Two Steps to Fully Understanding a Photo

When you look at other photographers' photos for inspiration and new ideas, you analyze every inch to attempt to fully understand the images.

You are looking for meaning in what you see to create your future photographs.

I often do this as well. In order not to get lost and to be as efficient as possible, I have developed a two-step method to understand the photos.

I will share it with you in this article.

This article will help you understand how to implement a new tool in your photography toolbox. By implementing it, you will make your photos even more interesting and instill in them true meaning.

Road crossing Valley of Fire in black and white. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
This road crossing Valley of Fire can be read by differents ways. It is an example of symbolic photograph.

The Short History of This Article

I have always been passionate about experiencing the work of other photographers. I bought books. I consulted magazines. I attended dozens of exhibitions.

Today, I continue this passion for human connection, specifically through photography. I browse the Internet and social networks to look for inspiration.

This photographic and artistic research allows me to avoid reproducing what has already been done, thus, it allows me to preserve my photographic identity. I am unique; therefore, I create photos that look like me. Photographs often reflect my moods, my states of mind, and the emotions I feel and want to share.

When I chose a career as a photographic artist, I watched and analyzed dozens of photos every day to define my photographic and artistic approach. I spent hours thinking, thinking, questioning myself. I lost a lot of time and energy. I realized this after months of intense and hard work. Indeed, I did not have a work methodology.

I was taking notes and analyzing without a clear guideline.

I admit to having lost a lot of time. But as always, I learn more from my failures than from my successes. I have learned to concentrate and become more introspective and analytical.

To understand other photographers' photos, I developed a two-step method.

The most interesting thing is that I use this method to understand my own photos. When I move on to the development phase, I apply this principle to make sure that my photos can be understood by other people.

This is what I will explain in the rest of the article.

Definition of The Word "Understand"

The transitive verb “to understand” has several definitions. I have chosen two of them which I believe are adapted to the photographic art.

  • Definition #1: to understand is to sensitively apprehend from the onset the deep nature of someone or something such as an art, and to keep close to it having an intuitive knowledge of it.
  • Definition #2: to understand is to picture someone or something in a certain way, to have a specific idea of the subject.

Application to Photography

In reference to photography, you must know that understanding a photograph is to understand the vulnerability of the photographer and his deep nature.

It also means representing the photographer by trying to understand his photos.

To understand the photographs taken by a person is to give oneself a representation of who or what they are.

Do Not Confuse Understanding and Judging

In the article devoted to the topic how to judge a photo, I gave you the definition of the word judge applied to photography: "Judging a photo is giving your opinion". You are assigning a non-numerical value to the photo when you judge it.

The understanding of a photo is to apprehend its sensitivity and vulnerability of a photographer and his inner nature.

You are in a more subjective mindset. Generally speaking, a judgment is rather objective, however, the photo itself is subjective. A judgment is made on the basis of a grid of well-defined criteria.

As you can see, the two actions are totally different.

You are probably going to wonder what the right attitude should be. You are perfectly right to ask yourself this legitimate question. But the answer is beyond the scope of this article. I propose to address this subject in a future blog post.

Why You Should Try to Understand a Photo

If you want to create interesting pictures that make sense and will appeal to an audience, you need to know how to understand a picture or a series of pictures.

The more you develop this faculty of understanding, the more empathetic you are to your audience.

Understanding a photo will allow you to better choose your points of view, framing, and the composition of your own photos that resemble you.

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You will be able to easily convey your moods and emotions by constructively assembling the photographic elements so that your audience receives a representation of who you truly are. Isn't this what you are looking for when showing your photos?

Learning to understand photos, whether they are made by others or by yourself, will allow you to identify mechanisms and ways to translate what you want to show to the rest of the world.

After reading this article, I advise you to apply my method to develop your own.

You will find that understanding photos is above all a way to help you build and improve your own photos.

How to Understand a Photo

If you follow my blog dedicated to the photographic approach on a regular basis, you have certainly noticed that I am passionate about photographic judgment, photographic analysis, photographic semiology, and the photographic language.

In various articles, I have discussed methods for judging, analyzing, and reading of photographs.

How to understand a photo is the logical continuation of all these articles.

Of course, you can apply the different methods. They will only help you in understanding the pictures. But in this article, I want to explain an empirical method based on two axes. It is a personal method. It allows me to progress quickly when initially reading a photo, thus it prevents the waste of time that occurs useless considerations.

Step 1: Visual Comprehension


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