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Home > How to read and improve your Images


An image is always about something, or so believes American art critic Terry Barrett. To arrive at that something, Barrett came up with a formula. We think this formula can help you as a photographer and as a critic:


Let’s break down the formula, so as to find the best way to arrive at the ‘content’. First and foremost, it’s about looking through the clues left by the photographer:

Subject Matter: Look at the image from the middle, out to all the edges. Who or what can we see – who are the subjects? How many subjects are there and how do they relate to each other? Why did the photographer choose a particular stance or position for a subject? Is anything left out of the image? Does the shadow in the ground represent an object or person out of shot, for example? Who might that object or person be?

Form: How is the image composed? How does the photographer want you to move around the image? How are the subjects placed? What aperture, shutter speed and ISO – exposure triangle – did the photographer use? Are there leading lines, drawing in the viewer’s eye? Is everything in focus, or just one element? Consider what happened before and after the image was taken.

Medium: What camera did the photographer use? What lens? Was it a specific lens, a macro or a fisheye? Why was this lens chosen? Was it shot on film, digital? With a phone? How much post-production was used? Is it a series of images, or a single image? Is the image converted to black and white or is it colour?

Context: Who is telling the story and in what context? Is the photographer influenced by the times? By social or cultural beliefs? (This is very important for photojournalism.) Consider how your own culture or intent may influence your reading of an image, as the photographer or the critic. Do we have the same cultural background as the photographer? Otherwise we may misinterpret the image. We all read images based on our own stories.

These four elements lead to CONTENT:

The content, the emotional response of Subject Matter + Form + Medium+ Context.Different photographers have different beliefs about what a photograph is and what it does. Edward Weston believed an object is photographed for what it is: “The camera should be used for a recording of life, for rendering the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.”

Whereas another renowned early American photographer, Alfred Stieglitz, believed that to photograph an object is to provoke an emotional reaction.

Now see how can you use the formula SUBJECT MATTER + FORM + MEDIUM + CONTEXT = CONTENT to improve your images!

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