Photographic Language

Photography is a language. Just like the written word it has its own vocabulary and its own grammar. Effective imaging, like effective writing or speaking, depends on understanding and applying some basic principles. Photography might be called an art of selection. The vocabulary a photographer works with is made up of the visual elements that exist all around us. Anything we see can be a visual element. The grammar of photography is the way in which visual elements are selected, isolated, related to other elements, or otherwise emphasized in a photograph. The choice of visual elements and their arrangement are the techniques a photographer uses to communicate an idea.

When we set out to communicate with images, we begin with an idea. We have something to say and we want to show it. Our subject is important. It is useful and critical information, but it is a fragile thing until it is delivered. Delivering information is what we mean when we say we want to communicate.

The effectiveness of information delivery, or communication, can be described as falling along a spectrum that ranges from passive communication (when a visually important idea is obscured by an unorganized picture field, an excess of unrelated or unimportant visual elements, or conflicting and confusing information) to active communication (looking for interesting lines of continuity, dramatic colors, strong shapes, repeating patterns, while organizing visual elements into a story). Communication channels as diverse as speech, the written word, and the photographic image can all be qualified in this way.

Most educators can readily identify the elements or conditions that make for ineffective or passive written communication. They can also identify the techniques that can help a student’s writing become more powerful or active. In the world of photographic image making, there is a parallel set of techniques, like mastering the skills of powerful writing, can be life’s work, but learning and applying these techniques is relatively easy.

Listening to Photographs

We may never be able to say for certain, but we can say that there is a strong connection between image and word…a natural resonance. There is something of a myth that suggests that visual artists, including photographers, are inarticulate when it comes to written communication. In fact, many artists have written eloquently about their art and their passions. While the number of great writers who have also been visual artists may not be large, most writers admit to having been moved and inspired by powerful images.


Over 90% of all information that comes to our brain is visual. The retina accounts for 40% of all nerve fibers connected to the brain. Our eyes can register 36,000 visual messages per hour. Researchers Treisman and Gormican discovered the primary aspects of vision – what the brain is designed to see soonest and easiest. Treisman also discovered that the brain is wired to identify objects more quickly when they differ from the rest of the objects in basic features.

Backman did another interesting study on the relative value of using verbal cues versus color cues in learning and memory. He found that when memory for verbs and memory for color were tested, learners recalled color better. And when objects were tested against color, once again, color memory was stronger.

According to the research teams Fiske & Taylor and Nisbett & Ross, the most powerful influences on your learners’ behaviors are concrete, vivid images. Neuroscientists might say that it’s because 1) the brain has an attentional bias for high contrast and novelty; 2) 90% of the brain’s sensory input is from visual sources; and 3) the brain has an immediate and primitive response to symbols, icons and strong, simple images.

Jensen refers to input preferences visual external and visual internal. Visual external prefers visual input, keeps eye contact with a presenter, posture is upright, creates mental pictures, talks fast in monotones, wants handouts, uses visual terminology like, “See what I mean?” A visual learner is usually a good speller, would rather read than be read to, enjoys writing, prefers neatness, is organized, chin is up, less distracted by noise. Visual internal prefers to “see it” in the mind’s eye first. They want to visualize the learning before it’s presented. They tend to daydream, imagine and let their mind make many mental pictures prior to more formal learning.

Treisman, A. & Gormican, S. (1988). Feature analysis in Early Vision: Evidence from Search Asymmetries. Psychological Review 95, 15-48.

Backman L., Nilsson, L. G., & Nourp, R. K. (1993). Attentional Demands and Recall of Verbal and Color Information in Action Events. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology 34.3, 246-254.

Fiske, S.T., & Taylor, S.E. (1984). Social Cognition. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Nisbett, R.E. & Ross, L.D. (1980). Human Inference: Strategies and Shortcomings of Social Judgment. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Jensen, Eric. (1996). Brain-Based Learning. Del Mar, CA: Turning Point Publishing.

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