Photography - Basic Concepts


You should begin your journey in photography as a reflection on the images as language and communication tool. It could take several directions: on the one hand back to the beginning of the earliest forms of human civilisation marked by the appearance of a language of signs on the walls of caves, images that create, in some ways, the beginning of history and the passing of time, on the other hand you can reconnect to all those studies on visual perception ranging from the analysis of a neurological that face the problem from the point of view of the psychology of vision. I will not go into these paths, but to stay in the specific of photography, I place a linguistic and philosophical premise is very important: the photograph is a specific language, with particular logical characteristics which may vary depending on the use that is made of, this statement, which may seem trivial in reality it is because, even today, many people believe photograph is a kind of writing that does not require literacy as analog message. On the contrary, there is, by far, no analogical language, but, rather, from the moment arises, every language carries with it, inseparably, the concept of distance, every language is expressed through signs that require interpretation, and this way to pose the problem goes back to Peirce's classification of signs that replaces the sign within a sign relation and not as a separate unit, this report is divided, then, in a classification that could reduce roughly like this:

  • The sign stands in relationship to itself (trivially must exist and have certain quality),
  • The sign must be asked in relation to something else, the object to which it refers,
  • The sign is placed in relation to (for) to an interpretant, it is necessary, in other words, someone who can understand and establish a link, a bridge.

In this way, the foundations were laid for the correct understanding of what it means to interpret any language, so even that of images.

The space and time in a choice: photography as an interpretation.

Starting from the premise so far placed you can then begin a path within the photograph analysing the different uses to which it is now used as a sort of structural study of “words” as a tool for understanding this language. Speaking of photographic genres is equivalent to trying to draw a map of uses, a large map of the areas which correspond to different modes of writing and image interpretation. To understand the photography include, first of all, understanding its place within the possible communication strategies. The divisions are never so rigid and schematic in fact, talking about the different uses of the two main fields of photography are certainly those involving on the one hand private use of images, and other public use. This first distinction also involves a development and a different design as regards the multiplication, the reproduction of these photographs.


Photograph language is quite recent, risen from just over one hundred and fifty years, while at the same time, as we have seen, it was into a story of vision much older. Also to describe the history of photography is not simple: the same JC Lemagny addresses this problem with accuracy, in the introduction to his work, where the history of photography is not seen as a history of techniques, because they do not mean the history of photography a mere evolution of techniques or something just aesthetic. Let's start from the very first photograph. If the invention of the photograph is dated around 1826, with the first image of Niépce, the complex of issues around the transcription perspective of reality stems from a long way back. Place the beginning of the history of photography with Giotto and the Italian painters of the '400 makes sense, because, during this period starts searching and the need to translate the three-dimensional reality into the two-dimensional images, according to the rule of perspective. This was intuited, at first, and subsequently stated, by Filippo Brunelleschi, who, among other things, explained how, according to him, were to evaluate a painting created according to the rules of perspective. Even Albrecht Durer created images, using a method called “Italian” to get images prospectively correct. There are many other research conducted during that period, but the next step is represented by a more scientific study, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who studied the human eye, working as what will be called the dark room, increasingly used by painters later. The obscure camera is an empty space with a variable surface (can be as big as a box or as a room), in which there is a small hole that allows light to enter and form an image (upside down and reversed) of what there is outside, on the opposite wall. The hole is called the pinhole. The darkroom was already known in the time of Aristotle, when it was used to observe the eclipse. But its study and its knowledge, date back, in particular, in the '400, because the first design of a darkroom is in 1544, of astronomer Rainer Gemma Frisius, which shows a room used as a dark room to observe a solar eclipse. From this moment on, darkrooms were more and more often studied by physicists, mathematicians, astronomers and others, until, with the studies of Galileo and Gerolamo Cardano came to apply a lens to the opening of darkrooms for sharper and brighter images. The evolution of the darkroom became more and more accurate, until the invention of a portable darkroom, often used by painters. Placing a sheet of lightweight paper on the wall of the darkroom in which appeared the image and “tracing”, the figure described by the image, it could translate the real three-dimensional into two-dimensional with great ease and precision. With this system, the artists' work is greatly simplified. Painters as Canaletto, Guardi and Bellotto used it regularly. So already in the frescoes as “The Expulsion of the Devils from Arezzo” (1297-1299), by Giotto, in the upper basilica of S. Francis of Assisi, emerges an attempt to solve the problem of perspective. Placing himself in front of a mirror, behind the landscape represented and standing behind the painting; drilling a small hole, you had to see the mirror, and, in the mirror the painting, behind, as a continuation the natural landscape: you would not even have to distinguish where the completed painting finishes and where the natural landscape begins. There are prints in which you see a painter paint a model, looking through a fence and a fixed point which corresponds to an equal grid of the paper.

