with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

Finding Photographic Inspiration Through Descriptive Words

American Alligator peeks out of the water, photograph by Brent VanFossenMost people think of photography as a “visual” art. It is, but it also represents a “verbal” art form. Photograhy often expresses what most people hard find to say.

One of the most popular email joke forwards that makes its rounds every month or so is the collection of animal pictures that express a lot of feeling. Pictures of smiling cats and dogs, animals sleeping in amusing positions or crawling through shoes, hanging from branches, or sitting in front of the television with the remote on its lap. We look at them, impose our verbal language perceptions and go ooo and awwwww. “Look, she’s laughing!” “How cute! The dog is reading the newspaper.”

Photography inspires us to “feel” something. An eagle soaring makes us want to feel strong and proud. A kitten tangled in an akward position makes us shake our heads and agree, “been there, done that”.

We put words on the photographs to interpret them in our minds. Why not use the words to inspire the photographs?

Go Shopping For Inspiration

A visit to a local stationery shop can open a whole world of possibilities for the photographer, revealing all the different ways photographs are used. They are used as backgrounds or anthropomorphic subjects which stimulate our imagination and emotions.

Round ball of sun in red sunset behind trees, photograph by Brent VanFossen, OklahomaPatterns are great for backgrounds as well as for use on printed papers and stationery. Wrapping paper, book covers, folders, notebooks, calendars, coffee mugs, and all kinds of things feature photographs. Study the types of images they use. Lots of animals, scenics, flowers, or patterns? Write down a list of what you find.

Next, step over to the note cards, postcards, and calendars. Look for pictures featuring local subjects and locations. Write down a description of how they were photographed, where, and when. Do they feature popular landmarks, festivals, pr people doing regional activities such as surfing or hiking? When you get home, write down all the ways you can capture the same subjects on your list, but do so using your own unique perspective and abilities. You know you can do better than they can, so go out and do it.

Now, take a step back and study the inspirational and motivational images before you. Images which denote happiness, sadness, friendship, rewards and acknowledgements, sympathy, apologies….write down the emotions triggered by these images along with a description of the image to help you remember.

When you return to your home or office, take your different lists and examine them.

Connect Emotional Words to Images

Which types of images are found on which subjects and connected with which emotions? Are note cards and posters which are funny usually featuring an animal? Do inspirational posters and cards feature mostly animals or landscape images? Why photographic subjects and images promote which emotions?

Create a list of the various emotions found in the different products. Emotions like happiness, sadness, success, sympathy, and so on. Then write down the images used to represent those emotions.

Check these types of images connected to their use and emotional qualities against your inventory. If you are lacking in some areas, put them on your list to go out and find and photograph.

Expanding Your Photographic Adjectives

When Brent and I discuss our images, we tend to use a form of shorthand language. “Pika rocks pika” refers to images taken among giant pink boulders in the Columbia Ice Fields near Jasper, Alberta, of pika, a small gerbil-like creature that lives among the talus of mountain sides. We use other references for the pikas we’ve photographed elsewhere. Do you tend to shorthand your image references, too? Maybe you are short changing yourself.

Soft curves of flamingo feathers on the back of a pink flamingo, photograph by Brent VanFossenConsider exploring verbal descriptions through the use of a dictionary and thesaurus to expand your visual repertoire. The more visual concepts you develop, the wider the perspective of your subject may grow.

For instance, look up “soft” in the thesaurus, as in soft fur or soft light, and you will find words like pliant, supple, elastic, furry, downy, silky, satiny, calm, delicate, subdued, muted, fuzzy, blurred, tender, gentle, mushy, squashy, pulpy, doughy, spongy, swampy, boggy, and so on. These are very visual words. When you hear “pulpy”, are you inspired by vivid images of fresh squeezed orange juice? Satiny has a distinct visual “feel” to it, suggesting satin sheets, negligees, and other clothing. The challenge is to take these visual words and capture them on film. Give it a try.


  • Michelle
    Posted September 19, 2011 at 2:37 | Permalink

    Love your website but could you tell me some descriptive words for peaceful nature and post how you get a picture perfect and how you make it look good

    • Posted September 20, 2011 at 10:48 | Permalink

      Thank you.

      I’m not sure what you are asking. What about a picture do you want to know? How to improve the photography? The lighting? The process of publishing it online?

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