Looking at Pictures

The reading list for the courses I have done so far contains books like “On Photography”, “Photography: A Critical Introduiction”, “The Photograph as Contemporary Art”. Reading these makes me think that this is the kind of artistic criticism I should try to emulate when I am looking at pictures and trying to read them. However, they uncover deeper meaning and hidden contexts which I simply do not see (often even when pointed out to me!) and when I try to write like that, it sounds like pompous nonsense!

This post was prompted by two influences. My tutor in his feedback suggested (more like commanded) that I start to develop more of an aesthetic critique of my work. Then on the OCA forum there was a thread started on “Analysing Work”. It seems there is some transcendental force at work, pushing me in a certain direction!

To counter my misgivings expressed above, there was some good advice posted:

· To learn how to analyse your own work you need to begin by analysing the work of well known and well regarded artists,

· You need to learn how to sort out the good points from the bad (composition, use of form, colour and so on).

· Analysing is not really any more than putting into words the reasons why in image speaks to you (or not I suppose!), what it says and how.

· There’s no real mystery to it, you just start off ‘saying what you see’, as in Catch Phrase, hahaha, and take it from there!

That’s advice I can relate to, “say what you see.”

There is an OCA study guide on “Looking at Other Artists and Photography” which contains lots of words and exhortations to visit exhibitions, buy or borrow art books and look at pcitures on the internet but not a lot of advice on what to look for in those pictures.

Another student posted a link to something he found useful (http://japanorama.co.uk/2011/02/25/building-visual-literacy/). This contained a 7 step guide to building visual literacy.

This started me on my quest. My view was that if I could develop a workflow for my photographic processing as taught right at the beginning of DPP, I could do the same for analysing pictures.

Searching on “Analysing Pictures” in Google produced a multitude of hits, including:


Written for Media Studies students at GCSE and advanced level it has an image analysis page which talks about deconstruction (denotation and connotation), mise en scene, organisation, composition, framing, lighting and colour with links to more in-depth articles.


provides a useful vocabulary to described photos, grouped under Basic Vocabulary, Visual Elements and Composition


Contains seven categories which can be used to describe photos


Contains a ten step guide to producing a picture analysis

Analysing pictures – Arcor.de

a four step analysis guide.

Putting all this together and trying to make sense of it we have:

Step 1

How does the picture makes you feel?

(Do this before you make any intellectual analysis of the picture. Immediate, unprepared and unguarded observation will often tell you more about the content communicated than rigorous analysis.)

Step 2

Describe the picture in terms of concepts from TAOP

(Points, lines, shapes, rule of thirds/golden section, colour, lighting, rhythm and pattern, how these lead the eye, balance)

Step 3

How does step 2 reinforce and/or contradict step 1

Step 4

Then with that in mind and at a deeper and more analytic level, (this is lifted directly from http://japanorama.co.uk/2011/02/25/building-visual-literacy/):

Building Visual Literacy

Level 1A: Building observation skills

What do you see in this picture?

Can you describe it more?

What else do you see?

What is going on in this picture?

What information in the picture makes you say that?

Level 1B: Building vocabulary

Can you guess where the photographer was standing when he or she took the picture?

Above the subject, looking down? Or below the subject, looking up? This is called point of view.

What is included in the picture frame? What is not included? This is called framing.

Describe the composition. What shapes do you see? What other patterns do you notice?

Level 2A: Building technical knowledge

What techniques did the photographer use?

What is the point of view?

How is the picture framed?

Describe the quality of the lighting. What direction is it coming from? Does it create a pattern of light and shadow?

Level 2B: Building an understanding of the choices photographers make

What choices did the photographer make?

Why did the photographer choose to use that technique?

Why did the photographer choose to compose the picture this way?

What is the photographer’s point of view? What effect does it have?

Why did the photographer choose to frame the picture this way?

What does the composition emphasize?

What does the lighting draw your attention to?

Level 3A: Understanding the context and intended use of the picture

What was the photographer’s purpose or the intended use for this image (e.g., magazine assignment, photo essay, fine art exhibition)?

Can you tell what genre of photography this is?

What do you know about the time period in which this photograph was made?

What does the photograph communicate about this time period?

Can you make comparisons to other photographers or artists working in this time period?

Level 3B: Relating context to subject and meaning

What choices did the photographer make? Can you guess why?

What is the photographer drawing your attention to? How is this accomplished?

What is the photographer’s point of view? What effect does it have?

What do you notice about the subject? Or the people in the picture?

Do you have any questions about the subject? Or the style of the picture?

What is the photograph saying? Does anyone have a different interpretation?

Level 4A: Finding meaning

What choices did the photographer make?

Does this element contribute to the photograph’s meaning, or is it distracting?

What was the photographer’s purpose in creating this image? What was the intended use of the image? How well does it work in this context?

What is the photograph saying?

Level 4B: Relating meaning to creative choices and larger issues

What is the impact of this image?

What are some issues it raises?

How might you approach this topic matter?

Level 5: Discussing what the image communicates

Which technical or formal elements work well in this photograph?

What do these elements draw your attention to?

What is the photograph saying?

What is the impact of this photograph?

How does the picture make you feel?

What does it make you think of?

Does it inspire you to work creatively in any way?

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