be inclined to look at the photo and think on how to make it "work".