Looking at images

“I don’t need to be told how to look at an image! I just walk up to it and use my eyes.”

That’s what most of you are probably thinking, right?


There are a few simple things you can do when viewing a photograph – or an image of any sort – to get the most out of it; both from a personal opportunity to learn as a photographer, as well as to ensure you understand exactly what it is the creator of the image intended to convey.

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Reflections. Prague. Leica M9-P, 28/2.8 ASPH

1. Composition
What is the subject? In any good image, this should be obvious. If you can’t tell what it is immediately, either look again (and think about the image – sometimes it’s the image itself, if an abstract composition, for instance) or consider the possibility that it’s just a weak image. Is the composition balanced? Does it feel right? Is there something about the layout of elements in the frame that bothers you – either in a deliberately provocative (i.e. good because it makes you think or suggests something) way, or a bad (it’s distracting) way? How could it have been improved (e.g. were things cut out of the frame due to poor camera placement?). What’s the lighting like? Does it create a strong sense of mood, or emotion? Most importantly: does the picture draw you into the scene and make you feel like you are there just by looking at it?

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Retirement. Patan Durbar Fire Station, Kathmandu, Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

2. Metaphors, allegories and tricks
A good example of this is your stereotypical beggar-against-a-luxury-goods-store contrast. What other compositional and subject-based tools has the photographer used to make you stay that little bit longer to consider the content of the image? Does it make you think? Sometimes the contrasts can be obvious, such as the previous example. Use of reflections or inversions are another example. Inclusion of the photographer in the frame, as a conscious observer. Multiple exposures, allusions to popular culture, folk lore, etc. Chronological progression or development in a single frame. At other times, it can be greater than that and more complicated – a story in a frame.

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Letting sleeping dogs lie. Kathmandu, Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

3. Context
Often, images aren’t strong enough to stand alone. This isn’t a bad thing, because it may not be possible to get a single frame that conveys the entire story for whatever reason. This is where the context of the image becomes important – where is it placed (consider advertising, as an example)? What is the accompanying text? Are there other images that accompany it in sequence that frame it? Most importantly, is the image stronger with the accompanying material, or would it be better on its own?

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Soldiers enforcing martial law. The outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal. Nikon D700, 24/1.4

4. Technical details
To help the photographer tell the story, there are a whole battery of techniques that can be used – extreme perspectives, HDR, long exposures, shallow DOF, etc. How well were they used? A good litmus test is whether you notice the technique first, or the subject and content of the image first: if the image just screams ‘HDR’ because of overlapping tonal zones, then it’s probably not a good photograph. However, if the composition wows you first, and then only you notice it must have been shot with a small sensor camera because of the perspective and extended depth of field, that’s a good thing. Equipment and techniques are tools, not the subject. It’s often difficult to create an image that doesn’t bear the signature of the tool used to create it – for instance, the perspective created by a fisheye lens or anything shot with the Leica 50/1 screams ‘Noctilux!’ because of the swirly bokeh. It’s a personal choice, because the specific property of the tool can be used to create a stronger image (for instance, the fantastically smooth rendition of out-of-focus areas in front of the subject delivered by the Zeiss ZF 85/1.4 Planar) – you just have to be careful not to overdo it.

The hardest part of this process is to apply it as a filter to your own work; that will be the subject of a future article. MT

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Internal complexity. A. Lange & Sohne Datograph, two images. Nikon D700, 60/2.8 AFS macro


  1. I am learning a lot thanks to you Ming! I recently discovered your site and it has become my everyday site 🙂

  2. Ming, its “Patan Durbar” instead of the current “Patthan Durba”.

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