In previous tutorials, we've discussed how you can add to the storytelling and visual impact of your photos and how to be a more intentional mobile photographer. Today, we're going to take those skills and kick them up a notch so that by the end of this article, you'll be on your way to being an expert in photographic intention and storytelling.
First, we'll go over the term 'photo literacy,' in detail. Then, I'll explain Bloom's Taxonomy and how you can use it to assess and improve your photo literacy. Finally, you'll learn the 'dont's' of photo literacy and how you can avoid them.
Are you ready to elevate your photo and visual literacy? Do you want to utilise your intention more effectively and improve storytelling in your photography? If so, then continue reading below to find out how you can get started. And, stick around until the end of the article for an opportunity to progressively advance your photo literacy like a pro.
Photo literacy refers to your ability, as both a photographer and a viewer, to understand, identify, and implement storytelling and photographic intention through visual cues.
As a photographer, it's your audience's photo literacy that allows you to tell stories without providing a million super obvious visual cues. And, it's your photo literacy that allows you to send a clear message to the viewer with a few well placed visual elements and the design principles that unify them.
When we create photographs with visual elements and design principles working in harmony, it makes it easier for the viewer to make connections within the photo itself and to the photo as an audience. It allows the audience to interpret your story through their own eyes and connect with your photography in a way that's unique to their perspective, emotions, experiences, culture, traditions, etc. Essentially, photo literacy is the key to evoking deep, personal meaning in the viewer.
Let's look at an example.
Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash
As you observe or 'read,' the photo, take note of how your eyes travel across the image and consider your first impressions of it. Now, consider how someone else with a different background might 'read' the photo. Would their eyes take the same path as yours? Would their impressions be similar or entirely different?
If you find it challenging to put yourself in someone else's shoes and imagine how their perspective might differ, that's okay. Here's just a pair of contrasting examples:
Person B reads the photo from left to right, top to bottom. Rather than noticing any particular element over another, they're struck by the autumnal colours jovial mood. As a result, it reminds them of Thanksgiving and spending the holiday season with their family, provoking feelings of happiness and excitement.
In both of the aforementioned viewer perspectives, we can draw some similarities despite their unique interpretations. Both Person A and Person B responded emotionally. Both recalled a memory, and both got a sense of family or togetherness from the photo.
Photo literacy is more than simply capturing a scene- it's about thinking critically, examining what's in front of you dynamically, and creating a narrative that can be universally understood, as intended. As a photographer, it's up to you to identify, depict, and emphasise your motivations through your pictures.
Once you've made your intention and motivations obvious to the viewer, you can then move on to incorporating principles such as aesthetics, balance, unity, contrast, tension and more. Therefore, by practising, improving, and employing your photo literacy, you can elevate your photography.
Several years ago, I completed my Diploma in Training Design and Assessment, and previous to that, I'd already taught classes on smartphone and DLSR photography for several years. Throughout my career as a photography teacher, I've found that one of my favourite tools for creating learning objectives in photography is Bloom's Taxonomy.
Bloom's Taxonomy consists of six elements and is often depicted either as a pyramid or diagram. As a matter of fact, you may have seen it before. Schools and instructors commonly use it across the globe to create learning plans and clear objectives for students of all subjects.
You can use Bloom's Taxonomy to look at your photography in a new light and ask yourself questions to assess your level of knowledge and comprehension in photo literacy. Take a moment to go over the following six elements in Bloom's Taxonomy and the visual below from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.
Now, let's dive into each aspect of Bloom's Taxonomy in more detail. I recommend that you jot down any questions, answers, and thoughts you may have as we go over the various levels. You can use this system to assess your photo literacy with any photograph, but here's an example if you don't have one handy.
Starting from the top (or the bottom, depending on how you look at it), the 'Remember' level of Bloom's Taxonomy is concerned with your ability to recall, define, and recognise critical terms and concepts in photography that you've already learned.
For our purposes, this step concerns your previous knowledge of vocabulary and theories such as:
Objective: Remember and recite basic concepts of photography and photo literacy.
Keeping the above terms (from the Remember section) in mind, this step requires proof of comprehension. Rather than simply listing terms, this level demonstrates your ability to describe, explain, interpret and discuss an image using vocabulary related to photography.
