A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the direct incorporation of words within the frame itself can powerfully alter, influence, or enhance the viewer’s experience. Generally speaking, highly recognizable or otherwise familiar elements in an image carry the most visual weight for a viewer. For that reason, two of the most visually compelling elements you can include within a photograph are the human form (especially the face) and human language. Words in the viewer’s native tongue have the greatest visual weight, as they are most familiar, but there is something powerful even about text in a foreign language, as we tend to be drawn to the human element even if we can’t decipher the language. Similarly, some might argue that symbols are as much a part of our language as alphanumeric characters, and as a proxy for words, they can draw the eye just as forcefully. Observe the world around you. Where do you identify numbers, letters, symbols, and words? Write them down — make a list of all of the text you can find. It may appear digitally or in print. It may appear on product packaging, paperwork, clothing, brand labels, or books. Much of the time, such text within the frame distracts, and we as photographers may endeavor to exclude or minimize elements such as brand labels, signage, or graphic tees to avoid competition with our intended subjects. How can you incorporate words in ways that are effective? Examine the list of text you’ve jotted down. Do any of the words or numbers strike you as interesting or meaningful? Consider how one or more of your words might be applied in one of the following ways:
*image by Nicole Rainey
1. To Provide Context as to Setting
Text can help to provide the viewer with a sense of time and place. Textual location cues might be as specific as address or street signs or as general as language indicating country or region. Location cues may also indicate building names or types of locations – library, arcade, motel, church, fire station. Chronological cues could indicate time of day or year (such as a clock or calendar), or they might – perhaps most commonly – indicate era via branding (including typography, evolving logos, etc). Indeed, the very textual elements that we avoid in pursuit of “timeless” images can be incorporated to strengthen the documentary value of an image and deliberately date a photo. Think about whether the inclusion of such text distracts and confuses, or whether it helps to ground your setting.
2. To Tell Us Something about a Subject
You might use text to convey something about the subject. We see this often in lifestyle and portrait photography — it’s the baby name on the wall of a nursery, the “rockstar” designation on a little boy’s graphic tee, the pregnant woman next to the “bump ahead” sign, or shelves of books that give us insight into a woman standing in her office for an environmental portrait. Similarly, incorporating handwriting can tell us something about the subject not only in the written words but in the maturity or personality in the penmanship.
3. To Give Narrative Cues
Text within an image might also provide narrative cues or help advance the story within the frame. Think about how filmmakers may incorporate text in movies. Famous examples, of course, include “REDRUM” (The Shining), the “No Trespassing” sign at the opening of Citizen Kane, notes tattooed on the protagonist in Memento, Ilsa’s goodbye letter in Casablanca, or the ominous neon “Vacancy” sign in Bates Motel. In every day photography, the text alone might tell the whole story — a child’s mischievous writing on the wall, waves washing away writing in the sand, a homework assignment, an apology or love letter, writing in a steamed up bathroom mirror, a teacher’s writing on a chalkboard or white board, etc.
4. To Express a Thematic Message
A photographer might use words to convey a message of her own. Words might be used ironically — an expression of humor or conflict. Words might be used more directly as well, helping to connote a theme. How might you incorporate words such as “Welcome,” “Hot,” “Happy,” “Closed,” “Slow,” “New,” or “Quiet” within the frame? How might they be used to reinforce action or story? How might they be used ironically? Common notice or warning signs — “Wrong Way,” “Stop,” “Do Not Enter,” “Condemned,” “One Way,” “Caution,” “Exit,” “Dead End,” etc — are also a great way to express thematic or narrative messages.
What’s the best way to improve your photography? Shoot thoughtfully and frequently! Try new things and embrace creative and technical challenges. Every month, Sarah Wilkerson posts a new tutorial and challenges our members to join in a new Creativity Exercise on the Clickin Moms photography forum. At the conclusion of the exercise, we select Editors’ Choice images from among the exercise submissions and share them here with you on the blog. Congratulations to the ladies whose photographs included in the exercise above were selected as this month’s Editors’ Choices, and thank you to everyone who participated in the exercise!
And be sure to participate in the next exercise! Visit the forum where Sarah has posted the next challenge. We’d love to see your work!
Sarah Wilkerson, New York
CEO | CMU Instructor
website | facebook | twitter | pinterest | instagram
Duke graduate and former attorney Sarah Wilkerson joined Clickin Moms as a member photographer in 2008 and quickly became a leader in the community. Together with Kendra, Sarah has led the evolution of the company’s mission, program development, and position within the greater photography community. She currently resides in New York with her Army JAG husband, three sons, one daughter, and two dogs. Sarah shoots with a Nikon D4, enjoys tilt-shift and atmospheric black and white work, and instructs CMU’s upper level composition courses: Elements of Design and Composition and Creativity.