These guidelines were composed by the blind art historian Anja Winter in German. The list focuses on paintings but can also be applied to photographs. You can find more suggestions in how to describe pictures to blind people in our “Your Description” section.
- title and genre
- format and measurements
- time of origin
- composition (fore – middle and background)
- main object (only what draws the viewer’s attention immediately)
2. Impression, Mood
- detailed description of what is to see in the picture
- avoiding personal interpretation
3. General background information
- (If extra knowledge is needed to interpret the picture)
- Biographical dates of painter and if existing of client
- Style and epoch
- Distinctive characteristics from an art historian’s perspective
- Historical or religious background
Copyright tastkunst 06. 2012
This text is an afterthought to the description of Darek’s windmill I wrote together with a friend.
We are always looking for new sighted people to describe the pictures on our blog to the blind and visually impaired photographers who took them and of course to all our other readers. Most of our “picture describers”, as we call them are students from our workshops in Berlin or people who write professionally or as pastime. However, you don’t need to have a background in journalism, blogging or creative writing. In fact you don’t even need to be an expert on photography or visual arts. While knowledge and interests in these fields can be helpful, everyone can describe a picture. Processing and reflecting visual stimuli comes naturally to everyone who can see something, even if it’s just blurry shapes or light and shade. We do it all the time in our everyday lives and take it for granted without even noticing.
The Fear of the Empty Page
Since I write for this blog, I’ve talked to quite a few people, who said they are interested in our project but wouldn’t know how to describe a photograph to someone who can’t see it. Personally, I think the most difficult thing is to get started and simply try. It’s like writing an academic essay, prose, poetry or even a letter. We are afraid of the empty page, or nowadays the blank screen staring back at us. Once we’ve done the first step and simply started to write something, more words and sentences start to come naturally. Additionally, what we write in this first outburst doesn’t have to be perfect; it can always be changed, edited or even deleted.
The Process of Writing as Teamwork
For me, writing blog posts and photo descriptions is actually easier than composing academic essays, because it gives me more creative freedom and there aren’t any guidelines, except those we set ourselves. Obviously we want readers to follow our thoughts and like our texts, so they have to be readable, structured and not full of mistakes. And I assume most of us want to write about something that matters to us and our followers.
Especially when writing academic papers, I try to get someone else to read and comment on my text. After reading them over and over again, we tend to overlook our own mistakes. Because we spend so much time developing them, the way we put our arguments on paper appears completely logical to us. Discussing our thoughts with another person often helps to express ourselves better and clearer. And finally we get to talk to another human being instead of sitting alone at our desk all day.
How does that help me to describe a Picture?
It only occurred to me recently, that describing a photograph could involve even more teamwork than editing academic texts, because the whole process of writing it can become a dialogue. It’s like having a jogging partner, if somebody else is involved and to some extend relies on your commitment, chances are you will be more likely to overcome your doubts or laziness or whatever it is that makes you hesitate, and actually do what you set out to do.
So one afternoon I sat a friend down to compose a description with me. We had talked about doing this for months, but never actually got around to doing it. This friend has no prior experience in creative or journalistic writing and only a casual interest in photography. He said his main reservations against writing a description on his own were, that he wasn’t sure how to compose a text people wanted to read and which aspects of the photo were relevant.
Questions over Questions
I still have some sight. Thus, I saw the general outline of the windmill, the blue sky and the green grass and I guessed there were trees. Starting from there I asked general questions to get a better understanding of the outlines of the photograph:
- What are your first spontaneous reactions and associations?
- What are the prominent objects?
- How much space does the windmill take up?, Where in the picture is it?
- Describe the mill in more detail: shapes, individual parts, colours, textures …
- From which side are we looking at it
- Can you see people? How many? Where are they in relation to each other and the mill?
- What can you see of the people? What are they wearing? What are they looking at? What are they doing? (Body language, communication between them)
- What else is there in the background? What kind of trees? Where are they in relation to the mill and the people?
- Are there other details you wouldn’t notice at the first glance? Any objects captured by accident?
