Back to School: Give Meaning to your Photography by Studying Theory


One of the most surprising things about my formal photography and film education was the impact of a theory and analysis class. It seems that many institutions emphasize that they have the latest and greatest gear, or that they let students use high-end equipment and studios almost right away. Don’t get me wrong—the practical aspect is very important in our industry, but if you want to develop meaning and create more powerful and effective work, theory should be a critical component of your studies. It will also provide you with the knowledge and experience to better analyze and enjoy the work of others.

The reason theory is so important is that it helps answer the crucial “Why?” questions. Why did someone take a photograph of this? Why did they focus on this subject? Why did they use this style of lighting? The list can go on and on. Sometimes, as with advertising images, the answer is simple. This photo is designed to sell a product, it emphasizes the beauty of the object, and the lighting is designed to be the most flattering. Other times, such as in documentary work, it takes a little bit of detective work to find out the reasoning behind the structural elements in the photograph.

I focused heavily on photojournalism and documentary film work in my studies, which is what led me to first find an interest in theory and analysis. In one of my first documentary theory classes we looked at L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, a famous short created by the Lumière brothers. I like this example because it was a classic and short piece that is easy to find, and hides an amazing amount of information in its simplicity.

The film was created in 1895 (though screened in 1896) and is able to give us a peek at a slice of everyday life from the period. Starting with the train itself, we can learn that trains were a hugely important part of life at the time, thanks to its weight in the frame, compared to the relatively unimportant people off to the sides. Since the film is shot from a single vantage point with a moving subject, viewers are also introduced to three distinct shot types in the sub-minute-long movie, ranging from a long, distant shot to a more analytical close-up once the train has fully consumed the scene. Additionally, since moving images were new to the world at the time, this film is also the center of an urban legend in which audiences would leap from their seats during screenings due to the unfamiliar experience of having such a large moving object seemingly heading right for them. This is just a general taste of what you can learn by just watching a film. And this one is only 50 seconds long.

Once you start looking at films from a more critical perspective, there is a ton of hidden information that you can uncover, which can make you appreciate the work even more. This extends to fiction even more in some cases, because filmmakers are able to have complete control over the scene and characters. For example, studying color theory can give you more insight into the emotions of certain characters or the emotions that you are meant to feel as you watch; by selecting a certain color when creating an image, you are able to affect the mood in which the scene will be viewed, despite what the subject matter may be.

After reading, watching, looking, and absorbing all of this information, when you start creating your own work it will help you make better or more effective decisions when it comes to framing, costumes, editing, and more. All of these choices can help further develop your story or concept to create stronger photographs and films.

What sort of effect has studying theory had on your work? Feel free to tell us in the Comments section, below.


I am a big fan of theory, but my goodness, this article is just a bunch of garbled nonsense. I think the author needs to go "back to school." Start with English 101 and learn how to write a coherent sentence.    

Meaning, not only in photography, but in life—makes ALL the difference in the world. Outstanding article. Thank you for sharing.

Richard /

Apart from theory, such as color theory, a still photographer will want to study Exposure, Composition, and Subjct as the three chief components of photography.  Theory means more in the company of these components and their application.

Hi anotherview02,

You are very right that the more technical aspects of photography are extremely important, and if a photographer is already competent with these skills studying theory can have a larger impact on their future work.

As a very old, lifetime dedicated, and for meny years commercial, photographer, I am usually amazed at one thing in particular. I find that usually the person seeing my pictures on paper or a screen, makes a definate point about one thing in the image. The amazing thing is that it is often a different thing for different viwers and often not the meaning that I was trying to convey. 

I totally agree with you. The plastic information traduced in individual's mind, behind the scenes, is a completelly personal experience.

Great article and an excellent suggestion. For those of us who haven't gone to film school, does anyone have any suggestions as to good resources for studying theory?

Anonymous wrote:

Great article and an excellent suggestion. For those of us who haven't gone to film school, does anyone have any suggestions as to good resources for studying theory?


I second this question!

An excellent question.  As an older (nearly retired), photography enthusiast I'd like to delve deeper, too.

Hello Everyone!

One of the best resources of study is the internet which can then be supplemented by books. A good start would be to go through the history of photography and art movements. This information is easy to locate online just by using Google and some colleges and universities now offer some open courseware which can walk you through some introductory work. A lot of filmmaking and photo blogs also spend a bit of time focusing on classic directors and films or photographers and photo projects and how they work in their fields. Modern shooters may even have more information thanks to the numerous interviews you can find But, starting with history will give you the best background to further delve into photography and film.

Start at the beginning (which relative to most arts is actually extremely recent) and work your way to the modern day. You can even decide when you want to delve deeper into certain photographers and spend as much time as you want researching it. Hopefully this helps, but there is so much out there it is hard to give an exacting place to find information as everyone learns differently.

This is a fantastic article and great reminder of a question to ask myself before I choose to press the shutter! Next time I watch a movie I'm going to pay close attention and ask myself why they chose to film in the way they did! Thanks for this!

Hi Leanne,

Glad you enjoyed the read!