TAOP: Part 5 – Narrative and Illustration: Exercise: Illustration by symbols

In principal, illustration by symbols is straightforward, but there are some pitfalls to avoid – the first being cliché.

The most obvious symbols also tend to be over used; however cliché can be a matter of opinion and may be overcome by treating a well-used symbol in an original or interesting way.  As an example, insurance companies might use images of shields, fortifications, umbrellas etc. to illustrate protection. While clichéd, a spectacular photograph would lift the ideas out-of-the-ordinary.

It’s pointless trying to escape the obvious by being obscure – as a symbol must be recognisable.

Objects of manageable size are also useful as symbols – if they can be moved it’s easy to arrange a photograph; above all, a symbol has to be practical to shoot.

Exercise: Symbols

The brief of this exercise is to list more than one symbol for a number of provided concepts; briefly noting how I mage use them in a photograph.


A young plant: showing a young plant, close-up, sprouting from soil or from amongst dead leaves.

Long hair: flowing behind somebody, with them as background – a long trail, almost stream, of hair snaking toward the foreground


A huge burger: close-up, wide-angle, to give it more depth – perhaps with somebody attempting to take a bite out of it but clearly unable to because of it’s size.

An overflowing glass: shot with the camera level to the top of the glass, water spilling from all sides of the rim.


Handcuffs: arranged closed and sat on an arrest warrant (to make sure they’re symbolising crime, and not something else!)

Smashed window: shot with a brick in view, to demonstrate the window has been vandalised.


Gagged mouth: A fairly simple one, tape over somebody’s mouth.

A speaker: A smashed up loud speaker, in pieces on a floor.


A beggar: a candid shot, sat in a doorway with a cup/hat – potentially with a cardboard note (though this one is pretty clichéd)

A penny: close up of somebody’s spread fingers – a penny falling from their grasp.

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