Understanding a Photo Semiologically and Semantically

Photograph of Antelop Canyon in black and white. Photograph by Amar Guillen, photographer artist.
This photograph in black and white of Antelop Canyon could be interpreted in different ways.

Step 1: Visual Comprehension

The visual understanding of a photo is called image semiology.

It is organized around 9 very precise criteria.

  1. The shooting angle and the point of view. For me this is the most difficult point with framing. It is the position of the camera in relation to the main photographic element (also called the subject). If you photograph at the level of the subject, you will create a feeling of objectivity because your subject will appear to be positioned on your level. If you photograph in a low angle, the subject will appear to be more important. If you photograph in a higher angle, with your camera placed above the subject, you will crush its demeanor, and the subject will appear inferior. Its importance will decrease because you create the impression that you are dominating it.
  2. The framing. It defines each photographic elements that you integrate in your photograph. You offer your audience or the viewer a window into the scene you want to photograph. The framing can be rectangular or square. It all depends on the type of photos you present. If you choose rectangular framing, it can be:
    - Horizontal. In this case the scene evokes calmness, tranquility, and distance from the main photographic element.
    - Vertical. In this case you show a closer and more personal scene. It is a framing that also favors action shots.
  3. The composition. I remind you that composition is the way in which to organize the photographic elements so that they harmoniously flow within the chosen framing.
  4. The scale of the plans. It is purely descriptive. It allows to give the viewer a common reference point for the photo. It is established by incorporating the human scale of reference.
    - General plan: the landscape.
    - Overall plan: a subject in its environment.
    - Medium shot: one subject in full view.
    - American plan: a subject cut between the knee and the waist.
    - Close-up shot: a living subject showing the waist and the chest.
    - Close-up: the face.
    - Very close-up: details of a face.
  5. Depth. This is a technique that I use a lot in environmental wildlife and landscape photography. It is about the existence of several planes in a photograph: foreground, background, and the reference points which lie between.
  6. The off screen. Off screen is a creative technique that you can use with living beings. The subject is looking in a given direction other than towards you. The object of the subject’s gaze is not in view; thus it is not bound within the chosen frame of the scene.
    The off field evokes questioning, introspection, and suggestion. As for the field itself, it allows you to fix the look of hours in the space you have chosen.
    The field allows you to orientate the gaze of hours by imposing visual limits on it.
    The off screen allows you to create the dream. You give the viewer the opportunity to ask questions. Moreover, it provides a channel through which the subject virtually escapes from the scene and from the photo. It is captivating. Visually, these are two very important elements.
  7. The light. For me, the light is the most important element in the construction of any scene, second only to the decor. Whether it is an underwater or landscape scene, I choose to evoke these three photographic themes because they are the ones I practice. If you are reading this article but you have evolved into other themes, you may have your own priorities. In this paragraph, I evoke natural light as well as artificial light. I use both sources in underwater photography as well as in wildlife photography, especially for passerines.
    The light allows to capture details, textures. But in my opinion, it should be used mainly to create modeling. The light creates shadows which construct the modeling of the relief and the three dimensions. Never forget that you and I, being photographers, always strive to showcase the beautiful, to share our states of mind by freezing a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional support.
  8. Colors of black and white. Colors are used to represent reality. They allow you to show scenes as faithfully as possible. If you use colors, try to be as objective as possible to the framing and composition.
    Black and white is an artistic technique because you interpret the scene you see. You show gradations of gray. Black and white is a creative technique. It allows you to go straight to the point, to be direct and intentional.
  9. The tone. The general tonality of a photo is its visual aspect in terms of its distribution of tones and gradation levels between them. There are three main types of tonality:
    - The dark tone. In this case the photo is rather dark with low lights and shadows of colors.
    - The clear tone. The photo is illuminated and details and bright colors are enhanced through brightness.
    - The neutral tone. The photo is neither dark nor light. This is also referred to as a “balanced tone.”
    The visual understanding of the tonality allows you to better understand the atmosphere created by a photo. Tonality is one of the elements of the photographic language you use to express yourself.

To summarize this step #1 dedicated to the visual understanding of a photo, I advise you to learn by heart this list of different elements.

So, when you are faced with a picture by another photographer and you are inspired, you will understand exactly what it is that captivates you and how to identify it in your own work.

If you need to analyze one of your photos, you will also be able to better understand and refine your photographic approach.

Once this first step is complete, you simply move on to the second step: the ones I call semantics.

Step 2: Semantic Understanding

By definition, semantics is the study of the meaning of linguistic units and their combination.

If I apply this definition to photography, photographic semantics is the study of photographic meaning and language.

I explained in a previous article that photography has its own language and codes. It allows you to convey your messages and your emotions.

If you really want to understand a photograph you must learn to master the photographic language.

This particular language allows you to build your photos in a more consistent way. They will be interesting because you will have instilled meaning in each one. You will also be able to read the photos of the photographers who inspire you.

To understand the semantics of a photograph is to understand the meaning of its content. It is to understand why the photographer has chosen to assemble the photographic elements in a certain way.

Understanding the semantics of a photograph allows you to better build your own images. When you frame, compose, choose a point of view, you will arrange the photographic elements of your scene to express yourself.

I think that once you begin to perceive the importance of photographic semantics, you can more easily understand the photos you directly encounter.

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Semantic understanding is just as important as semiological (visual) understanding. If I had to simplify my point, I would say that semantic understanding is the container and semiological understanding is the content of a picture.

I recognize that I am not able to establish a link or dialectical relationship between the two elements of analysis. I do not know if this link really exists. In the absence of being able to bring tangible elements to establish a relationship between the two, I will simply propose the two steps separately.

In order to understand a photograph semantically, you need to call upon your life experiences, your emotions, and especially your photographic culture.

It is thanks to this collection of knowledge and tools that you will be able to decipher the meaning of photos.

I am certain that a simply emotional or aesthetic reading of an image can lead to an interesting decoding for a photo. The problem I have found with this method is that it is an empirical analysis. Over time, people who analyze only in this way find themselves confronted with a lack of ideas. Analyses always become identical and redundant.

A broad general photographic culture allows one to refine the semantic understanding and to establish the creative processes that will result in the discovery of future images.

To conclude this paragraph concerning the semantic understanding of a photo, I advise you to try to be as systematic as possible and to appeal to your photographic consciousness. Ultimately, consider your photographic culture and the context of the photo itself.

Case Study: Understanding a Figurative Photo

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