Perspective - the first insights

In other cultures - such as, for example, the Etruscans - putting the figures of different sizes next to each other had nothing to do with the perspective effect: they just wanted to symbolically communicate the importance of the subjects, this is when the master or the warrior were shown tall and large, while their servants small, even in other cultures perspective representation performs tasks of a symbolic narrative of reality in relation to other meanings and values. In Italy, in '400, at the time of the first humanism becomes more intense the search for a way to represent the space according to objective rules, which coincide with those of the darkroom, becoming math, and which coincide with the mode of operation of human eye. The problem is to be able to connect these factors with the premises to understand the birth of a language transcription of reality. In fact, the camera will represent, in a more or less conscious, this mode of transcription of the real world. Cartesio also come finally to describe the vision of the human eye as that of darkroom. The first true scholars, however, (1400), which with the darkroom, came to the discovery of the art of photography, were the Arabs AI-Kindi and Al-Hazen. They observed that in a dark room, making a small and slim hole on a wall, you can see a blurred image of the exterior projected upside down on the opposite wall. The simple hole, during the 1600s, is replaced by a meniscus lens: the figure was rather inaccurate due to the poor quality of the lens. Another theory dates back to the Middle Ages, when alchemists, by heating sodium chloride (or salt) with silver. They discovered that salt was freed from a gas, chlorine, which combines with silver, it caused the formation of a compound, the silver chloride, white in darkness, but purple or almost black with exposure to the sun's rays. It was therefore natural that, at some point, born the idea of ​​using the unique properties of the light rays to obtain images on the surface of light-sensitive chemicals. In 1700, chemists tried to solve the problem, but they managed to get only outlines of images, namely silhouettes (the name comes from Stephen Silhouettes who was the initiator of fashion of the portrait). The German chemist Johann Heinrich Schulze “baptized” already in 1700 the photograph. Another collaborator was Niepce, the first to get something with the metal plates coated with bitumen of Judea (a substance that lightens slightly to light). Niepce was forced to accept a partnership with Daguerre (painter), also for professional reasons, they did experiments with the obscure camera. Daguerre came to the invention of “daguerreotype” (1837), which consists of a copper plate coated with silver that is exposed to the action of iodine. The image, it subtly hinted at in the camera, it becomes obvious and positive with mercury vapour and it is fixed by washing in hot water and salt. Thanks to a series of political manoeuvres the invention was purchased by the French government. Meanwhile in England Talbot worked on his own with a silver chloride card and obtained the first negative on paper (1834). Since the discovery of photography it was not regarded as an autonomous art. The images were used as sketches for painters. The photographs were exchanged and became gift items such as business cards. Their collections gave rise to the need of the album. The photograph is used to identify themselves and present your social status, also telling lies. Today, however, the use of manual camera is out of fashion, in fact there are many people who own a home one of these jewels, all are now on the modern, ranging from automatic machines to digital, which have had the boom in the last ten years (have the ability to modify in any way the photo using the computer). Fortunately, however, there is still some lovers, as well as professional photographers who buy and use the machines that have made the history of photography.

PHOTOGRAPHY: photomontages

The simplest way to do a photomontages is represented by the large format printing of a photo you want to change the environment and on this you can paste pictures, objects, trees, etc..; obtained by cutting out magazines newspapers or other (if necessary suitably reduced or enlarged photostatically ) or drawing the figures directly into perspective. Overlaying a sheet of glossy paper it is possible to quickly obtain the perspective drawing of the environment changed without having to resort to geometrical constructions according to the rules of the central projections.

