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