Language of Photography

Like any other profession or a technical job, photography as an art and as a science has some very distinct technical words which facilitate an easier communication of ideas and perceptions. Without them it would be almost impossible to communicate and get understood in an effort to do justice to our endeavors.

As a form of visual expression, photography is unique and it cannot be compared with any other branch of visual expression.

Its uniqueness is due to the following:

Authenticity: Drawings and paintings are subject to imagination and are thus inaccurate and incomplete. But a photograph is an ‘eyewitness’ and thus fully convincing. Even if the photographer has been subjective, there is a stamp of authenticity in his work. The rendition in a photograph is authentic and true.

Speed of recording: Photographs are taken in literally fractions of seconds. Images are accurately recorded in hardly any time. Even if events are taking place rapidly, a camera can faithfully record the details with cent per cent accuracy.

Precision in rendition: Photographs record facts as they are in full detail and there is no room for any bias or preconceived notions. An artist will record an object or an event the way he or she wants, while a cameraman can only record with his mechanical aids what is before the lens.


The medium of communication for a photographer is light, just as words are for the writer. It is not enough whether light is sufficient or insufficient. Light has other properties as well which create special effects. These special effects can happen only if light can be controlled by the photographer. Light has the chief characteristic of its brightness. It determines the exposure required and also influences the mood of a picture. A bright light is harsh and crisp whereas soft light is mysterious. In the former the subjects appear brighter and contrasting while in the latter they look less saturated and heavier. It is for the photographer to choose the light to suit the subject matter.

instantShift - Light in Photography

Color of the light is another feature that determines the choice of light. Natural colors can appear only if a suitable film (designed to handle that kind of light) is used. If film meant for use with tungsten light is used in daylight, the result will be highly distorted colors with a heavy blue cast. Color has to be measured as color temperature, in Kelvin degrees (in short, K). For example, daylight has a temperature of 5500 K, suitable for a daylight balanced film. A color-temperature exposure meter measures the temperature of any light and suitable color balancing filters are used to raise or lower the color temperature for perfect results.

It is useful to mention here that color temperature does not remain constant during the day. It is lower in the morning, rises to its maximum at noontime and again starts dropping in the afternoons.

Besides making subjects visible, light also enables to establish a relation between volume and depth. It sets the mood of a picture and can also create designs in color or black and white. To create a feeling of three-dimension, a photographer plays with light and shadows to create an illusion of depth. In diffused shadow less light, the subject appears flat. In drawings and paintings the shadows are created by shading. In photography this is done by giving light from a side and creating shadows to play with light. The photographer can use a front light, side light, top light, light from below and black light. All these create different shadows to meet particular ends.

Mood and atmosphere are largely created by light. A mysterious mood needs large areas of shadow. Illumination has an influence on the ‘feeling’ of a picture. Available light helps in rendition of the ‘naturalness’ of a scene. An emotional statement can be made by mood pictures. Plenty of fog in a mountain photograph creates a natural feeling of being there in the mist. An observer’s imagination is blended with the use of the right kind of light.

Color is a product of light. In the absence of light, in darkness, even the most colorful objects appear black. They lose their color. This is literally true. It does not mean that color does not exist. It exists, but cannot be seen because of lack of light. In other words, in darkness color ceases to exist.

From the above statement it is clear that color of an object is dependent on the quantity of light. To represent a scene in a particular desired way, the quality of light has to be studied properly. By choosing colors, a color photographer can impart to the picture a specific meaning or mood.

Highly saturated and strong colors create an aggressive impression, emphasizing the power of the subject. Pale colors are used for sophisticated and delicate subjects to suggest a softer mood. Light colors are associated with joyous and gay moods while dark colors indicate somber situations. Red color suggests aggressive and exciting mood and is therefore widely used for advertisements, book-jackets and posters. Blue, at the opposite end, is more passive, signifying restful and cool mood.

Experienced photographers know that true color is not necessarily good color; color rendition can be effective only if the colors appear natural. Then they can be accurate and more effective.

Direction of light

The direction of light has a profound effect on the way in which the subjects are photographed.

‘Frontal lighting’ is good for enhancing colors.

‘Side lighting’ is best to reveal form, and gives an appreciation of 3D character of the subject.

‘Back lighting’ reduces the subject to a silhouette. However, it produces a glow in translucent subjects.

