Home » Art » Part 3: Looking at Photographs-Structural Analysis

Part 3: Looking at Photographs-Structural Analysis

In the last installment of this series, I mentioned that there were two functions that involve Visual Perception that we can use in deciphering a photograph—or any piece of art. The first was just simple observation and description—noticing what is really in the visual, the objects. This is where we start to look for symbols and metaphor, things that enrich what the image actually depicts and means.

The second function is just a slight twist on the first and although maybe just as straightforward, takes a bit of study. It also takes a bit more work to break a visual down in this way. But it can be incredibly effective in our understanding of what we are looking at.

Sometimes, I think that when we read posts such as this series, we view them as more theoretical, unlike a tutorial on lighting or how to create this or that type of photograph. What I would like to suggest is that the information learned here, when practiced, will be more valuable to one’s photography than a simple instruction on how to do this or that. We build our abilities to respond to a scene and make the most of it, regardless of what we shoot or what type of image we like or dislike. When we are shooting, we don’t think about these things but draw upon them. These things are foundational and, as such, can be drawn upon over and over in any situation.

Studying and applying these while looking at great photography/art, we build up a “visual” vocabulary that we can draw upon in the same way we draw upon our verbal vocabulary to express ourselves in all situations—and without having to think about it, we just naturally use the tools we have that work best in any situation. It is when we are looking at work that’s already done that we analyze and think and gain/expand our basic self-knowledge, the only thing available to us when we create.

In fact, the particular skill that I am going to discuss here is fundamental to creating compositions that effectively communicate our ideas as well. Although I will be discussing this with regards to looking at photographs, it is also foundational to making them—in a very direct way.

On the most basic level, our visual perception is not really about things at all. As I said in Part 2, we translate what we see into things we can define and often make assumptions based on our first glance. But what we actually perceive is essentially what is often defined as the Elements of Art. We see line, shape, color, texture, value and form, then, based on our experiences, we identify what they mean or seem to represent. We see a rectangular shape with a pattern/texture and we know it is a plank of wood or a piece of sheet metal or whatever we decipher. Based on the elements we see, we might even be able to identify the particular type of wood or metal.

As well as being the building blocks of the objects we recognize, they also have visual properties that can affect the nature of a photograph and what it means.  They can be active or passive within a scene.

When we look at an image, if we take the time to start to really analyze these Elements and how they relate and interact, as well as how they are organized with the Principles of Design, we can gain even more awareness of what the image might be about—or at least an objective insight into how these things interact within an image and give it meaning.

I am not going to get deeply into describing and analyzing each of these things at this time but here is a list of each (lists will vary slightly if you research this on your own):

Elements of Art: Line, Shape, Color, Texture/Pattern, Value and Form

Principles of Design: Balance, Proportion, Rhythm, Motion, Emphasis and Unity

Of course, what I am referring to here are the same things we covered in the post, A Tale of Two Worlds and there I referred to this particular link where these things are discussed:


As time goes on here, I will be covering these Elements and Principles in more depth and hope to complete a book on this topic in the near future. There are lots of resources on these things but very few that are photography specific. That is what I hope to present here later as well as in book form.

One thing that you will notice from these lists is that there are no rules or shortcuts. It is line that we need to understand, in all of its forms, not just leading lines or S curves alone. If we learn the properties of line, we can understand how they actually function within an image and add to its meaning. We learn how Balance affects the way we view an image, how it was achieved or maybe even how the work has employed a sense of imbalance to affect how we respond. Balance doesn’t rely on a specific formula but is rather something we feel within the frame of our given photograph.

I mentioned on Part 2’s introduction that in an art class I took, we were assigned to write critiques and the first criteria was to physically describe what we saw. The second part was to break down how the elements of art were used and how the principles of design were employed. We did this for both two and three-dimensional artworks.  It was uncanny how doing this purposefully gave so much more insight into the works than just my natural first, gut reaction.  Admittedly, it was very difficult to actually do this type of analysis but it got easier as I applied it to more and more works.

A significant point of all of this for photographers is that, especially when looking at great works and employing the tools of analysis presented here, is that we start to get a better understanding of composition and how what we do influences the meaning of our images. We begin to see how these things play within an image, what has been used, what has been subordinated to effect the artist’s vision. As we become more facile doing this, it further adds to our visual vocabulary and we find that we more easily solve our own visual problems.

Even if we don’t “like” a work, we can begin to understand how it works and how these things were employed. We get insights into what the work might be about and gain an understanding of just what was done.

The purpose of doing the type of analysis described in the three parts of this series is about personal growth and increasing our ability to understand and create visual art. It is important to realize that we still may not relate to certain types of photographs or other artworks. That isn’t the point but, with practice, we can develop the tools to start to make some sense of things we may have passed over before. Having this ability will facilitate the learning of new things and a recognition of ways of seeing that are different from what we already know-even if only incrementally. It can look impossible to get from where we are to some distant point—and that is often the case when learning these types of things rather than those “clear” shortcuts—but it is surprising how far we can get, and how fast, if we just start and push forward one step at a time.

My own experience with this is that for the past 30+ years, I constantly return to study these things and I always gain new insights. Sometimes I still look at a photograph or other piece of art and I think I don’t know where to begin to analyze it.  Then, I just start to describe it and things become more clear.  But I do think it has been constantly looking at great work and continually developing the tools to actually see what was done and how it all came together within the image that has helped me progress the most in my own work. When I am in the field or studio, I rarely think about any of this but instinctively respond to the image I am creating and the intent/idea behind its creation.  There is a trust that I will naturally draw upon what I know at the time and what will work best.

There are certainly those times when I get stumped and can’t figure out how to solve the image at hand. Most of the time just taking a moment to focus on something else allows the answer to emerge.  Just shifting my attention to getting lunch or a snack, the answer almost always comes right to me.  But, at times when I am shooting for myself, I might decide to walk away knowing that I learned something in the process. Often, I come back to that same place a day or even months later and the “solved” image is there waiting for me.

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