Suggestions on how to describe pictures to blind people

This article is roughly based on a German text by Erich Schmid.

For a start there are several degrees of being “blind”. It is a widespread misconception that blind people live literally in the dark. In fact most of them still see something even if their vision is reduced to lights or colours and vague shapes. Many lost their sight later in life or gradually, thus they know of colours and what things look like. For how long they have been able to see constitutes another important factor. There are people who lost their sight in their early teens but still see in their dreams. Consequently, it is important to them to keep their visual imagination alive.

Furthermore, many visually impaired people would not describe themselves as completely blind or fully sighted, rather as somewhere in between the two extremes. Pictures can help them to use their remaining vision as effectively as possible. Just think of magnifying glasses, binoculars or the freeze and magnify functions on ordinary cameras and smartphones.

Even though this situation sounds rather complex don’t worry too much about your description when you first write it, because the blog gives visually impaired people the possibility to ask further questions, helping the description to grow and develop. We encourage you to mention colours and perspectives even if people who are blind since birth may have difficulties relating to these concepts.

Describing a Picture in Three Steps

Erich Schmid is an art historian who is completely blind since birth. He is frequently asked how blind people see and imagine their immediate surroundings and the world in general and how sighted people should describe visual impressions to them. Over the years he developed the following model for describing pictures in three steps. It is simply a basic guideline based on his personal experience, highlighting the most important features to be mentioned.

Secondly, a photograph or painting comprises not only what it depicts. Rather it is a medium with its own aesthetics and its own language. Two pictures taken within five seconds of each other at the same place can portray a completely different impression of a single motive.

  1. Details about the picture: Who made it? When, where and why was it made? Is there a background story attached to it? How big and in which format is it? For paintings: What techniques have been used?
  2. Iconographical and iconological description: What is depicted? What is in the middle, at the top, at the bottom, on the left and on the right? From which angle is the picture taken? Are there remarkable compositional features?
  3. What impression does the picture make on the describer? Here personal impressions should not overbalance more objective features. It should be rather easy to determine the atmosphere and sometimes also season and time of day. Finally, the describer can add things that strike her or him as remarkable and noteworthy.

A comment by Katrin Dinges

My situation is completely different: I had some vision until I was between 13 and 15. Since that time I’m only able to see lights and shadows. Thus, I have a limited but relatively good idea about visual impressions. I learn a lot about seeing through descriptions.

The following things are important to me:

  • Is it a picture in portrait or landscape format?
  • What is the general mood or atmosphere in the picture?
  • What is the most prominent object in the picture?
  • What else is there to see?
  • Personally, I would like to have as many details as possible

Please feel free to leave a comment if you have more suggestions. Picture describers too are more than welcome to share their methods and experiences.

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