Category Archives: 22. Illustration




This exercise asks use to produce a photograph to a specification, whilst ensuring that the image is strong and attractive. The photograph is for a magazine and should illustrate the subject of rain.

The course notes offered, amongst others, the following advice-

  • Think of all the effects of rain that you have ever seen
  • Keep it simple
  • Be interesting
  • Make the photograph attractive


I tackled this exercise several months ago while I was in Scotland due to seemingly infinite supply of rainfall!

I initially had the idea of shooting the low-lying rain clouds that shroud the hills near my home in Scotland. However, when I tried to capture these things didn’t go to plan. I fitted my camera with a newly acquired rain cover and set off. The first problem was that I found the rain cover made the camera very awkward to control and with a wide-angle lens attached the plastic kept slipping over the lens. Secondly, the low light levels of a wet January day made hand-held shooting difficult and thirdly the resulting photographs were very grey and flat. Not attractive at all.

I returned to the drawing board and using the guideline above, think of all the effects of rain you have seen, I brainstormed a selection of keywords that sprang to mind. These included:

Puddles, rain drop splashes

Ducks, (as in this is a day for the ducks)




Oil slicks

Mud/ Muddy boots


Raindrops on windows

I reasoned that in order to achieve an attractive photograph worthy of a magazine cover the image needed to contain colour in order to grab a reader’s attention from a newsstand. I decided to explore the idea of a still-life arrangement involving umbrellas, which in turn led me to the idea of boots and in particular Wellington boots.

I experimented with different arrangements, combining the umbrellas and boots before realising that the boots alone in the frame worked better.

Wellington boots, 50mm, f/6.7, 1/125s, ISO 100

Wellington boots,
50mm, f/6.7, 1/125s, ISO 100

The composition is simpler allowing the viewer to make the connection between the boots, raindrops and wet autumn leaves. I use a Speedlight to light the scene while increasing my shutter speed by 2 stops to kill the ambient light which was causing large reflections on the boots. The darker background also contributes to the idea of a dull, rainy day.

The colour of the boots immediately catches the eye. Whilst the diagonals produced by the paving stones both frame the boots and lead the across the frame.

I imagined that this could be the front cover of a ‘parenting’ type magazine, winter or autumn editions.

I did consider shooting from lower and having the top of the boot extend beyond the top of the frame, however I decided upon this composition as it leaves ample room for a masthead at the top. It also has adequate space for headings and captions at both the right hand and bottom.


Considering the amount of access I had to rain it was more difficult than I had anticipated creating an attractive picture. When you see a rainy street scene in a magazine someone is usually wearing a red coat or standing under a yellow umbrella, or loitering outside a bistro which is emanating a warming glow. Not necessarily so in reality.

The next time I see a ‘rain’ type photograph I will be more attentive to see what makes it work, whether it be lighting, colour accents or simply the content





Freeman (2007, p178) describes juxtaposition as bringing two things (at least) to our attention at the same time. Viewers have a tendency to assume a relationship between things seen side by side. The connection that is suggested then provides the foundation for illustration. He explains juxtaposition further by noting it has two sources. The first is content, where the initiative comes from the subject, and some thought is applied to achieve this. The second is graphics, where the inspiration comes from a chance appearance, such as reflection in a window to include a second element.


For this exercise I have a content driven motive. I am going to set-up a still-life using two or three elements that, when juxtaposed, will provide an illustration for a book cover. The course notes stress that originality is an important factor, and that if a photograph is not interesting to do, it will probably not be interesting to look at either.

I decided to use the novel that I have just finished reading as the basis for this exercise, ‘Notes from an Exhibition’, by Patrick Gale. The book tells the story of an Artist, Rachel Kelly. At the beginning of the book Rachel is found dead following a heart attack. The story of her life up to that point then unfurls, noting the whirlwind of creative highs and anguished crippling lows due to her bipolar disorder. It also describes her being alternatively wonderful and terrible to her husband and four children.

'Notes from an exhibition', 46mm, f/9.5, 1/8sISO 320

‘Notes from an exhibition’,
46mm, f/9.5, 1/8sISO 320

I chose to use artist’s tools, such as paints, brushes, small easel stands and palette as the main elements of the composition to directly link with the painter at the heart of the story.

The broken photo frame in the foreground was a happy accident. I originally planned for the small print to sit in one of the easel stands but as I setting up the still-life I accidentally knocked it off the table. I decided to include it in the frame to help symbolise the fragility of Rachel’s condition and the fragmented family she leaves behind.

The six pebbles on the left are directly linked to the story as Rachel’s youngest child gave her six pebbles to represent a member of their family. Rachel treasured these stones and was undertaking a series of paintings inspired by them at the time of her death.

I chose to include the pile of tablets as a reference to Rachel’s illness. I chose 6 to mirror the number of pebbles.

I shot at f/9.5 to keep most of the focus on the foreground of the photograph with the top a little out of focus, as this is where the title/author’s name could sit. I also left some room at the bottom for this too.