Quality of light

The daylight may be soft or harsh, depending upon the weather and time of the day. When the sunlight is bright, it enhances colors, but the shadows are hard.

When the sky is slightly overcast, the light is diffused, which mutes the colors slightly, but brings out the details in shadow areas.

Photography in natural light

Natural light is perpetually changing in direction, color, and quality. The landscape that we view in the early morning gets a new looks during mid-morning, afternoon and dusk. You can make good use of natural light, by choosing the right time of the day, and often by changing your viewpoint with respect to the direction of light.

Time of the day

At pre-dawn (4 am to 5 am), the light may have a blue tint, as also seen during late evening or dusk. At sunrise (5 am to 6 am), the sunlight gives an orange hue.

At mid morning (8 am to 10 am) when the sun is bright but low in the sky, it brings out strong color and details.

At noon, the sunlight is harsh, and sun is directly above the subject. This lighting causes deep shadows, and is not considered satisfactory in photography.

In the afternoon (3 am to 5 pm), the sun is again at an angle, and the light starts softening.

By evening, the sun is starting to set, covering the scene in golden light.

The mid morning and early evening are called ‘golden hours’ in photography.

Photography in artificial light

Apart from natural light, photography can be done under a variety of other light sources, raining from tungsten light to electronic flash, and even candle light!

Photography in artificial light results in some color cast, which can be corrected by use of suitable filters.

Electronic flash produces light, which is nearly identical in color to daylight.


The contrast is often too high in subjects photographed in bright sunlight and too low in most long distance tele-photographers. Contrast in a photograph can be increased or decreased by using more or less light at the time of taking a picture, by increasing or decreasing the contrast in a negative or doing the same later while making a print. These objectives can be achieved by the right choice of film, developer (in black-and-white work), combination of exposure and development of film (more possible in black-and-white and to a very small extent in color), and filter (again only applicable in black-and-white). In black-and-white pictures, contrast can be handled by choice of gradation of paper and dodging (at the dark room stage).

Depth and space

Depth can be defined as the contrast between near and far. In photography, it can be expressed in four ways, i.e.

  • By creating contrast by light and shadow,
  • By creating contrast between larger and small objects,
  • By creating contrast between sharp and blurred objects,
  • By creating contrast between light and dark subjects.

Experienced photographers always keep the effect of these elements in a picture and these determine the success or failure of a picture.


instantShift - Motion in Photography

To express motion in a photograph it must be rendered in a symbolic form. A blur in a photograph is a symbol of movement or motion. A subject in a picture can be photographed either sharp or blurred. The rendition chosen depends upon the intentions of the photographer and the purpose of the picture. In a game or a wrestling bout, a person using a flashgun will render pin-sharp pictures while another person using available light will show the movement of the wrestlers, suggesting movement. Neither is wrong, but the wish of the photographer to render a picture in a particular way will be supreme. Degrees of motion can be in slow speed, medium speed and high speed. Motion can be shown in a photograph by ‘freezing’ (an appropriate movement is selected and frozen on the film) by a fast shutter speed, or by using a flashgun, or by panning (moving the camera during exposure, along the direction of subject movement) or by a blur or multiple exposure (several photos in a frame).

Film grain

Graininess is normally and rightly considered a fault in photograph, but coarse grains can sometimes be the most effective means for symbolizing certain subject qualities. Invariably war photographs and other pictures of violence are associated with grainy effect as the grain here gives the photograph a stamp of harsh reality. Smooth, fine-grained pictures here would appear artificial and staged.


Timing is one of the most important photographic controls. Its purpose is to capture the decisive moment, the peak of an event, the most significant expression or gesture. The photographer has to fully concentrate on the composition of the picture to click at the instant when it would give the ideal flavor to the picture. An effective way to be sure to capture the significant moment of an event is to take a large number of pictures. Each of those shots is carefully timed and the best one chosen to preserve later on.

Factors that Influence a Photograph

Nature of the subject

it can be either static (stationary) or dynamic (involving movements). Static subjects give all the time to a photographer to decide the way he wishes to execute it. He can take his own time; decide the angle after studying various possibilities and give full attention to the technical problems involved. With good ‘contemplation’, a photographer will end up with a good picture. Where time is available, one should not rush and should take full advantage of studying the subject very carefully.