Objective: Understand what is depicted in a photo, how it's depicted, and paraphrase your observations.
Next, we're going to put our knowledge and understanding to work. While you go through this section, see if you can come up with any similar questions and try to answer them for yourself before moving on.
Objective: Apply photography concepts to an image to further illustrate, determine, and model your knowledge and photo literacy.
After you've applied your photo literacy skills to a photograph, you can begin to dissect and classify your response and the response of others. See if you can think of any criticisms, improvements, or simplifications that could have been employed to strengthen or improve the image.
Objective: Analyse a photograph in-depth by breaking down your reactions and responses as a viewer.
Once you've analysed the picture to the best of your abilities, you can start to interpret it and make determinations through comparing, contrasting, and grading viewer reactions.
Objective: Evaluate the response evoked in the viewer, and express this response with justified arguments.
The final step in Bloom's Taxonomy is to use the culmination of what you've remembered, understood, applied, analysed and evaluated to design an image with similar intentions, elements, etc. Try the following exercises to see if you can compose a picture with comparable intention, viewer response, visual elements, etc., and put your photo literacy to use.
Objective: Create a photograph that emulates different aspects of the image to generate similar outcomes.
It may be tempting to simply go to YouTube and watch videos on visual and photo literacy to learn more about them. However, allow me to tell you a cautionary tale before you head off into the rabbit hole of photography 'hack' videos.
Typically, the 'YouTube learning process' consists of looking for videos until you find a tutorial on a technique that you are familiar with. As a result, your photography improves slightly, and you get that dopamine hit of creating something or receiving great feedback.
To get that spark again, inevitably, you look for more videos and tutorials again. However, you haven't actually created anything new at this point. In reality, you've only improved on a concept or a topic that you already heard about. So, you start to see the same basic topics over and over, and over, again.
Feeling frustrated, you begin to look up advanced tutorials and end up struggling to connect them to your understanding, leaving you unsure if they're even relevant to you. At this moment, more often than not, motivation starts to slip, and frustration takes over.
You feel stuck or uncreative, struggling to find any exciting subjects or scenes that inspire you. You start to self-criticise, believing that your photos look basic or dull and that photography doesn't bring you the same level of enjoyment.
Eventually, you ask yourself, "What's next in learning about visual literacy?" and "What's next for my photography?" You already know the basics from YouTube, and now, you find yourself on a plateau. You feel that you've hit that transformation ceiling, and, unfortunately, we all know that popular YouTubers rarely have the time, training, teaching, or design experience to respond to comments.
As you get better at photography, you struggle to find the next step in your progression and seek options. How do I know this story? Because I've been there, too, and so have many of my students.
When is YouTube or a Facebook group great for learning?
While I implore you to avoid YouTube, Facebook, and other social media groups as your primary learning tool, there are some instances where they can be helpful as supplementary learning tools. For example, if you want to refine and improve your problem-solving skills, collaboration skills, and be a part of an active photography community, then consider joining groups and forums like the Smartphone Photography Club Community here.
If you were to search 'visual literacy' on the internet right now, you'd send endless links to books and top ten lists. While short articles and slideshow top tens can be a great starting point, it doesn't take long for research results to become repetitive.
Luckily, you don't have to waste your time endlessly scrolling the same content over and over because I've done the leg work for you. I've compiled more than 100 different compositional techniques and essential tools into my comprehensive online course, Stronger Photo Composition: The 4-Step System.
This 4-Step System teaches you how to look at any photograph and articulate, in detail, what works and what doesn't in the image. At the end of this online course, you'll be able to take abstract 'reads' of your best photos, understand why they're your favourites, and be able to capture new, creative pictures that recreate that response.
I specifically designed the Stronger Photo Composition: The 4-Step System to progressively advance your visual literacy as you move through the course. As you become more photo literate, you'll naturally begin to view the world around you differently. You'll start to look at things more abstractly, recognise details that others miss, and find new ways to appreciate the beauty around you.
Sound like your cup of tea? Click here to sign up for my online course, Stronger Photo Composition: The 4-Step System.
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