After a while I came up with lots of questions. One often led to another. I found the trick or secret was to give my friend prompts and suggestions he could use as a starting point. To find answers to some of the more specific questions like “What do the people wear” he had to look very closely. Sometimes he couldn’t see details very clearly and had to guess and speculate. The picture became almost a story. For example did the orange tiled roof belong to a visitor centre or just storage shed for equipment?
And what if I can’t see anything in the photo?
While being able to see the main objects in the photo helped me to start the dialogue, I think this method would also work for someone who is completely blind. You would just have to start with the very basics. Maybe after a while the blind person could tell the image he or she has in her or his mind so far, while the sighted person compares it to the photo and adjusts the description accordingly. Feel free to try it out and let us us know how it went.
A photo is like a person, you have to spend time with it to get to know it
I wouldn’t have noticed the little people on my own and if we wouldn’t have talked about it in such detail, we both would have flicked over the picture quite quickly. After spending some time with the picture it became more to us than just a nice shot of a windmill in the countryside on a bright summers day. We speculated where the mill is, who the people are and how they know each other.
Nowadays we see hundreds and thousands of pictures in the news and in social media. While it is great that almost everybody can take and share photos nowadays, sometimes I think this mass distribution lowers our appreciation of them. So, if you want to spend some more time and thought on an individual photo, describe a picture for our blog and maybe even do it with a friend.
What’s the point in being interested in visual arts when you can’t see? You should do something with sound instead.
This is an attitude blind and visually impaired people working or being interested in visual media and arts encounter frequently. What’s the point in going to the cinema, a dance performance, a comic convention or an art exhibition, if you can’t see? Especially some completely blind people agree with this sentiment, and that’s their choice. Equally some sighted people enjoy listening to audio books, but aren’t interested in art galleries. My point is that everyone should be able to choose his or her interests independently. There are many blind musicians and DJs out there, and while it is possible that they work with audio media partly because their hearing is better trained to compensate for the lack of vision, first and foremost they do it because they love music. It may be hard to imagine for a sighted person, but our visual impairment isn’t the most important aspect of our lives.
You are blind, therefore you can’t appreciate visual art the way sighted people can.
To be honest that’s a rather impertinent assumption, especially if you have never met me before, and I hope my friends wouldn’t say things like that. Probably all you know about me is that I’m visually impaired which seems to be all you need to know to categorize me. I could be an art student or a visual artist, you don’t know. Additionally, appreciation is subjective and not measurable. People have told me long enough what I can and cannot do.
Considering you are visually impaired, your photos aren’t too bad
This is probably meant as some kind of complement, however a very condescending one. I doubt you could tell the difference, when presented with works of blind and sighted photographers or abstract art displayed side by side in a gallery. Comments like that are the reason why some blind artists choose not to disclose their disability.
You should add that you are blind when your work features in an exhibition, that makes it more interesting.
This ties in with the previous comment and again is probably meant as helpful advice. Nevertheless, disclosing or not disclosing a disability is a very personal matter and we want people to like or at least respect our art, not to pity us.
You won this price because you are blind and the jury was impressed and pitied you.
This is the flipside of “you should sell your disability to your advantage”. Whether we disclose our disability or not, someone will always disapprove of our decision, therefore it is best to follow intuition instead of people’s advice. Many artists reflect on their disability and its consequences in their works. I said before, that it is not the all defining aspect of our lives. Still it is there and we have to deal with it in some form or other every day. It would help enormously, if society would stop stigmatizing disability as something negative; it can also have creative potential. Some great works of art would not exist in the form they do, if the creators would not have had a disability or some physical or mental illness. Disability can be a way through which to explore art. It can raise awareness and create more positive representations.
You should be grateful that people book you as photographer, therefore you should work for free or charge less than sighted photographers.
Firstly, yes there are visually impaired people working as professional photographers. If you book a photographer for an event, you should meet and talk to him or her first. The person will more than likely tell you about the visual impairment; show you how he or she works and bring sample work. If you like what you see and hear, great! Employ the photographer, if not find someone else, but don’t ask disabled people to work for less or nothing, just because you assume they deliver lower quality results or need more time for the same amount of work. This attitude is simply discriminating.
Give me the camera! I take the picture for you.
