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 slab 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 as it illuminates beautiful models.

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 led upwards to the tree. It is not apparent because I placed myself high upon the other side of the meadow.

The deer came out of the forest on my left. I took a few pictures, but they were of no interest. The deer were located in the meadow, but the background was very dark.

Luck was with me. One 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 help people understand this photo and why it 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 positioned slightly higher than the subject. I am located at about 150 meters from the deer. As is often the case with deer, I like photos at eye level so that I appear to be equal.
  2. The framing. I chose a horizontal framing to accentuate the calmness and tranquility of the photo. This very morning, no bird was singing. The silence was overwhelming. My camera was hidden in a noise-cancelling muffle to hold the noise of all the clicks. I chose to integrate a tree to show a safe and steady perspective while assigning a scale for a human reference point. By placing it on the right so as to stick it against the edge of the picture, I force the viewer to be drawn to 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 foliage in silhouette show that nature is intact, and that I am in a wilderness.
  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, partly because I developed the photo in high key.
  8. Black and white. I chose this creative technique to allow 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 creates an atmosphere of softness, of quietness, and of dreaminess. It is a beautiful 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. It reminds me of the paths I take in my travels or in my day-to-day 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 crave the ability to wander wherever I wish to go. The high key allows me to accentuate this feeling of evanescence. I like to dream about beautiful projects and beautiful encounters. By closing the photo on the right and a little on the left, I want to reveal 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 of a sense of nostalgia, of looking back upon the past. It does not quite fit me. I like to look towards the future and wait for new adventures.

This photo expresses my optimism and my joy of life and the thrill of 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 to radiate light and evanescent effects.

Let us enter 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 so that the trunk is directly in my view.
  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, as it is perfectly straight.
  4. The scale of the plans. I chose a close-up angle so that the details would be greatly enhanced.
  5. Depth. The photo is flat because I wanted to evoke an explosion with a lot of energy.
  6. The light. It is strongest in the center. It becomes darker on the sides. This vignetting makes it easier to read.
  7. The color. I chose both warm 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 understanding 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.

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I chose warm and cold 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 the subtleties surrounding the way in which you understand a photograph. Keep in mind that understanding an image is a two-step process:

  • A semiological understanding.
  • 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 unique codes and atmospheres.

For some photos, its meaning can be presented in a few words or thoughts.

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

Regardless, you must never confuse understanding a photo with judging it.

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


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