Artful Vocabulary: Describing Photographs & Portraits Poetically


Words and images are two different systems of describing the world. Words refer to the world in the abstract, and images represent the world, or reproduce its appearance. But do all works of art represent things in the real world? This is why the visual arts have their own vocabulary that we can use in order to describe them. The first step in visual analysis is description. Describing an image is a useful technique for looking closely at an image and absorbing its details.

Balance

The distribution of visual elements in a photograph creating a feeling of weight or stability in the work. Symmetrical balance distributes visual elements evenly in an image. Asymmetrical balance is found when visual elements are not evenly distributed in an image.

Background

The part of a scene or picture that is or seems to be farthest towards the back and from the viewer.

Composition

The arrangement or structure of the formal elements that make up the image or work of art.

Content

The meaning of an image, beyond its overt subject matter.

Contour The outline of an object or shape.

Contrast

Strong visual differences between light and dark, varying

textures, sizes, juxtapositions, etc.

Daguerrotype

One of the earliest forms of photography, invented by Louis Jacques Daguerre in 1839, made on a copper plate polished with silver.

Documentary Photography

Photographs whose main purpose is to record a place, person(s) or event.

Exposure

The amount of time that light-sensitive material is exposed to light.

Figure of Speech

A word or phrase used in a non-literal sense to add rhetorical force to a spoken or written passage.

Focus

The area which appears clearest or sharpest in the image; also the area of interest or activity.

Framing

What the photographer has placed within the boundaries of the photograph.

Intention

Reason(s) why the artist made a work of art the way they did or

their purpose(s) for making it.

Light

Illuminated areas of the photograph that are highlighted,

creating shadows, may be harsh or soft, direct or reflected.

Metaphor

A phrase or figure of speech that uses an image, story, or

tangible thing to represent an intangible quality or idea. A

metaphor makes a direct comparison that is symbolic of

something else.

Photography

A method of recording the image of an event, person, place, or

thing by the action of light on a light-sensitive material. The

photographer chooses the subject, vantage point, framing,

moment of exposure, and lighting and makes the photograph

for documentary or artistic reasons.

Poetry

Writing that expresses various feelings and ideas by use of

distinctive style and rhythm through description, metaphors,

similes, synecdoche, and figures of speech. Poems make use of

imagery and word association to quickly convey emotions.

Portrait

A work of art that represents a person, a group of people, or an

animal. Portraits usually show what a person looks like as well

as revealing something about the subject's personality.

Simile

A figure of speech involving the indirect comparison of one

thing with another thing, usually employing the words “like”,

“as”, or “than” and used to make a description more vivid or

empathetic.

Shape

An enclosed two-dimensional space defined by a boundary,

such as line, colour, value, and texture.

Space

Refers to the distance or area between, around, above, below,

or within things. It can be described as two-dimensional or

three-dimensional; as flat, shallow, or deep; as open or closed;

as positive or negative; and as actual, ambiguous, or illusory.

Symbol

An object, place, or person used to represent something else.

Synecdoche

A figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the

whole, or vice versa.

Texture

The feel or appearance of the surface of the photograph; its

smoothness, roughness, softness, etc.

Theme

A unifying or dominant idea in one or many works of art.

Value The degree of lightness or darkness of a surface, referring to

luminosity.

Vantage point

The place from which a photographer takes a photograph.

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