Personally, I can live with: “Would you like me to take the picture for you?”. I would never give my camera or phone to a total stranger who demands it. He or she could simply run off with it. Overly helpful people mean well, but please ask if help is welcome, before forcing it on someone. I prefer to ask for help, if I need it, instead of being asked at every street corner. The tenth time, I’ll probably react annoyed and you’ll feel rejected and I’ll feel sorry for having being so abrupt later.
This photo is wrong; you missed the main object in the scene.
There is no right and wrong in art. Maybe I focus exactly on what I want to capture. I’d appreciate if you’d say something like: “Can I help you directing the camera towards what you want to photograph?”, instead of trying to take the camera away from me or to judge my art.
A blind photographer? You are not really blind! How many fingers do I show?
This question makes me feel like a curiosity in a freak show. The only person who gets an answer to that question is an optician. But now that you’ve asked already, in fact the majority of blind people are not completely blind. Most still see some shapes, colours or light.
You don’t take your pictures yourself
By saying this you accuse me of plagiarism. I really don’t have to proof and justify myself and my art before you.
Do you have more examples? Or do you want to write a post from the perspective of someone who met a blind photographer? Share your thoughts in the comments or send them to us at email@example.com
Photo by Stephan Wilke
After reading about the different ways to categorize portraits, you may think you’ll have to learn all this by heart now, but the categories are only general guidelines and a great source of inspiration. Most of you already know some of the basics and do them right instinctively. Here are some more helpful tips for taking good portraits.
You can either include the background as feature of your portrait or focus exclusively on the person. Even in a landscape portrait there shouldn’t be too many other people or details in the background, since this distracts the viewer’s attention from the small main person. Ideal for landscape portraits are natural scenes, buildings or art objects like statues. If you want a more lively surrounding, the main person should be bigger than other people in the background.
The focus is not only important for close-ups. Landscape shots often fail when the main object is somewhere at the margins instead of occupying the centre, where viewers tend to direct their attention first. Especially if they don’t know the depicted person, they are uncertain where and what the main motive is. In this situation the brain finds it hard to differentiate what is important and what not.
As blind photographer you can try to hear where your object is and focus accordingly. If you’re not certain, move the camera slightly around and take lots of pictures. This increases the chance of having a photo with the right focus in the end.
The rule is, the photographer changes his or her perspective not the person who is being photographed. Moving around for the photographer often makes the model feel unnatural and the result are artificial, stiff pictures. If the model is allowed to sit or stand in a comfortable position, the result will look more natural and expressive.
The posture of the photographer too is important. When photographing someone who’s sitting it is often useful to take a few steps back and to crouch down.
4. Facial expressions
A good way to get natural facial expressions is to talk to the model about random topics, maybe about him or her herself or your work. While talking you can walk around, taking pictures from various positions. With this method it is important to take many photos from the same position, because facial expressions can change within seconds. Most cameras and phones can automatically shoot many pictures within seconds.
5. Cropped view
Especially in close-ups often parts of the hair or the whole forehead aren’t visible. This method emphasises certain parts of the face, especially eyes or forehead. However, sometimes it simply looks as if part of the face was cut off by accident.
6. What to do when and how?
There is no right or wrong. It is important to have the model in the centre and to be careful with the background. Otherwise simply trust your instinct. What do you know about the person? Guess his or her mood or feelings at the moment? And if you feel comfortable with and are allowed, touch the person to get an overview about face, stature and clothing. Just try out different positions and perspectives.
If possible start by trying out the various options with the same person for a while. This makes it easier to get a feeling how each perspective and setting changes the appearance of the person and how different impressions and moods are created. It helped me a lot in the beginning and it was great fun.
Hopefully I could give you some inspirations.
Translated from a German post by Nadine Alexander Meißinger with advice from Keith Harness.
Hello to all hobby photographers,
After talking about the technical basics, it’s now time for some practical advice on how to actually take good photos. So, let’s start with the different types and categorisations of portrait photography. Generally speaking, every photo partially or completely showing head and body of a person is called portrait. The only exception are photos where you see someone from behind, but I’ll talk about that later. Angle and perspective effect the viewer’s perception of an image.
