What word are you trying to convey with your image? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What word are you trying to convey with your image?

by David Peterson 7 comments

Every good image should have a theme of some kind. It should hone in on one particular subject, and it should make a statement about that subject in a meaningful way. Sadly, most amateur photography remains unfocused, too busy, and it often skips from one subject to the next. When an image lacks a focus, it falls flat on your eyes and has no emotional impact. Do you feel like your photography lacks a central theme? Here’s what I do when need to focus.

I think of one word. That’s it, one word. If my image doesn’t make me think of that word, I haven’t done my job right. I keep thinking of ways to capture the same image so it reminds me of that word. I might even abandon my current subject and switch to another until I capture the theme I want.

Think of words that stand for emotions or concepts

O.K. Maybe it isn’t as simple as that. Some words should never be used to describe a photo. “Chair” is one of them. There are a lot of photos of chairs, but there’s nothing impressive about an image that reminds you of one. The only words that really count are words that convey emotions or concepts. What feeling does your image bring out? What’s the word for that feeling? Does your image make a bigger point? What’s the word for it?

I can’t even begin to list all of the words you could think of, but I’ll try...

Amazement, belittlement, craziness, destruction, elegance, fright, growth, hilarity, insecurity, joy, kinship, laziness, morality, newness, opulence, popularity, quizzicality, righteousness, sorrow, terrifying, uniqueness, virtuosity, worldliness, xenophobia, yummy, zippy

That’s a word starting with every letter in the alphabet, and there’s plenty more where those came from. As an exercise, why not try to make one image that captures each of these? You don’t have to use my words. Come up with your own, one for each letter of the alphabet.

Look at the work of professionals and record the first word that comes to your head

I like to call this the process reverse engineering a photograph. Professionals know how to make an impact. They might not be consciously thinking of a word, but each image they present in their portfolio absolutely must convey an emotion or concept. Can you think of the one word for each of these images?

An image of Michael Jordan taken by Walter Iooss

This image reminds me of the word “superhuman.” Michael Jordan is perfectly composed, jumping higher in the air than I’ve ever seen anyone jump. He looks like he’s enjoying a moment that would scare the living daylights out of most mortal men.

Ansel Adams, Golden Gate Headlands 1950

The word “ominousness” comes to my mind when I look at this classic image. The clouds are building up over the hill, and it looks like something big is about to happen. The waves on the water and the blurry trees also suggest that it’s windy, adding more to the sense of danger.

How can you take images that bring a single word to mind?

Isolate your subject and make it the focus of your image. Notice how both of these images do that. Nobody else is trying to steal the stage from Michael Jordan. He takes precedence. Everyone is still there, but they’re so tiny that they only play a supporting role.

The same is true in the Golden Gate Headlands image. Our attention is drawn to the single billowing cloud in the horizon. Everything points to it, and there are no other clouds taking our focus away from it. This image was framed to make the cloud stand out from everything else, and that’s what makes us think of a single word.

I am not saying you can’t have more than one subject in an image if you want it to convey a single word. In that case, your image needs to be about the interplay and dynamic created between those two subjects. “Envy” is the classic example. That word comes to mind when you see the image to the right.

Create A Singular Focus

There’s another way to give your images a singular focus. When you’re working with people and taking portraits, tell your subject how you want him or her to feel. Say things like, “I want you to act like you’ve just opened a Christmas gift you love.” Be specific, and you’ll get some very specific emotions in return.

When you think of a single word, your images will always be focused, and they’ll always convey a meaning that makes a real impact. So get out there, think of some words, and get started. I can’t wait to see what you come up with.

Most people think this post is Awesome. What do you think?


  1. Ann says:

    Of course giving your subject some feeling to portray must make a huge difference, thanks for all your wonderful tips so encouraging.

  2. Jaco Olivier says:

    Hi David
    Your articles are very informative and i have learnt such a lot from you everybody think i am a pro but they don't know that i have you to thank for this. Where can i share some photos with you.

  3. Sasha says:

    OMG! This article has really opened my eyes! After reading this I feel like I had been blind about the ways that I can convey my images. Thank you so much David for posting this article. This has helped me to make my pictures even better and I am going to go out and practice my new skill!
    Thanks again David!

  4. GEORGE MUNGAI says:

    Hi Dave'

    We appreciate your educative highlights.

    Thanks a heap David.

  5. Ferdinand R. Bagadiong says:

    Hi.. David,

    Thanks for all your posted tips.. its help me a lot..

    its great that you shared your expertise to us..

  6. vicente machado says:

    Hi David,
    Definitely, you are getting better each day.

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About David Peterson
David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.