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Visual vocabularies and formal analysis work to enhance the appreciation of photography art. It helps in the development of the necessary skills needed to make careful visual analysis of any piece of work. While almost everyone would identify and discuss the contents of a photograph, what is seen, most call for advanced training. Formal analysis though is not so complicated as it sounds. It focuses on the formal qualities of an artwork or those basic visual elements giving it form. Several elements have been discussed below.

The composition is the basic order or arrangement of visual elements while the context describes the meaning of taking the photograph under analysis. However, it is essential to consider what the artist mentions on his/her intentions for taking a particular photograph’s subject. Finally, consideration must also be given to the historical and the social context.

General Vocabulary Used in Photography

Some of the photos used below are borrowed from a museum of photographic art in San Diego. The photos are the works of the photographer Jack Leigh. The following are the general vocabularies used in photography and related works of art.


The image should put emphasis on all the formal elements (shape, line, focus, light, repetition, space, texture and the value) rather than specified or recognizable object(s).


The context should expound on the basic subject, information or a topic captured by the photograph. It shows the main idea the photographer wanted to convey.

Direct approach 

This is the straightforward approach to a scene while avoiding using a usual angles or distortion.

Documentary photography 

The main purpose of such photographs is to keep a record of an event, people and/or places.


The question of whether your photograph communicates the intended information applies here.

Geometric shape 

Are the curvilinear or the absolute rectilinear shapes in geometry, such as rectangles, squares, circles, triangles and many more depicted?


The reason given by the artist for a piece of work should also be portrayed in his work.


The natural environment for the art base should be clearly portrayed in the image.


The point of view of the photographer should be free from bias which may attempt to consider all the available information with fairness and equal regard. One should not lean on an idea leaving out others that may also be valuable.

Organic shape 

These are the shapes of the natural objects such as leaves, mountains, plains, trees.


The image captured, does it have recognizable objects? If yes, do they mean anything in particular?


The subject talks of the person(s) or object focused on by the photographer.


In a collection of several pieces of work, the theme is the dominant and most conspicuous idea.

Visual Elements

Focus identifies the areas appearing the clearest or the sharpest in an image. Where is the lighting leading to? Are there any shadows? Is it possible to guess the time of the day? Is the light natural? And other light-related questions can be applied here. Do they create direction? How are the lines? Repetition asks if any objects seem to be repeating themselves creating patterns. The shape in the image could be either organic or geometric. What are they? The question on space asks about the depth of the photograph, spatial illusion(s) and what creates these appearances. The texture is the surfacing of the photograph, how it would feel if touched in comparison with the way they look in the photograph. The range from dark to light tones gives the value of the image. The composition of any photograph includes the angle, background, balance, central focus, order, contour, contrast, framing, setting, and the vantage point.

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