There are several ways to categorize the various types of portrait photography:
a) Landscape format:
As the name already suggests landscape format portraits focus on people and the landscape surrounding them. Although the background is important it should remain simple. Too many details and people behind the main objects can be distracting and the photo appears too ‘hectic’.
b) The portrait format:
on the other hand focuses on the main person in the picture. There shouldn’t be many or only blurry details in the background, in order not to distract the viewer’s attention away from the person in the foreground.
2. Distance between photographer and subject
This describes how far apart from each other the photographer and the depicted person are and how much of the person’s body is visible in the picture.
a) Total view or entire scene
A person surrounded by landscape can be photographed from greater distance to depict emotions like feeling lost or lonely but also positive feelings like freedom. The closer the camera goes to the person, the more he or she moves into the main focus and the background loses its importance. The midway option between these two extremes is suitable for group photos, where, depending on the size of the group, a bit of background should still be visible. The total view focuses on the person and how he or she is positioned within the surroundings.
The following options depict only parts of a person’s body:
b) American shot:
depicts a person from the knee upwards.
c) Medium shot:
depicts a person from the hip upwards.
d) Medium close-up:
depicts a person from the middle upper body upwards. Because this is the way we normally see people when looking at them, medium-close ups appear natural and familiar to us.e) Shoulder close-up: depicts a person’s head and shoulders.
depicts the person’s head and sometimes part of the shoulders.
f) Extreme close-up or cut-in:
depicts only one body part or small detail of a person e.g. mouth, eyes or hands.
g) Italian shot:
depicts only a person’s eyes.
3. Position of the person’s head
Sometimes a slight turn of the head can change the way viewer’s interpret a portrait significantly.
a) Frontal view:
is very popular with hobby photographers, especially in the day and age of selfies. The person is positioned straight in front of the photographer. Professionals use this perspective rather seldom. It often looks stiff and artificial, because it depends exclusively on facial expressions.
The person’s still looks at the photographer but her or his face is slightly turned away. This position is more popular, because it conveys more emotion for example thoughtfulness
The head is turned so far away, that one eye is still clearly visible. The person can still look at the photographer but more often the gaze is turned slightly away from the camera.
The face is turned even further away from the camera. The second eye is only partly visible or insinuated. This gaze into the far distance conveys thoughtfulness.
Only one half of the face is visible. Like the frontal view this position is rather static and therefore seldom used by professionals.
f) Lost profile:
or three-quarter profile from behind. In this position frequently only the contours of the cheek bones are visible. The viewer’s perspective is as if he or she looks unnoticed over the person’s shoulder.
g) Back View:
Even though a person is in the scene, the main subject of the image becomes the landscape which the person is viewing. The person is used to attract the viewer’s attention towards a given area of the total scene. Therefore he or she becomes a pointer (visual aid). The head or body itself may become a silhouette depending on the lighting conditions. This technique draws more attention to the background and is frequently used in landscape photography e.g. a person looking at a water surface, mountains or a sunset.
a) Normal perspective:
is commonly used for snap shots. The person is captured at eye level, making the picture look accustomed to the spectator.
b) Frog perspective:
The photographer captures the subject from below eye level e.g. by kneeling on the ground like a frog. Make sure to ask the subject to tilt their head forward as you don’t want to shoot the image looking up their nose. This perspective can portray a person as powerful, threatening or distanced.
c) Down angle:
A person is photographed from a position above his or her head, suggesting smallness or subservience. It can also make the viewer wanting to protect the person.
5. Line or direction of sight
Maybe you want to ask now why you should pay attention to this, since you’re already considering the position of the person’s head. However, taking the direction in which a person is looking into consideration can intensify or counterbalance stylistic effects suggested by the perspective.
a) Averted gaze:
The person appears to be alone and lost in thought looking at something else in the scene or out of the frame in at a distant point. You can use a subjects direction of sight to help you as a photographer point to another area of the image you would like to stress to the viewer.
b) Direct gaze:
The person looks straight into the camera, thus making eye contact with the viewer. The picture is not so much about what the person may feel or think, but about the gaze and what feelings and memories this look suggests to the viewer.
This should be enough to start with. In part two I’ll give some more general tips regarding portrait photography.
Translated from a German post by Nadine Alexander Meißinger with advice from Keith Harness.