I wanted some dramatic lighting for the scene so positioned my Speedlight, with diffusion dome, in the top right hand corner, just out of frame. I positioned it low to allow shadows to be cast from the easels. My initially attempts as this left the foreground quite dark so I placed a white reflector at the bottom left of frame to bounce some light on to the foreground.


While I do like the overall effect of the final image, lighting, diagonal lines, colour accents, I think now, with hindsight that I possibly have too much going on in the frame. If I were shooting again I would perhaps have omitted the medication to simplify the composition.

However I have still found this to be a useful exercise as it gave me an opportunity to really consider the way different elements relate to each other and experiment with symbolism.

Juxtaposition is a technique that I have unconsciously been using when setting up still life arrangements or deciding how to frame photographs taken in the wider world. Now that I am aware of this technique I can give it more considered thought and apply it to better use in my photography.


Freeman, M. (2007) The Photographer’s Eye. Lewes: ILEX




Simply put, a symbol is something that represents something else (Short, 2011, p124). Short continues by explaining that a symbol does not resemble the concept it represents, instead the relationship between the two must be learnt.

When discussing symbols, it is important to note that symbolic interpretation can vary enormously. Will some symbols may seem to be universally understood, such as heart to mean love, many more will be interpreted differently depending on the viewer’s social, political and cultural experiences.

Symbols to represent concepts

This exercise asks that I find symbols to represent a number of concepts and consider how they might be used in a photograph. The concepts are: growth, excess, crime, silence and poverty.

Growth- Symbols could include:

  • a small plant or seedling breaking through the earth, the colour green also has associations with nature, which is directly linked, to growth.
  • a close-up shot of a flower bud
  • a graph showing an upward trend, this could be used as a prop in a still life-arrangement or on wall in the background of an office environment.
  • a heavily pregnant woman, if she was already pushing a pram this could show growth also in the size of her family.
  • A child’s height being measured against a doorframe with the previous (smaller) height being visible.
  • The construction of a high-rise building, particularly if its neighbours were low rise buildings.

Excess- Symbols could include:

  • a plate piled high with food. Close up shot, including a hand holding a piece of cutlery to show scale.
  • an overflowing recycle bin with empty beer and wine bottles.
  • a bulging stomach over a waist band, focus only on torso area
  • an overflowing suitcase, with someone sitting on it, attempting to force it closed.
  • Money, arranging notes so that they overfill the frame.
  • Luxury car, detail shot of the car logo.
  • Jewellery, shot with a jewellery box. Arrange necklaces and pendants etc. so that they appear to be spilling out of the box.

Crime- Symbols could include:

  • The stereotypical image of a burglar with a stripy jumper, eye mask and bag of swag.
  • CCTV camera, close up shot
  • Dark alleyway, shadowy figure, perhaps wearing a hoodie as in some areas of the UK they have been perceived as being associated with youths and anti-social behaviour.
  • Graffiti or vandalism. Could be in the background of a scene to convey idea of unsafe area.
  • Yellow police crime scene tape around an area or building.
  • Chalk outline of person on the ground as though a murder has taken place.

Silence- Symbols could include:

  • Finger on lips, probably the most cliché symbols for silence. It seemingly arises from Mythology.
  • Children studying. Heads bent down towards their desks and books.
  • An ‘Exam in Progress’ sign, hung on a closed-door.
  • Hands covering a mouth, as in one of the Three Wise Monkeys who speaks no evil.
  • A landscape scene, showing no people or movement. Including a section of still, calm water would also reinforce the idea of silence.
  • A cemetery, again showing no people or movement
  • Monks praying together. Heads bowed.
  • Someone sitting cross-legged in a yoga style pose with his or her eyes closed as though meditating.

Poverty- Symbols could include:

  • An outstretched hand with palm face up, as though waiting to receive something. Could be shot with one hand to emphasis the empty palm of many hands in the frame to stress the scale of the need.
  • Empty plate, held forward. This could be shot as above, with one plate or many plates.
  • A street beggar. It could be shot sensitively by only including a ‘Please help’ sign and the receptacle for the donations.
  • Queues for food at food banks or food kitchen. Could be shot from the back of the queue towards the source of food.
  • Bare-foot child. Often seen in newspapers and in charity publications to raise awareness of the plight of many people suffering from the effects of famine, drought, war or natural disasters.
  • Shantytowns. Photograph taken from a distance to illustrate the scale of town.


Although this has been a brief exercise it has given me a lot of scope for thought. I find myself looking more closely at photographs in advertisement to note how symbolism has been used whether through objects, colours, weather or even time of day.

However, Short (2011, p126) cautions that the appearance of a sign or a symbol in a photograph may not have been a predetermined or orchestrated consideration of the photographer. She explains that while set photography offers a photographer time and control, photojournalism and reportage do not and often photographers have to make on-the-spot decisions about what to include.

