This article is based on the ebook “The Photographic Message“, from Essential Seeing

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Creeping shadow - Namibia


When we talk about personal photography, we refer to photography being used with the purpose of saying something that reveals the way the photographer connects, understands, and interprets the world. We are all different and unique, and certainly each of us has a very distinct way of relating to the world and its inhabitants, of processing the stimuli we receive, of thinking and feeling, and of making connections and finding conclusions. When we use photography with the intent of showing others (and ourselves) that personal way of connecting with the world, we are not just using photography to show how the world looks to us, but mostly how it feels to us.

Contrary to what the term might imply, personal expressive photography is not the result of a unilateral, individual effort. It is more the collaborative result of a dialogue, a conversation among the photographer, the subject matter being photographed, and the observer of the final image.

Setting the intent

There are different motivations and purposes for which to create photographs.  Not only will the intent vary from photographer to photographer, but also for a same photographer the intent might be different depending on the use, motivation, and purpose of the images she or he creates.

External vs Internal reasons

Photographers use cameras and lenses, in the same way all writers use computers and word processors and all painters use brushes. But the main difference resides not in the tools photographers use, but primarily in the motivation which spurs the creation of the work and, secondarily, the use that is made of it. When we talk about landscape photography, we should realize that the motivation and, consequently, the uses of our images can be very different. In fact, they can be diametrically opposed. Any of us can photograph the landscape for external or internal reasons.

External reasons for photographing an object are frequently commercial in nature since the image is created to comply with the demands, needs, or wishes of someone else besides the photographer. On the other hand, when using the medium of photography for the sake of personal expression, there are frequently no goals besides the pure practice of it. The work is not goal-oriented, but process oriented. Doing the work is the main reason why one does it, independently of the result, the acceptance, the existence of an audience, or any expected commercial gain.

Layers of signification

When we observe an image, communication happens at several different levels. In a way, we could say that there are different layers of meaning or significance within every single photograph. Depending on the intent we select for our images, we will use different layers of significance in our images, or only one of them, or a combination of the different channels of communication. Some of these channels of communication or layers of significance are:

The subject matter

The first layer of signification comes from the content of the photograph, that is, the subject matter that is photographed: a landscape, an animal, a person, a situation… This is the most obvious form of signification that will transmit direct information to the viewer.

Elephant by the pond

Elephant by the pond – Namibia: On this image, the subject matter photographed (the elephant) is the strongest element in the photograph, and becomes the main message of the image. That being said, a certain dose of mystery and abstraction is given by the rendition in black and white, and by the haunting effect of the artificial light illuminating the pond. The distant light hovering in the night sky is also a source of mystery… is it dawn, night or day?

Symbolism or universally adopted visual metaphors

Another layer of signification comes from the cultural baggage we all carry with us. Associated with each culture there is a symbolism, that is, a register of collective metaphorical values which are accepted and understood universally within a certain community.


A different layer of signification comes from mystery, from the questions the observer will raise when confronted with the image, triggered by the connotations given by the subject matter depicted in the photograph, its ambiguous character, or the absence of any clear identifications or anchors to reality.

Branches on the snow - Switzerland

Branches on the snow – Switzerland : Every time we include a dose of mystery in our images, we deviate from literal rendition of reality and we obtain from the observer a higher level of implication. In a way, mystery makes the observer part of the image, increases the impact of the message and favors connotations, rather than denotations.

Questions aroused

One way of injecting mystery into our images is by provoking questions in the viewer. For instance, if we photograph an abandoned house, the observer will surely wonder what happened there, to whom that house belonged, etc.

Abandoned house - Scotland

Abandoned House- Scotland : Who lived here, what happened inside of that house, which stories could it tell us? All these questions come to us as we observe the image, and mystery kicks in.

Visual metaphors

Another way of including the mysterious channel of communication into our images is by understanding images as visual metaphors. In the same way poetry uses language to say more than what the words would normally express in a general context, photographs can be made to go beyond the literal and tap into the metaphysical.

Two fishermen - Scotland

Two lonely men standing on the shore of the ocean, or a visual metaphor of friendship and companionship?


When the subject matter of a certain image is partially or totally hidden, the mind is not able to apply a tag labeling what it is, and is left alone in front of a visual design composed of colors, tones, lines, shapes, and textures. Without reference to the real world, the mind is confronted with a visual puzzle, and mystery arises.

Trade winds and forest - Canary Islands

Trade winds and forest – Canary Islands : A long exposure rendered the trees blurry, strongly contrasting with the immobile and sharp trunks. The message of the photograph was capturing the trade winds, so characteristic of the Canary islands. Therefore, the fact of blurring the trees gives to the image an abstract quality, and an additional level of significance.  


When the mind, programmed to find order and meaning in the world we live in, is confronted by ambiguous, paradoxical, or contradictory visual stimuli in an image, a challenge arises and makes of the image a visual riddle to decipher.

Falling boat - Venice

Falling boat – Venice : On this image, the intent was to create an ambiguous rendition of what Venice means to me… The boat seems to be falling from the sky, and the reflections of the buildings in the canal seem to be the real buildings. The intent was to create a puzzling optical effect, in order to highlight the surreal quality of Venice.


Another layer of significance can exist associated to a certain image, which stays beyond the control of the photographer and the photograph itself.

We  refer specifically to the subjective load of memories and life experiences we all carry with us, which shape the way we react to visual stimuli.

Zen fiords - New Zealand

Zen Fiords – New Zealand – When I was confronted to this scene, it reminded me of the ancient chinese and japanese drawings of trees and high mountains. The landscape created in me a quite strong zen effect, and I photographed it very much influenced by those visual memories.  

Formal significance

There is another and very important layer of significance at work in photographs, which we might describe as structural or formal. It is related to the visual design employed in the photograph: the colors, the tones, the shapes, the lines, the textures, the depth we have in the image.

The witch and the ogre - Faroe islands

The witch and the ogre- Faroe islands : The composition is mainly formed by triangular shapes and diagonals, giving to the image a strong tension and sense of movement. The pale colors and dark tones also inject a somber, serious and mysterious character to the landscape, in order to convey the moods of the North.

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About Rafael Rojas

Rafa_thumbnail_leaders Rafael Rojas, Hasselblad Master, is an internationally awarded fine art photographer, author, lecturer and educator. He is the Director of “Essential Seeing“, a company dedicated to teaching people how to see and use photography as a creative tool of meaningful personal expression, through inspirational eBooks, videos and photographic workshops. Along with his wife Anca, they organize photo-immersion trips to some of the most inspiring and authentic places around the world.

He is also the author of the ebook Post-Processing with Intent

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