Meaning within an image

May 03, 2021


What meaning do you put into your image for other people to take away? What meaning do you take away from images you look at? Why do some capture you and others that are equally as good pass you by? It is part of the story-building process that we use to convey a message of the time, place and feeling of the moment.


This is the study of semiotics. It is the addition of signs and signals into your images to convey a message about the time, place and area where you were when you took the image. This helps to convey the story of that moment. This is moving away from the technical aspect of shutter speeds and aperture. We are now considering exactly what you put in and leave out of the frame and where you place individual subjects to create a whole.

The positions and emphasis of these items tell the story from your point of view and gives the image meaning.

Each item within the frame has 2 roles. 1) what does it mean? And 2) how does it make you feel. This is the same for both the viewer and the photographer. The photographer has something he wants to say. So, he puts items into the image that says something about the area, time and place he is photographing. These items can be based on a system of conventions about what he is photographing. They can lead the viewer down a determined path.

For example, if we include a tree in one sense this is a tree, it can indicate it is part of a forest or a lone tree.  Alternatively, we can arouse all the feelings about being in a forest, feelings, about what it is like to be in the forest and can bring to mind bird song, wind in the branches, forest streams and the quiet reflective nature of the forest, or the isolation that one can sometimes feel.

What is there and its meaning. What is there and how does it make you feel.

This does not stop with what is in the image but extends to how the image is presented and in what format. We often hear of photographers cropping an image to achieve a balance, but this could also be about telling the story better. Putting the subject into a more pleasing position within the frame. or to cause tension with another lesser subject to heighten and emphasize the main subject. Possibly to remove its overall dominance in the finished image.

The use of colour, contrast and sharpness can all bring different aspects of the image to the fore and change the meaning of the image. Think of the red post box against the green fields the contrast both in colour and luminosity.

I saw a chart, on a website, that explains what is happening. The photographer sees a story that he wants to tell. I couch this in terms of stories because that is what they are. It could equally be messages about the subject.

A Code

So, as the photographer, you code the message based on your particular set of conventions. These can be your values, morals and belief structures all of which would be present. Typically, these would come from your upbringing and form your own set of signs and signals to use within the image. This is presented to the viewer. They look at it with their own belief structure and may, possibly, take the time to decode yours hopefully seeing the story as you meant it.

It, therefore, follows that unless there is a lot of congruence between the structures, or the viewer has taken the time to decode your image, they may take a different meaning from the image. At best misinterpret it, at worse give it an entirely different meaning.


It is possible, but have no concrete evidence, that your favourite images are the ones that fall closest to your own value system. They do not require much “decoding”. I know of an image that I love, I can see it clearly. It would mean nothing to the viewer because I cannot take the image in a way to convey the story. My understanding of why it is nice is poor. I just know it is and to capture the viewer I would have to find out what it is I like and translate it into a form that others could see.

So, what do your images say, about you, about your surroundings and the people you meet. The stories that are put forward or brought out by your imagery.  What set of recognisable conventions do you use to make your images more accessible to your viewer? How do you integrate them into your work?

Most importantly what are you trying to say?

There are several books on Semiotics. Mythologies by Barthes explains this in detail but you can also look at Introducing Semiotics, a graphic guide. Barthes is a little more difficult to read than cartoons.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I have an Instagram feed which you can look at by clicking HERE






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