This seems to emphasise the fact that reading a photograph is very personal. Viewer’s interpretations could be very different from a photographer’s intention and can vary widely based on the their prior experiences and understanding.

Short, M. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA

Evidence of Action

Evidence of action


While narrative in photography is the use of a sequence or series of photograph to tell a story, illustration is largely a matter of conveying a story in a single image.

Freeman (2012, loc 911) notes that the idea of a story in a single picture has long persisted as being the ideal, particularly among documentary reportage photographers. He notes that Henri Cartier-Bresson, a Magnum co-founder, saw a picture story second best to a single great image, although he conceded that for magazine story assignments a set of images was often unavoidable.

So, how can a single image successfully convey a story? Short (2011, p109) argues that in a single image the story can be drawn from all the components of the picture and how they appear at the time of photographing. She suggests that the components could raise questions from the viewer and offers examples such as: what is the picture of? What is happening? What is the relevance of the empty space/dark sky/ colour of the carpet?

The course notes agree, and state that even a very simple relationship between the components of the photograph can help a story develop.

Part One- Conveying abstract ideas and concepts

The exercise instructions note that illustration is particularly useful in dealing with subjects that are not straightforward solid objects or obvious events. It asks that I make a brief list of concepts that are regularly depicted in advertising and publicity, which cannot be shown directly.

Health-  A concept that features regularly in advertisements and in magazines. This could be conveyed through an image of someone involved in a sport and shot to either freeze the action or with a degree of motion blur to illustrate movement. A piece of sporting equipment could also be included in the composition such as a tennis racquet or a football. I noticed a full-page magazine advert for Nike, which shows a runner mid stride from the ankle down, so almost the whole ad was the running shoes.

Shots of colourful, raw fruit and vegetables arrangements are also often used.

Stress- A concept often shown in magazines right beside the adverts for massage, yoga and financial products. This could be shown by a photograph of a face with a furrowed brow, someone with their head in their hands or massaging their temples. It could also be shown by a pile of overdue bills or an overflowing in tray of work.

Sex- Many companies, particularly alcohol, fashion, perfume and cars manufacturers, frequently allude to sex in their advertisements. The women are beautiful, the men are handsome. Clothing is generally fashionable although bare flesh can feature heavily too as in the Calvin Klein jean ads and in the Pirelli calendars The body postures are often slightly provocative. The colours red and or pink are often included as they are commonly associated with romance and sex.

Friendship- Commonly conveyed through showing smiling children at play, handholding etc. It also is shown in adverts for pet food and products by pairing a smiling human alongside an obedient dog or content cat.

Equality- This is shown across advertising campaigns by including a mix of both sexes and ethnicities. Gender equality can be alluded to by scenes, which challenge traditional male/female roles. For example, a man cooking an evening meal or feeding a baby or of a female in a business suit in a boardroom or as a firefighter.

A set of balanced scales could also be symbolic of equality.

Part Two- Illustration

I am asked to produce a photograph in which it can be seen that something has happened. The course notes offer the suggestion of something that has been broken, or emptied.

Freeman states that it is difficult for single images to illustrate a story (without captions) if the audience is unfamiliar with the photograph setting and also if the story itself is not simple. I bore this advice in mind as I planned the exercise. The course notes also offered advice by suggesting the photograph could depict something that had been broken, or emptied.


1. 24mm, f/10, 1/500s, ISO 100

1. 24mm, f/10, 1/500s, ISO 100

I took this photograph of an unoccupied service facility just a few minutes from my apartment building. The graffiti and smashed window both show evidence of action, in this case vandalism. Layers of sand and dust had built up on the remaining glass in the window frame, which adds to the sense of neglect and also blocked any distracting reflections (my own included).


2. 78mm, f/5.6, 1/8s, ISO 100, +2 close-up filter

2. 78mm, f/5.6, 1/8s, ISO 100, +2 close-up filter

I decided to include a second photograph, using a familiar context to help convey the idea that something had happened. I set up a very simple still-life, a saucer, teacup and some biscuits. The action shown here is that someone had taken a bite out of one of the biscuits, illustrated by the bite marks and crumbs. I opted to focus closely on the bite mark using a close-up filter +2 to do this and a wide aperture to gain shallow depth of field. I positioned a 500w continuous photographic light at a low angle and to the right-hand side to try and emphasise the texture of the biscuit.


Showing illustration in one image was more difficult than I initially thought, as I wanted the photograph to stand on its own without requiring any captions to explain it. I think the second image probably achieves this better than the first, as the context and content are both familiar to the majority of viewers, allowing them to read the scene.

This is aligned with Freeman’s advice on telling a story in a single image; keep the story simple and the setting familiar.

This exercise has also encouraged me to consider the idea of conveying abstract ideas and concepts through symbols and props, which is not something I have consciously done before. I will continue exploring the idea of symbolism in the next exercise.

Freeman, M. (2012) The Photographer’s Story: The Art of Visual Narrative. Lewes: ILEX (Kindle Edition)

Short, M. (2011) Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA