31 Mar 2022


Characteristics of Photographs

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Photos are a definitive element of art. Pictures take capture moments that can never be recreated. In effect, photos are a perfect storage of ‘still’ memory. Unlike the other classes of virtual memory, photos are not selective and record everything within range. Since the invention of the camera, people have been taking photos primarily to store past memories for future reference. To most people, photographs are just another element of visual graphic display (White, 2011). However, to an artist, a picture represents many elements of art and graphic finesse. Whether as two-dimensional or three-dimensional display, photos exhibit unique characteristics that are not found in any other piece of art. Often confused with drawings and animated pictures, photos are nonetheless distinct in their manifestations and perception. Photographs exhibit various ranges of meanings, some of which can be deciphered instantly and without further thought, while others must be well thought out and understood within the context in which they are created.

Distinction between Photography and other Representation

To a large extent, all forms of representation intend to capture a moment and present it to an audience. Photography prides in capturing the information within range and presenting it in an unbiased and unadulterated form. Events or images cast on photographic paper are as they were, except for the usual diminished or enlarged ratio (Ian, Jan, & Lucas, 1995). Even on enlargement, the photograph remains proportional as the objects within the canvas are subjected to a similar ratio. On the other hand, other forms of representations such as drawings are subjective and the level of finesse achieved is dependent on the skill of the artist. In most cases, the ratio is not constant and some objects may look bigger than they really are or smaller than they actually are. 

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In addition, photographs retain their natural hue, contrast, and color. In contrast, the other forms of representations such as drawings do not possess a distinct color, hue, or contrast. Whatever visual appeal they contain, it was assigned to them by the artist, who had sole discretion on how to portray them. Photographs are capable of transformation without losing their natural design (Michael, 2006). On the other hand, the other forms of drawing cannot be transformed without completely altering their design. Hand drawings are not capable of transformation or replication. Only a single copy of a drawing can be made. A number of other imitations may be made but they would not be as near similar as the initial image.

Basic Characteristics of Photographs

Photographs are inseparable from the object they represent. Instead of giving a rough impression of an object, they actually depict the object in the realest of terms (Ian, Jan, & Lucas, 1995). Often, it is said that a photograph represents an object, instead of merely showing it. In the absence of the real object, a photograph can stand in its place. What a photo image represents is actually what it is. In addition, a photo is taken in real time. If an image is not captured at the time it is conceived, the moment can never be recreated. Unlike drawings which can take several days to create, photographs can only be captured on impulse to represent the exact time in history they are depicting. For example, a bird flying at 2 pm on 10th May, 2016 can only be caught on camera at that time. After the lapse of time, what is left is only the imagination. Lastly, photos are real and devoid of any artistic manipulations (White, 2011). On the other hand, drawings are mostly imaginations. In rare instances where the artist has to recreate a real event, the image made is usually exaggerated or inconclusive. One emphasizes only on the central focus and ignores objects in the immediate foreground and background. However, a photograph captures all items within range.

Discontinuous Elements in a Photograph

Apart from the obvious differences that distinguish photographs from other forms of representation, there are discontinuous elements in photography that further sets apart the two forms. The most common discontinuous elements are stadium and punctum. These characteristics identify and give meaning to photos, but they also set them apart.


This refers to the range of meanings available and clear to everyone. Such a meaning is said to be unary and coded. A coded description means that the pictorial space is arranged in an understandable way. Unary on the other hand implies that the meaning of the picture can be easily understood at first glance. 

By looking at a picture, one can instantly tell the message it embodies. A photograph as captured depicts the images in focus and the area around them. There is no genius, magic, or illusion in a photograph. If on a casual glance, one sees trees, they are simply trees. There cannot be any hidden meaning about that. The nature or extent of a given description in the photo matches the real surroundings. An image captured at night will show shadows or silhouettes. If there is insufficient light in the background or the foreground, the picture taken will be equally blurred (White, 2011). The quality of unary is the major distinguishing element in photography. Other forms of representation will tinker around with the images or drawings and pick out those considered important. Usually, drawings do not focus on the background of the main object of the picture. A photo on the other hand does not discriminate. Even if the photographer focused on a single object, the nearby items will be shown if the fall within the range of the lens.

Interpretation is a key element in understanding the work of art. Often, drawings are made with a symbol in mind. It is rare that an artist creates an image which is direct and easily comprehensible. One must look at the image and review it in terms of the surrounding objects, the nature of colors used, and the connection with the other objects within the canvas. Most iconic drawings or paintings in history usually have a hidden meaning. To a casual observer, the Mona Lisa Portrait hanging in a museum looks like a typical lady with a periwinkle or a twisted half-smile on her face. In reality, the painting has other deep-seethed meanings only literary icons and historians can decipher.