My name is Nivi Morales, I live in Leamington Spa in the UK. I have a mild case of Retinitis Pigmentosa and have gradually been losing my peripheral vision for the last 14 years. My interest in photography intensified in the last 5 years. The fact that my eyes naturally frame scenes really helps producing interesting images.
I am a self taught photographer and see the art as a way of therapy. It makes me feel grateful for being able to see and capture images. I enjoy sharing those images with others. The aim of my photos is to capture the moment. I work at my best when I stand still, take a look at what I am trying to photograph and let it talk to me. On occasion I would use multiple shots and select the best one. I try to play with natural light and refrain from using flash.
Occasionally I find myself cropping photos when post editing, because I did not see things appearing at the periphery as you might imagine, the camera sees better than me.
Last Christmas I had the opportunity to travel to Barcelona. This was my first trip abroad after going through a period of considerable sight loss and making subsequent adjustments. In this blog post I would like to talk a little bit about the trip, my experience as a tourist with visual challenges in a busy city and how I am adjusting my photography technique to fit around this new phase in my sight.
I had been to Barcelona a few times before and enjoyed the visit. Yet this time I was coming back with my assistant, the white cane. I had a mix of anxiety and excitement about the idea to experience the city and the Spanish culture I have known my whole life in a different way. I was very lucky to have been invited to stay over at a very close friend’s so that left the worry about accessible accommodation out of the way. Since my friend had to work a few days during the Christmas period, I decided to venture out and visit a few Gaudi buildings. Here are my recollections.
Built between 1904 and 1906 as a private home for the Batllo Family, who made their fortune out of trading textiles, this architecture masterpiece is well known as structure that has no straight lines. My favourite areas were the balcony and the loft, featuring original wavy arches.
There is also a stunning open structure in the middle of the building which ensures that natural lighting and air get through every room. It is covered by blue tiles. The colours, reflections and structures made me feel like there was an acquarium in the middle of the house. Truly magical! I manage to capture a few details of the balcony and the roof, despite the fact that it was a very busy day.
This was one of the first important commissions of Antoni Gaudi when he was young. It was built between 1886-1890. I felt truly blessed to be able to see his style in raw state. The whole structure mixes gothic architecture with Gaudi’s own ideas. It’s probably one of my favourite buildings so far.
The building was designed for the Guell family as an extension of their home in the Ramblas area. It had a space for visitors to park their horse carriages. The design allowed the members of the Guell family to peak and see how other visitors were dressed before receiving them, and then probably go and change themselves accordingly to receive their guests.
The hall, with high ceiling can also be used as a private chapel. Palau Guell is rather dark, most mosaics and walls are brown and grey; sometimes it reminded me more of a church rather than a family home.
One of the most famous modernist buildings in Barcelona; it was built between 1906-1912. The work was commissioned by Pere Milà i Camps and his wife. The idea was to create a family home as well as a block of flats that could be rented.
One of my favourite corners of this place was the roof, with its wavy chimneys and vents that look as though they came from another planet. I also loved the fact that each of the internal windows of the flats had a unique design around them. Finally there is a beautiful staircase leading to the art gallery – which I did not have the change to see. The staircase itself is full of colours and intricate design with furious attention to detail, typical of Gaudi.
New photographic challenges
The main challenges I faced were finding a comfortable way of shooting now that one of my hands is busy with a cane, fitting in my mental image with what appears on the camera, and shooting in bright day light.
To get around the first one, I chose to use the cane elastic and sling it around my wrist. For shooting I increasingly found myself using the viewfinder, instead or relying on the camera’s LCD screen as I did in the past. This made it easier to shoot in daytime, when it is brighter. It also helped me see the details of what I was shooting better as well as fitting the image I wanted to produce with what came through the camera.
I have also learned to trust the camera, as I cannot tell as well as I used to whether the image is focused or not, but I do know the functions of my camera well enough so I take the shot when it is telling me to do it. I still have the challenge of finding things making their way into the periphery of the images – like road signs and people – without me noticing – but I am finding my way around it through post-editing.
Finally for post-editing I have been relying more and more on my large monitor to fine-tune images. This has helped tremendously. As a mac user, I found a piece of software called Affinity photo, much more affordable than Photoshop but with very good quality. To avoid eye strain, I try to edit small batches of images at the time and take regular breaks.
