How to Read A Photograph Like a Book


How do you read a photograph? When a expert photographer looks at the photograph taken by someone else, what do you think goes in her mind? Do you want to know how the experts do it? Do you want to learn how to read a photograph?

Why Read Photographs

If you desperately want to gain knowledge, you have to go to more than one source. An artist who wants to grow does this by not just studying the instructional material but also by looking at art by other artists. A painter doesn’t just read books and paint, he also spends substantial time observing and appreciating paintings from other artists.

If you cook, you must have looked at couple of recipes when you were going to make that soup and then probably you may have mixed some, or came up with your own. Similarly, to become a better photographer, you have to spend some time looking at what other photographers are doing and learn about several aspect of photography.

In a food photography workshop that Penny De Los Santos conducted in Seattle, she said “Look at the photographs like it’s your job.” There is no better way to put this, if you want to become a better photographer, you need to observe and read photographs like its your job.

Penny Delosantos 06If you want to improve photography, you have to move beyond books and lessons and readymade material and you have to start exploring what other photographers are doing. As you start to explore these photographs, you should know what to look in the photograph and how to read the photograph.

How to Read Any Photograph Like a Book

First, Understand What is Great

The very first thing to start reading a photograph is to first understand how to make a stunning food photograph. The basics of a great photograph tell what is great. Then you can study elements of art and study some more. This will give you a good crash course in the basics. Once you get that, it is time to move on. Start with this…

Identify the Main Subject

The main subject – the one thing that stands out in the frame. What is that one thing? What is the main subject of that photograph? Can you figure out? Understanding the main subject in the frame will help you step in the shoes of the photographer and things will start becoming more clear.

Locate the Camera

Can you locate where the camera was? Think about the scene. That food photograph you are looked at, what can you make out, where was the camera? At what angle was this shot? Can you visualize how the photographer was standing while that photo was taken?

Light Source

In that photograph you were looking at, where is the light source? Behind the camera? Opposite to the camera? Right or Left? Multiple lights do you think? Can you see any shadows? Now can you figure out the light source?

Elements of Art

We talked about lines, shapes and forms in elements of art part 1 and color, space and texture in part 2. When you study the photograph, observe what elements have been used and how they have been used. Note how they have been used and then note how else can these elements be used in a photograph.

Observe the Composition

Think and observe carefully, how the photograph has been composed. What is support the main subject. Is there anything that is competing with the main subject for attention? If there are more than one main subject, specially in food photography, a decision should be made as to what should be kept and what goes out.

Within the Frame

Frame is a little bit related to composition. However, talking specifically, frame is basically positioning of objects in the frame. Again, as we asked while in composition, what would you change to make the photograph, even more beautiful.

Background Screening

Look at the background of that photograph. Study it. Is it plain? or textured? Observe other things in the background, like if background has some objects, how clear or blurred are thy? Does white background make that photograph look better? What would some bright colors in the background do?

So here it is. Short list of things you should ask yourself or think about while studying a photograph. If you are able to study photographs and read them from the first to last page, you will notice growth and improvement in your own skill.

Exercise For You

Your turn. Yay!! Read the following photograph. Take notes, mentally is fine too. Address each of the aspect we talked above. This one should be easy.

Tower of Lime

Can You Read?

After this post, can you read better? Do you spend some time just for looking at photographs of other food photographers? How do you read? Please share with us in the comments below.

Photo Credits: Reading on platform by moriza and tower of limes by Darwin Bell

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  1. Unless it is obvious as in the example above. I always find light source to be the most difficult element to ‘read’. In addition to the mentioned elements I also try to see if I can detect any post processing work.

    • Great comment Wizzy. I agree that sometimes it is hard to read the light source information. I find it hard too, unless it is obvious like the above example. To overcome that I try to find clues like shadows or reflections. Sometimes its hard to find those clues too.

      Post processing work is an important element and hard to guess unless obvious. How do you go about detecting that?

  2. I look for very saturated colours and sharpeness in tiny details… I’m guessing the limes in this post were edited. If I know the person who took the shot, I’ll just ask what editing was done.

  3. the shadows is a great clue for the light source. how about photos without shadows at all?

  4. Good article and info but numerous grammatical errors detract, just like obvious errors in lighting or composing a photo detract.

  5. I just want to mention I am just very new to blogging and definitely loved this web blog. Probably I’m going to bookmark your website . You surely come with remarkable articles and reviews. With thanks for sharing your website page.

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