How I look at a photo

I’m a bit of a photo-geek, prone to over-analyzing things.  One thing I do is to mindfully look at photos, whether they are my photos or someone else’s. This blog post describes how I look at a photo.


When I look at a photo, the first thing I do is to just get a gestalt of the whole photo.  Is it color, b&w, or some other type of monochrome such as sepia?    Is there an obvious point of interest (more on this in a moment)?  What is this photo trying to show?  I believe that every photo should tell at least a small story.  This means that I should know what the story is when I look at the photo.  This does not mean that I think that the photo has to tell all aspects of the story.  It is fine to leave the viewer imagining what happens next, to let the complete part of the story in their mind.  However, what is the purpose of a photo without something to show?  Why waste the viewer’s time?

For example:

Woman in an old industrial building holding a gun, looking around the corner
This picture tells part of a story, but leaves the viewer to fill in many of the details. Is she the hunter or the hunted? How did she end up in this place? This photo features the lovely Corissa Scroggie.

Eye movement

When looking at a photo, I observe how my eye moves as I look at the photo.  Where does it enter the photo?  How does it move within the photo?  Does something in the photo lead my eye out of the frame?  I normally want my photos to lead the viewer’s eye somewhere in the photo, and not lead them out of the photo.  After all, if I lead them out of the photo, they might be done looking at it.  How to lead the viewer’s eye is the subject of another blog entry. However, here is a photo that uses the chevrons in the lava (arrow-like features) to point at the woman coming through the hole. Look at it and see where your eye ends up.

womain crawling through a small hole into the room where the photographer is
This caver is coming through a small hole from a different room. The patterns in the lava and her red shirt draw the eye to her. This image features my friend Deb Ward in a cave on the island of Hawai`i.

Technical Details

After I have been mindful of my viewing to this point, I might look at the technical details.  For example, I look at the focus issues; what is in focus and what is not?  This could be identifying the depth-of-field.  It could be looking at sharp and soft focus areas.  It could be looking at motion blur.  All of these can be used for artistic purposes, or they could be technical mistakes.  For my photos, if these are mistakes, the photo goes away.  There is no reason to show anybody any of my photos with mistakes in them unless I am teaching a class and what to show what can go wrong.

Another technical issue I look at is lighting.  I identify the light source(s) by looking at shadows and mentally calculating where the light needs to be to produce that shadow.  I also look at the character of the light: how hard or soft are each of the sources?  Does one light source have a different color from the others?  Details of each of these points will also appear in upcoming blog entries.

Why be mindful when you look at a photo?

For a photo I really like, looking at it can take me several minutes at least.  However, being aware of how I look at a photo also means that when I plan a photo to take, I take all of these factors into account.  I feel that this means my photos are more interesting. If you are not already looking at photos in a mindful way, try it and see how your photography changes.