109 Words to Describe Photography (Curated & Ranked)

Photography has a long and complex history, which means there are many ways to describe and discuss it.

Your study of this art form might include exploring different photographic styles and techniques, analyzing the characteristics of particular photographs, or using adjectives to describe photographs.

Photographer taking pictures of hot air balloons

Photographic technologies and artistic styles have evolved a lot since the first photographic device, the “camera obscura,” was invented in the 1800s.[1]

A camera obscura is a dark room with a small hole on one side, projecting an image onto the opposite wall. It doesn’t create a permanent image; someone would trace the image onto the wall to capture it.[1]

Photography as we know it came into being when French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce took the first permanent photograph.[1]

Using a camera obscura, he projected an image onto a pewter plate coated with a light-sensitive material instead of a wall.[1]

His partner in experimentation, Louis Daguerre, continued to refine the photographic process, creating the silver-plate Daguerreotype process.[1]

Today, you don’t need silver plates and heavy equipment to take photographs — anyone can become a photographer using their smartphone, a film camera, or a digital camera.

Below, I list the top words and phrases to describe photography.

Words to Describe Photography

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    Expressive

    can describe photos that evoke strong emotion
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    Evocative

    brings strong feelings to mind

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    Colorful

    can describe photos that make use of bold shades, either naturally in the subject matter or through editing

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    Opulent

    photos that look luxurious and rich

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    Candid

    pictures of people in motion, taken spontaneously rather than posed by the photographer

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    Black and white

    photographs shot on colorless film or processed digitally to appear in a monochromatic color scheme

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    Golden hour photography

    photographs taken during the hour before sunset or after sunrise; makes use of the natural golden light

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    Communicative

    conveys information

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    Macro

    close-up photographs of tiny creatures or objects, such as bugs, water droplets, snowflakes, and flowers

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    Conceptual

    can describe photos that portray a photographer’s vision rather than strict reality

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    Delicate

    can describe a photo’s subject (like flowers) or the overall mood of the image

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    Street photography

    photographs taken in common areas (such as sidewalks) and capturing ordinary moments of life

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    Technical

    referencing the skills needed to take good photographs

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    Wildlife photography

    photographs of animals in their natural habitats

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    Historical

    can describe significant photos or those taken in the past

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    Panorama

    several stitched-together photographs providing a wide view of the subject; often used in landscape photography

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    Urban exploration photography

    sometimes shortened to “urbex”; photos of the urban habitat, including abandoned buildings and ruins

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    Compelling

    can describe photos that are thought-provoking and emotionally gripping

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    Photojournalism

    storytelling of newsworthy events through photographs

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    Architectural

    photographs of buildings and other structures like bridges

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    Balanced

    can describe a photo with a good composition

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    Digital

    photos taken with a digital camera or smartphone

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    Amateur

    photos taken by an inexperienced or hobby photographer

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    Focused

    can describe photos that make their subject a strict focal point

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    Family photography

    posed or candid images of families, typically commissioned by the family to display in their home

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    Portrait

    photographs where the main subject is one or more people

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    Pet photography

    photographs of domesticated animals, such as cats and dogs

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    Intriguing

    evokes the viewer’s curiosity or interest

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    Product photography

    a subset of commercial photography which captures specific products for sale; for example, the individual product images on an e-commerce website

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    Editorial photography

    photographs taken to illustrate an article for a magazine or newspaper

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    Long exposure

    photographs made by using a slow shutter speed, which blurs moving objects

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    Adventure photography

    photographs that capture activities like hiking, backpacking, climbing, and camping

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    Surreal

    photographs depicting unusual scenes and unique perspectives; can consist of photos with eerie or supernatural effects added in post-processing

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    Travel photography

    photographs that capture the unique aspects of life in different parts of the world; can include candid shots, street photographs, or posed portraits

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    Fine art photography

    photographs taken for the sole purpose of portraying a message or concept

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    Event photography

    photographs taken at weddings, concerts, parades, and other events

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    Intense

    can describe images that convey strong emotion

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    Altered

    can describe heavily edited photos, such as composites

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    Satirical

    describes photos that parody real life

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    Documentary photography

    photographs that document a specific aspect of life; differs from photojournalism (number 99 on our list) in that the subjects aren’t always newsworthy

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    Imaginative

    describes photos that are creative and clever in composition and subject matter

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    Still life

    pictures of everyday inanimate objects

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    Futuristic

    describes photos that portray innovation and modernity

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    Timeless

    photos with a classic aesthetic that could suit any time period

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    Sports photography

    photographs of athletes, coaches, and fans taken during sporting events

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    Glossy

    can describe the texture of a printed photograph

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    Inspired

    can describe photos that are creative and forward-thinking

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    Casual

    can describe photos taken without much posing or as a hobby

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    Intelligent

    can describe photos that are technically sound and have good composition

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    Landscape

    pictures of natural or artificial scenery, such as a valley or a city skyline

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    Lifestyle photography

    captures images of people in real-life scenes, such as eating a meal or playing a game with friends

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    Composite

    prints created by combining multiple images into one during post-processing

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    Studio photography

    photos taken in a dedicated studio space rather than a natural environment

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    Contemplated

    can describe images with a somber or thoughtful mood

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    Aerial photography

    photographs taken from a high altitude, such as those taken with drones

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    Generic

    can describe photos that aren’t particularly unique or creative

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    Graceful

    can describe the subject of a photo

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    Artistic

    referencing the creativity required to take good photographs

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    Offbeat

    unconventional

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    Inspiring

    gives the viewer the urge to do or feel something

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    Abstract

    uses color, shadow, texture, shape, or light as the subject rather than representing reality

