How Pictures Speak

The word photography is derived from the Greek words “photo,” which means light, and “graph,” which means writing. Photography is writing with light. As a type of writing, photography has a visual language, an alphabet of tone and hue, a grammar of line and form. Its visual patterns are its sentences. The photograph is silently articulate, communicating its message through an arrangement of color and shape.

The language of photography contains two essential elements: light and the camera. Light rays relect off surfaces and into the camera, where light-sensitive film or a digital disk records the image.

Technical considerations such as lighting choices, film, and camera type determine the final look of the image. Camera controls such as shutter speed and aperture produce photographic attributes such as focus and blur. Framing, cropping, and vantage point or point of view are other characteristic elements of photography.

Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the phrase “the decisive moment” to describe the instant when an event takes place in the camera, when a photographer sees all the graphic forms in the camera frame and decides to take the picture.

Photographers make artistic choices when creating, editing, and producing their images. These choices take into account the elements of photography: photographic attributes (e.g., focus and blur); the composition of the image; the subject or content; the photographer’s style (or voice); genre (or intended use, such as advertising or fine art exhibition); and the meaning that the photographer intends to communicate. The resulting images have many meanings depending on how they are interpreted. In some cases, they present more questions than answers. In other cases, these artworks bear a close relationship to the look of the real world and to the moment at which they were created.

Following is a list of important elements of the language of photography. The elements are arranged into categories: photographic attributes, composition, content, style/genre, and meaning.


© Cynthia Way and Internation Center of Photography

Resource Files

Resource File
An excellent and detailed description of all the elements of photography. Please use this as a resource when looking at, judging or critiquing photographs. The article is copyrighted by the International Center of Photography.
PDF-Elements of Photography
Another excellent resource is the course textbook: Photography, 9th Edition p.340-341

Additional Articles and Videos

Photography Tutorials
1. Cambridge in Color - Digital Photography Tutorials
2. Digital Photography School
Taking Good Photos
1. Article: What Makes a Photo Good?
2. Article: Some of What I've Learned About & From Photography?
3. Article: The Secret: What Makes a Great Photo
4. Article: What Makes A Good Photo?
5. Article: What Makes A Good Photo? (All things photography)
Photo Composition
1. Article: 5 Elements of Composition in Photography
2. Article: 5 More Elements of Composition in Photography
Influential Photographers
1. Article: 20 Most influential Photographers
2. Article: Famous and Influential Photographers
3. Article: The 10 Most Influential Photographers of All Time
5. Article: 100 Most Influential photographers of all Time
6. Article: Top 10 Most Influential Nature Photographers of All-Time
1. Video: History of Photography
Videos on Influential Photographs and Photographers
1. Video: Images that Changed the World
2. Video: Masters of Photography
3. Video: World Press Photos 1955-2008
4. Video: Famous Photos-A World in Pictures Part 1
5. Video: Famous Photos-A World in Pictures Part 2
6. Video: Famous Photos-A World in Pictures Part 3
7. Video: Famous Photos-A World in Pictures Part 4
8. Video: Alfred Stieglitz
9. Video: Annie Leibovitz
10. Video: Ansel Adams
11. Video: Anne Geddes
12 Video: Henri Cartier-Bresson
13. Video: Margaret Bourke-White
14. Video: Sebastião Salgado
15. Video: Diane Arbus
16. Video: Edward Curtis
17. Video: Harold Edgerton
18. Video: Harry Callahan
19. Video: Richard Avedon
20. Video: Robert Doisneau