Coded description refers to the manner in which the pictorial space is arranged (Michael, 2006). In a typical picture, the items within the canvas are arranged to fit within the lens. The desire to capture everything within the lens range, or rather forcing it to fit within the range may cause the photographer to capture the scene in a particular way. Expansive areas are often represented in a diminished form to allow the cameraman to ‘squeeze’ all objects into the frame. 

I agree with Barthes’ analysis of the characteristics of a photograph and what sets it apart from the other elements of representation. On the issue of unary, I support the view that a picture’s message can be easily understood from first glance. Indeed, by simply looking at a photograph, one can tell what the objects in it are or how the people are behaving. Although it may be a little difficult to be sure about the moods of the people in the picture, it nonetheless is easy to judge from their reactions and body language (Ian, Jan, & Lucas, 1995). With the exception of images far behind the lens, the rest of the objects within the frame can be easily told apart. 

However, I do not agree with Barthes’ characterization of a photo as coded. While it is true that at times the objects in the photo are caused to arrange or are organized by default, most photos taken of nature and people do not conform to these principles. At times, one can have a random agglomeration of objects on the frame, some even falling outside the range of lens. The description of a photograph as coded is both true and erroneous. 


The punctum is the deeper meaning a viewer deciphers from a picture due to its quality. Despite the generality to the foregoing, pictures nonetheless possess deeper meanings. However, the deeper meaning is the subject of an emotional or psychological construct. At times and depending on setting of the picture, a varied interpretation could be made from the picture. For instance, a picture showing an old man and his children may look like a typically family photo. However, if one applied a figurative interpretation to it, the picture may well represent stages of life, or the irony of life itself. The stages are clear in the manner in which one starts as a toddler, grows into an adolescent, and later an adult. Irony could be in the sense that life, time, and chance changes fortunes and circumstances. In the times past, the old man, then a youngster or middle aged person, took care of his children who were unable to fend for themselves. Later, as old age set in, the old man became feeble and could no longer work. Nowadays, he relies on the goodwill of his children to get the next meal. Without good quality, one may be bored with the picture and opt to walk away without analyzing it further. While such a photograph may look like a typical family photo on the one hand, it is a pointer to the ability of time and circumstances to change the positions of things.

Punctum is an inferior characteristic of a photo. Its manifestation is subject to a figurative interpretation of the photo. Being mostly symbolic, the aspect may elicit different reactions or interpretations. It requires a critical mind to think beyond the mere graphic representation. For instance, it is not apparent to all that people dressed in black and in a somber mood are probably bereaved. In the absence of a casket or the background of a cemetery, such a picture may be interpreted as a film crew staging a scene for a movie. In certain areas, black is the color of choice for waiters and waitresses. However, the nature of a photograph and the fact that it incorporates a background may give a hint as to the nature of occasion in which it was taken or the season. 

I agree with Barthes that a picture has puctum. It does not end at one merely looking at the picture and marveling at the objects in it. In most cases, the picture registers in one’s mind and through a simulated thought process, one can interpret the image in different ways (Ian, Jan, & Lucas, 1995). However, puctum is limited in scope. Firstly, it is not apparent to everyone that there is a hidden meaning in every photo. A casual observer will simply look at the photo and walk away. It requires a critical mind to full unravel the message in the photo, especially where no background or foreground details are provided.


Pictures capture memories. It is common for people to make graphic impressions of various situations and store such copies for future reference. Photographs stand out among all the representations in their ability to capture details accurately and without bias. In addition, pictures are easy to understand. Usually, the meaning is plain and could be determined from a first glance. However, pictures too are subject to a figurative interpretation. At times, the prevailing mood and the nature of the occasion may be lost in the picture if the cameraman emphasizes on taking close-ups. These attributes define a picture and distinguish it from other forms of graphic representation. Barthes describes these core attributes as the discontinuous elements of photography. Some of the authors’ views are agreeable, for example that a photo is unbiased in its representation of images. I also agree that some pictures are subject to a figurative interpretation to get the whole meaning. Barthes effectively uses these terms to describe the characteristic of a picture.


Ian, T., Jan, J., Lucas, J. (1995). Fundamentals of image processing. Netherlands: Delft 

University of Technology.

Michael, R. (2006). Art beyond the West (2ed).New Jersey: Pearson Education.

White, A. (2011). The elements of graphic design. New York: Allworth Press.

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