Putting all these measures in place is allowing me to continue to enjoy this art I love so much.
Tips for visually impaired and blind travellers
I have always been fairly adventurous in my travels, but as I live with a progressive eye-condition that has flared up a bit over the last year I found myself getting a bit anxious about finding my way through Barcelona’s busy streets and new travel routes. I managed to tame my anxiety by putting a few adjustments in place which I would like to share.
- Book in advance online or via telephone: Most travel landmarks will allow you to purchase the ticket online or via telephone. They might even give you a time slot for visiting or charge an extra fee to avoid queues. Use these facilities to book your ticket, I found it facilitated my visit enormously. Also booking a morning slot will ensure skipping most of the long queues and crowded streets.
- Learn about the landmark you are visiting: Doing homework about the places you are visiting when travelling is common sense, but it becomes even more critical when you are using your senses in a different way. Most touristic attractions websites will have information about their structures, accessibility access put in places and challenging areas for visitors with mobility challenges. This will make it easier for you to request assistance when visiting the site.
- Study the travel route: Map route options from where you are staying. I strongly advise making your visit in the morning especially if you are using public transport as it is going to be less crowded; depending on your knowledge of the place, consider asking for assistance when travelling by bus or metro/underground. Most countries in Europe will offer this service. If unsure, find a reliable taxi that can get you to the venue and back.
- Ask for assistance: On arrival at the venue ensure to inform the people you might require assistance. If you did your homework well you are likely to know which areas are going to be challenging – i.e. stairs or low lit spaces. Also remember to book your audio guide. Assistance is always available for disabled visitors. Also, as I soon found out it will also give you the opportunity to learn things about the site than what you would have through the audio guide. You will also be able to feel the kindness and warmth of the people at the place.
- Give yourself extra time: Because we use all of our senses in a different way it is important to take more time to grasp it. Use your hands to feel the handrails along the stairs and – if allowed – feel the pillars and walls. I learned this lesson the hard way as I was trying to rush through Casa Batlo. It made my visit less enjoyable than I would have liked. I made up for it spending more time in the other two sites I visited.
Looking back I feel Gaudi’s work is smooth, it flows through all the senses with its intricate structures, attention to detail and flawless finishing. I have been to Gaudi’s buildings in the past but I have never experienced it this way as I was mostly relying on my sight. I feel very fortunate to have been able to experience it and photograph it in a different way.
Text and photos by Nivi Morales
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Here is another photo from Darek’s New Zealand trip. One of the best things about travelling is definitely meeting people from different cultures and getting an undoubtedly superficial and short but nevertheless thought provoking insight into their culture, history and traditions. Personally, I know nothing about the Maori, except that they are an ethnic group (the word ‘tribe’ sounds somehow condescending to me) living in New Zealand. Having seen a group of their traditional dancers, I still don’t know much more about them, but they feel a bit more ‘real’ and ‘present’ to me now, and maybe I’ll go and read a book about them some rainy Sunday.
Dancing is a very visual activity, and although a photo doesn’t capture movement, it would be nice to know how the dancers were positioned in the split second the trigger was pushed. What clothes and shoes are they wearing? What do they look like? Are they wearing jewellery or make-up?
And here is Darek himself in a kayak. Many people find it more difficult to describe people, but often there is more to describe in a picture of a person than in a photo of mountains or a sunset. How would you describe Darek to someone who cannot see? Does he look happy, excited, maybe a little scared and why do you think so? Especially people who are blind or visually impaired from birth often do not know what a happy or a sad face actually looks like, since they mainly notice emotions in people’s voices.
There are so many inspiring blogs out there!
This post is an edited version of an article I wrote which was featured in the Warwickshire Vision magazine for December 2015
Photography has been in my life from very early on. When I was 5 years old my mum bought me my first camera and photo album. Both my parents are keen photographers and had SLR cameras which they would alwaysplay around when they travel.
I believe this is how I developed an interest for photography. My main interest always was capturing the moment, not so much understanding how cameras worked technically.
This interest gradually started to blossom into full passion when I owned my first digital camera. It was great to see the results of my experiments straight away, but it was when I discovered the macro option on a mobile phone camera that my word shifted.
I started taking close up photos of flowers as I walked…
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