The Art of Symbolism: Taking Pictures That Tell Stories

The word symbolism probably conjures up memories of that paper on the great American novel your high school English teacher made you write. Though symbolism in literature is a little different than in photography, understanding what it is and how it plays into your narrative is important.

Understanding symbolism in photography

Symbolism refers to the use of an object, person, action, or place to represent a deeper idea or meaning. Take wedding rings, for example, which are probably the most well-known symbol at a wedding. The rings aren’t just a piece of jewelry; they represent marriage and the idea of eternal love and commitment.


44mm, 1/200 sec., f/4.0, 200

Figure 4-12: Always having your camera ready can result in wonderfully spontaneous photos, like this groom giving his bride a kiss on the nose.

Photography is all about symbolism. Ideas, thoughts, and emotions must all be communicated to the viewer in each picture. Photographers can’t rely on words to describe the message they want to tell, so they must be able to convey the story with an image. Symbolism can be either intended or incidental:

check.png Intended symbolism: This type of symbolism is found when a photographer purposefully uses certain visual elements to communicate ...

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