Shooting with a tripod and a adequate lighting system (which is particularly effective when it “simulates” the same type of lighting in the target image) is the best choice for the resumption of plastic, you can get excellent results even in natural light, but you should not give up the use of a support for the camera. The stand is essential for the reproduction of images for easy recovery from photographs, prints and magazines. Rephotographing photos of the modified base, we will have instead a kind of image closer to reality, especially if the drawn parts are treated with great care, using the technique of chiaroscuro. Operatively proceed drawing the object in perspective, with a point of view congruent with the photographic image that will be there already procured. It will be enough to print on transparent negative film, to the desired size, both the design and the image of the environment, and then, once established for the overlapping portion of the image to replace with the new item, it will be patterned with a black marker covering the part to be removed. If you have a model of architecture to be included in a given environment, the process is similar. Once photographed the environment, from a point that we consider optimal, it will photograph the model, making sure to play an illumination similar to that of the remote, in addition checking that the two points of view coincide. During the printing of the photograph is necessary that the dimensions of the model are consistent with the image of the environment. Therefore it will take some steps to relate the two subjects or better draw on a sheet of tracing paper placed on the photograph of the place, a sketch of the building footprint and keep this mask as a base in printing the photo of the model. Once the printing of the photos of the model is ready, cut excluding those parts that do not interest you, and then paste it into the desired position on the photo of the environment. Rephotographing all, excellent results are obtained by the unexpected “verismo” effect.


By this classification, or “sketch”, we will consider some parts starting from Fotoromanzo.


The picture story, which, at first glance, it may seem one of the most trivial and stupid, is actually based on a set of very important features that can reveal the mechanisms of reading that can be found, then, in other photographic genres such as fashion and advertising. The picture story, as narrative genre, is located halfway between the comic, which sometimes retains the graphical layout of writing, literary and series such as “Blue Moon” or “Harmony” and located at the level television its counterpart in the “Soaps”. Its structure is typical and repeats the classic fairy tales outline. The picture story, indeed, offers a reading of reality calibrated tailored to its readers, because this can trigger a mechanism of identification, projection in the characters, which is why the target is studied carefully and the same players are chosen in function of age and taste of the buyers. Another element is the division of history into more episodes to create such art, a longer life and a habit for consumption by the public.


The gossip on the cover, as with other genres, has the function of “packaging” and is packaged in order to function as an index of topics. The transition from the soap-opera to the gossip is relatively short: there you can find true stories legendary status at the limit of the imagination, and the protagonists are represented by actors, singers or princesses. Even in this kind presupposes the myth of the characters, a mechanism of projection or identification with them, so for more “human” and with problems similar to those of all normal people. Backgrounds serve to give meaning and they are therefore an integral part of the statement and follow then the stereotypes of some figures of speech.


Even in crime, patterns are repeated, but here, the images assume a role often marginal compared to the written text, as it rises above the level of the audience to whom it is addressed. The script is the structure of knowledge, therefore we find, especially in the newspapers the image with the function of simple illustration, while the information is given through the script. Paradoxically, the picture tells more and takes a load-bearing function when used in weekly class aimed at a cultural lower. In fact, for the highest level of the image remains a kind of accessory to the written text.


The photograph in newspapers is almost always in black and white (also for contain printing costs) and often grainy because the images are taken in precarious conditions, with the need for a short time or low-light conditions, and because the poor quality of the paper used does not allow the use of the screens typographical too thick. In the photographs chronicle usually the background is not very significant, the character, the fact are the protagonist of the picture. Sometimes the caption is necessary because, an explanation helps to better understand what happened. In incidents of crime, the character is isolated, the images must always allow a quick read, as well as reading the newspaper occurs rapidly.

Weekly newspaper

On the contrary, the weekly is read more carefully, re-read, sometimes stored and seen by more people, so his images respond to these different functions, and, in addition there are a better image an content quality. It should be noted the difference between the use of the image of the agency and the single most comprehensive one and an narrative reportage made with a sequence of images, and you really can accomplish the task of telling a fact with pictures.

Sport news

The sports news also uses a visual language stereotyped: the images are structured for a single key that is the same for each sport and tends to summarise the events in one moment considered the most significant (in a race the arrival at the finish line).


The photograph referred to the fashion magazines is another kind of use, it is sometimes not far from the advertising industry. Even in these magazines cover has the functions of “packaging” where always appears a physical model appropriately chosen so that, on her could trigger a mechanism of projection. For this reason, in the cover, both the model and the the graphic are used from time to time to target a specific type audience (more or less affluent, more or less young, etc..). The background changes depending on your audience.

