Introduction: Analyzing a Photograph

Photographs are easily found in today's society, as they appear throughout your social media platforms, news articles, among many other forms. While photography is a moment that has been captured at a specific time, it also includes potential meanings that can be deciphered from a thorough analysis of semiotic materials within the photograph. For this instructable, I will demonstrate how to conduct a step-by-step analysis of a photograph.


A photograph

Step 1: Select an Image to Analyze

Select a photo of your choosing to conduct your analysis with. When selecting a photo look for a higher quality commercial photo, if you are still new to analyzing photographs selecting a photo that is in a designed space that you are familiar with can make it easier to understand the potential meanings of semiotic materials within the photograph. For my instructable, I have selected a photo from Getty Images, which is a well-known sports media/photography company.

Step 2: Describe Your Initial Thoughts

Take a glance at your photograph and jot down keywords that you would use to describe the literal meaning of the photograph. Try to use descriptive words that would quickly summarize your initial reaction to the photograph. This is also known as denotation.

If you're having trouble thinking of words, look at the tags of the photo as they can help find words to describe your photo. For my selected photo, some key terms I thought of initially were "teaching", "learning", "sporting event" and "post-game".

Step 3: Analyze the Setting

The setting of a photograph can help analyze the social construction of the photograph. Different elements, such as the location, time of day (if outdoors), can demonstrate potential meanings of the photograph. Be sure to look for more than just location and time of day when analyzing setting because that can limit the amount of interpretation. Other things to look for when analyzing setting include lighting, surrounding environment of the main subject(s), where the subject is located within the photo.

In this particular image, the setting shows that the game is being played on a large stage because it is at least a double-decker arena. Although, it looks like the ending of the game due to the lack of people in the arena and those in the background are walking toward the exits. The light in the arena is strictly shining on the court which indicates the court is where the show/game is played and connotes that the people that are focused on in the picture are members of the teams, along with the jerseys.

Step 4: Analyze the People

Analyzing people in a photograph helps depict potential meanings, as it gives further context to the photograph. Some questions to ask yourself when analyzing people are:

- Pose:

o Is their body open or closed?

o An open body can demonstrate a welcoming person

o Are they moving towards the viewer or away?

o Do they look comfortable or uncomfortable?

- Individuation or Collectivization:

o Are the people being shown as individuals?

o Are the people being shown as a collective of people?

- Categorization:

o Can the people be categorized by physical or cultural stereotypes?

In the image I have selected, the two individuals in the jerseys take up the most space which can connote that they are the focus of the image. Since they are wearing NBA team jerseys and appear to be much taller than the cameraman, it can depict that they are NBA players. Although they are members of a collective (their NBA teams), they are still being shown as individuals in this photograph. By looking at the man in the black jersey's receding hairline and balding, it can mean that he is an older player/man. The man in the yellow jersey has his shoulders rested back and a calmness to his posture which connotes he is comfortable and attentive in this photograph.

Step 5: Analyzing Colour

Colour within an image is important to analyze the mood of the photograph due to the semiotics of colour. Colours can be generally associated with parts of our everyday lives. An example is green meaning go, but also representing money. For these reasons, understanding the use of colour and colour scheme of a photo is important for a complete analysis of a photo. Ensure that you describe the meanings of the colour scheme as a whole opposed to the meaning of individual colours in the photo.

Some ways to define the uses of colour in photographs are:

- Hue

  • The range of cooler to warmer colours

- Brightness

  • The range of light compared to the dark

- Differentiation

  • Is there a full range of colours or monochrome?

- Modulation

  • Have the colours been adjusted from their base colours?

The colour scheme of the image above is a split complementary colour scheme, which shows that there is a differentiation of colours opposed to a monochromatic colour scheme. Seeing as this is a sporting event having a split complementary colour scheme showcases the different teams that each player is on. In sports, opposing teams need to have colours on opposite areas of the colour wheel to assist with differentiating the players on each team. There is a range of warm and cool colours within the photo as well.

Step 6: Actions and Indexical Links

We can only get a sense of what is occurring in a photograph because it is simply a selected moment that has been captured. But by depicting the actions (usually the pose or facial expression) of a person in a photograph we can depict the indexical links of the photograph. There are four action processes that are indexed in photographs: Emotional, Mental, Material, Verbal.
Things to look for in photographs for these processes:

- Material

  • Is there an action being done in the material world?
  • Example: Teammates giving each other a high five?

- Emotional

  • Does the pose or facial expression depict a certain emotion?
  • Example: A person laughing

- Verbal

  • Does a person look to be talking or yelling?

- Mental

  • Does a person look to be pondering, thinking, listening and/or sensing?

The image above depicts verbal and mental processes as the player in the black jersey seems to be informing the player in the yellow jersey something of importance. By covering his mouth it demonstrates that the player in black does not want people to read his lips, hence the possibility of him telling an important message. This is the verbal process indexical link. The player in yellow is looking with direct eye contact and attentively listening to the player in the black jersey, which depicts the mental process.