Dynamic subjects, on the other hand, do not permit this luxury. Here the event takes place rapidly and the cameraman has to decide on the technique well in advance. Dynamic subjects are matters like people and children, animals and wildlife, sports events and other objects in motion. These subjects do not present a similar opportunity. Photo journalists have to always deal with subjects in quick happenings and from their previous experience they get educated and enlightened so as to get the better of the situations. Preparedness is the hallmark of an experienced photographer. He has to decide in advance what shutter speed, what lens and what film would be best for the event about to take place. Auto-focus lenses have helped a lot, but enough experience is needed to get the best from them.

Other factors affecting the subject are the right background, amount of foreground, portion of sky and the role of the horizon. If the background is not kept right, it can kill a good picture. A good portrait with a good expression can be ruined if a tree is growing out of the subject’s head. The tone and colour of a background should also be carefully kept in mind to avoid any disappointments later. Care should also be given to unusually bright or dark backgrounds which may not be appropriate. In photographing people, a larger aperture will help by keeping the face in focus and throwing the disturbing background out of focus. Uniform and plain backgrounds are useful for portraiture but if life and action are being taken, the environment around the subject becomes very important.

The amount of foreground also affects the overall beauty of the photograph. By deliberately showing more foreground, the objects can be emphasized. Wide-angle lenses exaggerate the foreground while telephoto lenses underplay the foreground. Contrast between near and far objects create a 3D effect.

Personality of the photographer

If different photographers are asked to photograph a common subject, why is it that each photographer comes back with a different kind of photograph? Simply because each one has his own personality and this reflects in his work. It is also a common experience that given a choice, each photographer chooses a subject that he or she likes best. If four photographers went for a holiday, the emphasis of one could be on landscapes, the second would opt for people’s pictures, and the third may go for architecture and so on. Interest is the force that drives one towards fulfillment and success.

Personality and interest are closely related. Some are over obsessed with technical aspects of cameras, films, lenses, etc. and come out with mediocre pictures. Conversely, some amateurs shoot with their hearts and feelings, knowing very little about technicalities and complexities of the equipment and yet create memorable photographs.

A successful photographer should have an ability to see and visualize in terms of photography. He should also have a compelling drive to create something new and a capacity for hard work. It is not enough to have good ideas but be lazy and not be able to execute them. A good photographer should also be able to handle photographic equipment. He must understand the full potentials and limitations of his equipment. His handling should be right. He should not abuse nor be unduly protective. Camera equipment is meant to make photographs and not become a collector’s item or provide a status symbol.

A good photographer should also have the desire to experiment. He can learn about the equipment from its instruction manuals, but he has to learn to use it by experimenting. Reading a thing is one thing and practicing it is entirely different. Experimentation should be supported by knowledge and sustained by curiosity.

A successful photographer should also have the knack to get along with people. The better he is able to get along with people; the better will be his work. He should be considerate, reliable and methodical in work.

Judgment and integrity

Very often a photographer faces a situation that demands good judgment in his work. Here he should take decisions carefully and have a preferences, he should concentrate on the task assigned to him. His editorial integrity should rule over his personal taste. Good editorial judgment also depends on his sound knowledge of the subject. Highly opinionated people will fail in doing a neutral and balanced assignment. Photojournalists have a great responsibility in reporting the correct situation through their assignments as their reportage further effects the opinions of readers. The facts should be represented correctly and their work should not fall in the category of propaganda.

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  1. I’m a terrible photographer, Sylvie. Luckily I have good light in my kitchen, but that doesn’t help with the composition. Wish I were better at this. And yes, I do look at other photographers’ work….not enough though. I don’t have an artist’s eye. Looking forward to the rest of your series.

  2. Sad to say about the “Personality of the photographer” :
    If different photographers from art school are asked to photograph a common subject, then each photographer comes back with the same photograph.

    • I think that. If somebody still have the same photographs on a common subject, that means they are in the first step to the photographic art. They use the equipment as the manufactories want, not as they want.
      But when in only a common subject, there’re three or more different photographs from three shooters, that means they are “the artists”, they don’t only shoot as they see, but as what they want, what they feel, what they percept, concept, …

  3. Photography is the art, science and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film.

    • yes…………you are right…

  4. Thanks for your sharing. I like it so much.

  5. I bought a new DSLR. Those tips are really helpful.

  6. How do i explain that how mach impotent this for me. Really very very thanks.

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