The souvenir photo

If it is true that every area in which the photograph is used requires a different kind of language, specifically, with their souvenir pictures here is that the key to interpreting changes again. The images in this field, are produced and used within the family environment. This kind of photography is developed as soon as the shutter speeds allow you to make portraits that are inserted directly in the tradition of images of classic paintings, which until then had remained a privilege of the upper classes. The photograph thus fulfils the function of retaining the memory of those who remain depicted, a celebratory function which later will ensure that the use of photography always be accompanied by the most significant moments in the life of a family: from birth, birthdays, to marriage, etc.. . Even the photographs of the group had a precise iconography of reference and value of social integration. Familiarity with the photograph is then grown with time passing from the first, and sometimes only images in their lives, in an increasing number of series of photographs also linked to moments of joy and entertainment (birthdays, holidays, etc.). within no more than one family member. Even the poses have evolved over time: from the typical portrait of the nineteenth century with the most elegant dress, to the spontaneous naturalness of children have become accustomed to pose as actors. Even the passage of time inside the image has changed: from a timeless image (a kind of small eternity) such as that of the portraits of the nineteenth century, it has come to the sense Flash, a click performed while something happens, a clear sign of the changing conditions of life. Note the attitude of some tourists (especially the Japanese) using photography not only to remember but, paradoxically, almost to know in fact, they snap, during the long, fast travel, hundreds of pictures, which are then reviewed a once back home. So the ratio is reversed with the reality that is known through photographs and not in real time, with the photographs that are taken back to keep the memory as a result of its passage.

Scientific photography

Unlike other genres such as fashion or advertising, it is based solely on a denotative level trying to understand their content in the most simple and straightforward possible way. The use may vary from one use for the layman, linked to large-circulation magazines in a language simpler and more accessible to a wider public, for the use of research, useful to certain “insiders” such as medical specialists or scientists, who can use the images at conferences or courses of study and refinement; obvious, in this case, the function supported by teaching photography is essential to the progress and enlargement of knowledge.

The industry photography

It is midway between scientific photography and advertising, it is image that can appear on the pages of catalogs in order to identify parts (such as engine parts), it can be used as historical records or, still, for the study, in the design phase, of particular productions (see for example the images of the “crash-test” carried out by the car manufacturers to study the deformation of the structures). Even in these cases, the photograph should not have a symbolic meaning, just like it does for scientific photography. Another question is that industries can make use of the images from a catalog for advertising use, because photos of documents have high quality and refinement.


The relationship between art and photography is very complex: on one hand, the photograph can act as a breeding tool or documentation of an artistic (in reference to painting, sculpture, architecture but also to theatre and cinema), from other photography itself stands as the artistic (finding the artistry in itself). This distinction is complicated in reality because even in the photograph of a sculpture or architecture is played by the operator an interpretation of the work. Just think, in addition to the choice of the moment, the choice of the angle, the light, and the presence of people. Certainly the photographs of works of art have revolutionised with their reproducibility, the opportunity to learn and study the same works, without cancelling the physical and linguistic diversity.

Amateur photography

It has always had a fairly important role, partly because of the lack of schools and facilities involved with teaching photography. In fact, many professionals, come from the ranks of amateur photographers always organised in clubs or groups, where usually these are people who, after starting to take photographs in the family, buy a camera with more advanced and start attending these groups and participate in many competitions organised by these same. Gratification is often constituted by the presence at exhibitions and the winners of award prizes in contests or reports to which you have subscribed. Unfortunately for many years the world of amateur photography has not been able to get out of a provincialism that, with few exceptions, has maintained a very low cultural level.

Advertising photography

It is another area that encompasses many professionals. The image is only the culmination of a complex journey: the final realisation of a project created in its entirety. It should be noted that today the advertising covers, even physically, more and more space around us, to the point of being surrounded. Talk about advertising also means making a speech inside a civilisation, a type of economy that focuses mainly on Western Europe and on the United States of America, although in other countries the advertising images are entering more and more rapid and massive. The same advertising has changed considerably over the last 20 or 30 years, following the evolution of the whole economic system. Today there is no operation of a commercial, industrial or political area that does not take the moves from marketing studies. The figure of the advertising is revealed then to be able to create tailored dreams, dreams able to trigger the mechanisms of projection similar to those already seen for fotoromanzi. Here photography was born in what is called a coordinated action which may include television commercial, campaign in newspapers or magazines and pictures displayed on the walls of the city and on the means of transport. Certainly the advertising is then often the art of making any product necessary and indispensable, first attracting the attention of possible customers through a message that fascinates.

QR Code
QR Code photography_-_basic_concepts (generated for current page)