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    Business photography

    photos taken for marketing purposes, such as a portrait of a company’s CEO or images of waitstaff serving customers at a restaurant

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    Monochromatic

    photos that use only one color

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    Lifeless

    can describe a photo with little energy or interest

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    Film photography

    photographs taken on physical film rather than digitally

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    Commercial photography

    photographs taken to sell a product

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    Newborn photography

    a type of family photography that focuses specifically on posed images of newborn babies; may or may not include the baby’s parents

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    Professional

    photos taken by an experienced or career photographer

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    Blue hour photography

    photographs taken during the hour after sunset or before sunrise; makes use of the natural cool-toned light

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    Emotional

    makes the viewer feel emotions

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    Persuasive

    persuades the viewer to do or believe something

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    Infrared

    photographs that capture infrared light

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    Daring

    can describe photos taken in extreme conditions or with unusual compositions

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    Ironic

    can describe photos with a sense of irony or amusement

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    Astrophotography

    pictures of space, usually taken through a telescope

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    Mysterious

    describes photos that have unclear or curious subjects

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    Night photography

    photos taken at night, in low light; includes long exposures, time-lapses, and flash photography

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    Formal

    can describe pictures taken in a formal setting or dressed-up portraits

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    Neutral

    can describe photos without any bold colors or compositions

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    Classic

    can describe photos with a traditional composition

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    Time-lapse

    a series of frames showing the movement of a subject; for example, a series of photos showing the stages of a building’s construction

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    Detailed

    can describe photos with complex compositions or close-up images that show details

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    Energetic

    describes photos with a lot of movement or intensity

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    Tacky

    can describe photos that aren’t tasteful in subject matter or composition

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    Iconographic

    describes photos with traditional and conventional subject matter, such as representations of religion

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    Minimalist

    photographic compositions with limited elements; for example, a picture of a lake where only one boat is visible

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    Framed

    describes a photo that has been printed and prepared for display

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    Double exposure

    a style of photography that merges two images into one, either through editing software or through film development techniques

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    Pinhole

    a photographic technique that uses a tiny hole to capture the image rather than a lens

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    Tasteful

    photos with a good aesthetic and appropriate subject matter

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    Painterly

    can describe photos that are particularly artistic or look like paintings

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    Indoor

    photos of interior scenes, such as a home or workplace

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    Underwater

    photos taken with a submerged, waterproof camera

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    Polished

    can describe photos that look sophisticated and elegant

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    Ultraviolet

    captures images of light from the ultraviolet spectrum

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    Fashion photography

    photography that focuses on clothing, shoes, and accessories

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    Flash photography

    photos taken with a quick burst of artificial light from the camera or an external flash device

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    Satin

    can describe the texture of a printed photograph

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    Holiday photography

    captures holiday celebrations or themes, such as Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah

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    Real estate photography

    interior and exterior photos of properties that are available for sale or rent

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    Quirky

    can describe photos with unusual subject matter or style

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    Semi-gloss

    can describe the texture of a printed photograph

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    War photography

    a type of journalistic photography focused on capturing front-line images of armed conflicts

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    Matte

    can describe the texture of a printed photograph

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    Primitive

    can describe early photographic technologies or photos that have a classic, simplistic aesthetic

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    Visual

    made to be seen

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    Captivating

    holds the viewer’s interest

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    Provocative

    causes a strong reaction

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    Creative

    involves imagination and original ideas

You might also be interested in seeing words that describe artists (including photographers).

Activity: Understanding Photographic History

To better understand the photographic process and how it has evolved over time, look up the following terms.

You might also want to see examples of each of these eras of photography using your favorite search engine’s image search.

  • Camera obscura
  • Daguerreotype
  • Calotype
  • Collodion process
  • Dry plates
  • Kodak
  • 35mm
  • Color film
  • DSLR
  • J-SH04

What differences do you notice in these processes? How has the photographic process become simpler over time?

Notice, as well, how photographic styles have changed over time. Portraits were once the most common type of photography. Is that still true today?

For an added challenge, use some words from the list I compiled to describe the images you find!

FAQ

Which terms would I use to describe the composition of a photograph?

When describing the composition of a photograph, you should consider the lines, shapes, textures, color, and subject of the image, as well as the photographer’s use of space. Choose adjectives that match each of these elements, such as “architectural” to describe the shapes and lines or “monochromatic” to describe the colors.

How can I describe the emotion or mood conveyed by a photograph?

When describing the emotional impact of an image, you’ll want to rely on adjectives. Consider the composition, the subject, and the story the photo tells, as well as how it makes you feel. Words like “joyful,” “fearful,” “anxious,” “hopeful,” and “melancholic” can capture the mood of a photograph perfectly.

What elements contribute to the overall atmosphere of a photograph?

Visual elements like lighting, composition, color, and texture have an impact on the atmosphere of a photograph. A black and white photo of an old barn taken from a far distance might convey a lonely and eerie atmosphere, while a closer color photo of the same subject might have a lively atmosphere. The subject itself can also contribute greatly to the atmosphere. For example, if the subject is a person, their expression will determine how the viewer of the photograph feels when looking at it.

In Summary

Photography can be described in many ways, from its techniques and styles to adjectives that convey emotional impact.

Whether you’re critiquing photos, are a photographer yourself and want to describe your work, or are just generally interested in art, the list I’ve compiled gives you plenty of ways to describe photography.

Digging into the history of photography and matching the terms on my list to example photographs can give you an even greater understanding of this form of art.

Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any further questions or comments about describing photographs, or if you’d like to share your experiences with photography and artistic critique!


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