Introduction: How to Analyze a Photograph

As technology continues to blur over the line distinguishing reality from representation, the power of photography has grown immensely. Therefore, being able to understand what it is that makes photographs so persuasive, and how they are able to spark certain emotions is equally as powerful a tool!

This intractable will be a guide in helping to break down the elements of a photograph, and in understanding why it has such powerful affordances.


Any photograph (some ideologically lucrative examples include: advertisements, symbolic images, photographs used in the media/journalism, and artistic images).

I have chosen to analyze this photograph I found on a website called Unsplash, taken by Austin Distel.

Step 1: Understanding Your Photo

Once you have chosen an image to analyze, the first level of analysis will take place on a denotative level.

Often times when we see an image we are quick to judge it as a whole. By doing this, the images powerful affective forces are able to convince us of certain messages being constructed by the photographer/ illustrator.

In this stage, we want to understand what it is our image has captured, on the most superficial level.

By breaking down the image into individual elements, such as looking at:

  • the setting
  • the objects
  • the people/ animals/ and or groups depicted

we are better able to understand how each element operates at a connotative (ideological) level!

Step 2: Analyzing the Setting

I for one, have never seen the Eiffel Tower. However, I have seen pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Therefore, I have only ever seen other peoples representations of the attraction.

Despite my lack of first-hand experience, I have no reason not to believe that it isn't every bit as 'romantic' as it is said to be.

However, photographs may not always capture this 'romantic' essence. And in contrast, other photographs may employ objects within the setting (things such as roses, candles, or chocolate) in order to emphasize the romance in the air!

How the setting of an image is able to connote certain meanings is based on the affordances associated with the setting itself. Namely, the setting of a forest affords for far different activities than the setting of a kitchen or library.

In the photo I have chosen to analyze, the setting appears to be inside a coffee shop.

on a denotative level, this is a business that sells a variety of drinks, baked goods, and sometimes sandwiches, or other light meals. It is a place people often come to do independent work, or meet with a friend/coworker.

The setting in this photograph depicts:

  • an espresso machine------ not a (cheap) drip coffee machine.
  • a menu board------ not a hand-held menu/ self-serve system
  • a milk and sugar stand----- customizable, do it yourself
  • a mug----- not a to-go cup
  • a lamp that has four lightbulbs----aesthetically pleasing, not harsh florescent lighting

From this photo, we can tell that this setting affords Wi-Fi. Suggesting that guests are more than welcome to stay and surf the internet or complete their work. Additionally, this space connotes a sense of timelessness and patience through affordances such as the milk and sugar stand, allowing each guest to take their time perfecting their coffee the way they like it, or the mug that suggests "you're at home here". Additionally, the lamp in this coffee shop is a more modern looking design, suggesting youth and playfulness in design.

Step 3: Analyzing Objects

Next, analyzing the different objects being employed, can help us to better understand the ways in which objects tend to operate as "cannons of use". Since all semiotic materials have certain social meanings built into them, the objects in a photograph can be used to help the viewer connect with the image by relating the objects to certain ideas and values present within a particular time and place.

Additionally, the objects in an image can give the viewer an idea of what the image might sound or smell like, had we been there.

The objects in the focus of this image are:

  • A laptop---- not a desktop or a textbook
  • headphones---- around their neck, not on their head
  • a smartphone---- not a flip cell phone/ land-line
  • a closed book on the table-----possibly distracted?

In this photo, the objects being employed are mostly personal devices (laptops, smartphone, headphones). However, not only are these devices some of the only objects in focus in this image, telling us that they are of significance, but they are also placed in a way so that the viewer also feels immersed in the technology (See step 6: Analyzing Angles). Lastly, we can also see that the actors laptop is positioned so that the apple logo is visible, and relatively in line with the gaze. When we look at this image, our eyes tend to look towards what the actor is looking at. In this case, the smartphone being held directly near the Apple logo.

Connotatively, this logo represents far more than what it seems. Namely, the culture associated with Apple and Steve Jobs suggests messages of innovation, productivity, and quality.

Step 4: Analyzing People

Analyzing who is being depicted in an image is important in order to establish a relationship and contextualize yourself accordingly.

In this level of analysis, we can ask questions such as:

  • Are they taking up a lot of space?
    • This can tell us whether or not the person is meant to be the focus of the image.
  • Are they in an open or closed position?
    • Are they welcoming you into that particular moment in time, or are you just an observer?
  • What expression is on their face, and is there an obvious reason for it?
    • the mood of the picture
  • Is it an individual or a group?
    • is it a specific person, or a generic representation?
    • who is missing or being left out?

In this image, the individual being depicted is not taking up very much space in the image and seems to be sitting across from my position at the table. Despite the fact that their gaze is on their phone in their hand, and not looking at me, the overall demeanor in terms of their relaxed, layered clothing, good posture, and confident smile all allow for me to feel welcomed into the moment. Additionally, the individual is not a stereotype, and therefore remains humanized through this image.

Step 5: Analyzing Colour

The colours used within an image are particularly important in establishing the overall mood of the photograph. That is, the semiotics of colour have been long established through connections to food, sexuality, and regulatory distinction. For example, the colour red when driving, means stop. Although, on valentines day it's the colour of love! Meanwhile, wearing a red poppy on remembrance day is a symbol of remembrance and hope.

Therefore, when analyzing an image, making note of the colour scheme thats being used, and any signs of colour rhyming throughout the photo will help to better understand the construction of an emotion within the image.

Some colour dimensions to consider include:

  • Hue- range from the warm to cool
  • Brightness- truth as opposed to darkness
  • Saturation- vibrance as opposed to faded and subtle

In this photo, I have used an eyedropper tool to collect some colours all found within the image. By placing them together this way, I am able to better see the range from lights to darks, and what types of warm/cool colours have been used in contrast to one another. By using these warm pink-brown tones, and contrasting them with the cool, yet rich blue tones, it creates a very natural sense. Not only do these colours connote a sense of naturalness, but they are also opposite on the colour wheel from one another, making them complimentary colours.

In addition, the majority of the colour in this image are relatively muted, while the lights reflect off the menu board in the background. By creating this sense of whimsicality, the calmness and relaxed nature of the photo is maintained.

Step 6: Analyzing Angles

Often a relationship between the subject(s) in the image and the viewer can be determined by considering the position in which the viewer is situated in relation to the subject(s).

By considering both the angle from which we are looking at the subject (horizontal, vertical, or oblique), and the distance from which we are positioned, the perspective from which we interpret the image can be altered.

In this image, the viewer seems to be sitting only a short distance away, likely only across the table. And since they are directly at eye level, the subject is made to seem equal to the viewer. The subject is positioned with the side of their face turned away from the me. However, by doing this, my focus is drawn into the bottom right corner, where the subject is also looking. By creating this horizontal angle, our gazes are aligned, not with one another, but with the cellphone. I think this was strategically done in order to make the viewer feel as though they too are in this cafe. Something else I noticed was the laptop screen in the bottom left corner. This screen is almost positioned as though it could be the viewers laptop screen, again, welcoming in the viewer. Lastly, because the coffee cup is at the very bottom edge of the photo, it allows for the possibility of it actually belonging to the viewer, as if you could just reach out and grab it!