Image Analysis

Deconstructing - or picking images apart through the use of fine detail - is an essential part of studying the media. Media texts are largely constructed of images, and we take our visual literacy - our ability to read and understand these images - largely for granted. However, in Media Studies we need to be able to explain that decoding process, and describe the steps taken which allow us to derive meaning A from text B.

However, deconstruction is only the first part of the process - never forget the purpose of a text, and that your image analysis should include a consideration of ideology, audience theory, representation and genre.

You may also find the technical terminology for describing camera angles useful.


Two processes used during deconstruction are denotation and connotation, key words for Media Studes, and ones that should appear in every piece of textual analysis you write.

or first level of signification

Identification and definition of elements of a text on a basic, dictionary level - this thing is red, it is a bicycle.

Denotational readings will be common to a large number of people - the audience of a text will all identify the object as a red bicycle (if they know what a bicycle is...)

or second level of signification

Connotation begins when you link an object with other signs and meanings - the bicycle might belong to a teenager and therefore suggest adolescence. It is red, therefore it is bright and eyecatching and might therefore connote that its owner is an extrovert. If you once fell off a bicycle yourself and smashed your leg up then you may associate this bicycle with negativity and pain.

Connotations are numerous, and vary from reader to reader.

When analysing an image, whether moving or still, we examine how the different elements, arranged and framed in the way that they are, combine to form meaning.

Mise En Scène

This term (which loosely means 'putting things in the picture' or 'arranging the frame') concerns the design and arrangement of the image. Every element of an image contributes to its meaning, and much time and thought is devoted to mise en scène by the creators of an image. Although an audience's attention may be focused on characters in the foreground, they will also be looking at the background for additional clues to meaning. For example, two characters having an argument in a softly lit bedroom, with many pillows, pastel colours, throw rugs, and Martha Stewart style room accessories are not seen to be as dangerously conflicting as two characters arguing in a deserted warehouse, under a naked lightbulb, surrounded by the jagged angles of torn-apart packing crates, with concrete, not deep-pile carpet under their feet.

Mise-en-scène includes costumes, props, lighting, characters (as represented by actors or models), special effects, sound effects and anything else which is "put into the frame". The level of a image's realism relies heavily on mise en scène.

In film, the term mise en scène refers to a stylistic technique, where long takes and the continuous movement of the camera which focus on the details of a scene are used to create meaning. This is the opposite of montage, where meaning is created through constant cutting. You may also encounter the term mise en shot which refers to the movement of the camera and the size of the shot, plus additional technical considerations such as lens type. Mise-en-scène is the domain of the director and the designer, mise en shot is controlled by the photographer or cinematographer.


As well as scrutinising the components of an image, it is vital that the whole organisation of the shot is considered. Whenever anyone points a camera, or lays out a page, they make gatekeeping decisions about exactly what their audience see or don't see. In representing an idea through imagery, they choose to highlight certain elements and play down others. The simplest form of this process is to look through a camera viewfinder and decide where to point it before taking your picture. The two things that you consider, even if only for a split second, are framing and composition.

CyberCollege - an excellent module on Composition/Setting The Scene


The composition of an image is simply what it is made up of. An image will display a series of objects or people, and when referring to its compostion we look at their arrangement within the picture. Often we infer meaning through two objects relationship with each other. Is one depicted as larger? More central? Better lit? How much space is there surrounding the objects?

Images are usually composed around the 'rule of thirds'.

Apart from arranging objects within the picture, another decision that is made in composition is focus, or depth of field. This dictates the depth into the picture in which objects are in clear focus. You may becide to blur out the background, in order to place more emphasis on central or foreground objects. or you may decide to have everything in your picture in equal focus, for instance in a landscape shot, or a group photo.


Framing —deciding where an image begins and ends — is as vital to the meaning of an image as composition. There are a whole variety of camera angles which can be selected to frame a shot (see left button bar), and often what is left out is as important as what is included. What is beyond the picture, for instance, what could a model be looking at, is the source of much ambiguity and enigma. We infer meaning from the relationship between the camera and subject (a close up is intimate,

By framing two objects together in the same image, we imply a connection between them, especially if there is a physical link, perhaps through a graphic or colour, between them. If the connection is unusual (juxtaposition), we are forced to consider it more carefully and this may alter our reading

By isolating an object within the frame - for instance showing a swimmer against an expanse of nothing but sea - we can make them seem insignificant and lonely. Are characters surrounded by others (trapped? loved?) or do they have space (power? insecurity?). Are they where they need to

Technical Codes:


Lighting is part of the mise-en-scene, and is one of the deliberate choices made



Artificial Light

Most photographs you see that make part of print ads or magazine illustrations use artifical light. Moving images commonly use artifical light too - traditionally film stock was not sensitive enough to respond to any but the brightest of daylight (FACT FANS: this is why Los Angeles became a centre for film production back in the 1900s - they have approximately nine months of sunshine in a year). However, with new digital technologies, natural lighting is increasingly used by film-makers, although most mainstream producers still prefer the control that artificial lighting techniques give them.

When examining any lighting set up, you need to consider the following:

Most commonly, three point lighting is used: there is a filter in PhotoShop that will let you play around with the different effects of this. You will hear

The main source of light on the subject, usually coming from around 45° above and either to the left or the right of the camera
This is a soft light, which, as it name suggests, fills in the shadows, to avoid sharp areas of contrast caused by the main light.
This comes from, obviously, behind the subject, and makes it stand out agains the background

The important thing to remember about lighting is that shadow is just as important. We see patterns of light and dark - that is how our eyes create images, and we read both light and its absence as equally significant. The whole meaning of an image can be changed if you alter the shadows.

CyberCollege has a great series of modules on lighting techniques - start here.


Colour is an important part of mise-en-scene in that it creates mood and atmosphere. Whilst still photographers have always spent time connecting subject to background through the use of colour, film-makers are increasingly using some very stylised methods, taking advantage of digital post-production techniques. The Director of Photography has more control than ever over the colour palette used in a scene. Look at the way a movie like SWEENEY TODD or WATCHMEN appears drenched in certain colors at certain points. Art Direction and costume also have a big part to play in setting mood through colour.

Colours are powerful and complex codes, and we read them according to our culture.

The Meaning of Colours - an essay

While the gendering of pink and blue is problematic, this chart provides some interesting insights into the use of color in advertising and our home and office environments:

Psychology of Color [Infographic]

Courtesy of Painters of Louisville