Writing about Images

Earthrise and other stories about photography

There is one image I have gone to for many years as an excellent example of how to write different types of stories about the technical and human sides of photography and begin to teach about visual literacy and context in photographs. That photograph is called Earthrise.


Earthrise is a photograph taken by astronaut William (Bill) Anders on Christmas Eve, 1968, and is usually credited to his employer, NASA. Anders, together with Jim Lovell and Commander Frank Borman, were crew members on Apollo 8. Its mission was to orbit the Moon (ten times) to gather information about the surface in preparation for the Apollo 11 mission that would land there less than a year later, on July 20, 1969.

The crew took photographs to help determine possible landing sites and other research using modified Hasselblad 500 EL cameras with 60 mm (with a reseau or grid to calculate distances), 80 mm and 250 mm Zeiss Panacolor lenses. They used 70 mm film rather than standard 35 mm to produce more detailed images. The astronauts made 150 photographs of the Earth (some in colour) and more than 700 photographs of the Moon (mostly in black and white).

Note on photograph copyright from NASA: Content, such as this image “Earthrise” copyrighted by NASA “generally are not subject to copyright in the United States. You may use this material for educational or informational purposes, including photo collections, textbooks, public exhibits, computer graphical simulations and Internet Web pages. This general permission extends to personal web pages.”

Technical details

Earthrise was taken using a shutter speed of 1/250 sec and an aperture of f/11. I will explain those two terms more in another part of Writing about Images (Part 6: Some photographic concepts). What is important for now is that Anders was making decisions about how to make his photograph successful, considering the subject and conditions in which he was taking it. Anders operated the shutter fast enough to avoid blur that might have been caused by his movement or that of the space capsule. The aperture was open sufficiently to give a good depth of field (details on the Moon’s surface and planet Earth far away in space).

Told so far, this is a rather technical story about the mechanics of taking a photograph in space. But there is much more to this narrative about the timing, interpretation and significance of Earthrise to humankind. It was not the first image of Earth from space, but it was part of the first series of colour photographs taken by a person from the Moon. Until this time, we hadn’t seen our planet like this. The image allowed people to see the oceans and make out continental outlines, some covered in clouds. They could see part of the Earth in shadow, nighttime, and another section in the day.

Visual quality

Look at the image further and consider the composition and qualities of this photograph. How does the grey surface of the Moon frame the Earth? What is the relative proportion of planet versus satellite? We can articulate these points as we write about aesthetic qualities around composition and more (considered in depth in Part 8: What makes a photo successful?).

Context and meaning

Later in the course (Part 13: Photo essays, context and portfolios), we will be looking at the internal, original and external context of some other photographs but for now, let’s stay with this image and its portrayal of the place in which we live. In the late 1960s, the world was going through some challenging issues. The Vietnam-USA war was continuing; demonstrations on university campuses in the USA led to students losing their lives. The environmental movement was mobilizing. Concerns about pollution and the use of resources had received greater public attention, leveraged notably by the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. This book, written by Rachel Carson, inspired the modern environmental movement with its challenging examination of the impacts of DDT, a persistent and bioaccumulating pesticide.

Iconic photograph

Earthrise became an iconic image. It was a photograph that was widely recognized and continues to be used, enjoyed, or appreciated by many people long after it was created. The origin of iconic (there’s etymology again!) is in the Latin word icon and Greek word eikon, meaning a likeness to a person such as an image, figure, picture, or statue. Later, the word was used to describe pictures of religious characters (icons).

It is a word with multiple meanings, though. In digital technology, it means a software program, file, or function on a computer screen. In semiotics (the study of signs and symbolism in communications, which we will touch on later in the course), iconic describes a sign or representation of an object. 

In photography, some images have become very famous; widely recognized and acknowledged for their outstanding qualities or the depiction of a critical point in history.

This list of iconic photographs continues to grow. Try searching for some of these lists and examples online. Ask yourself the question: “Why does this photograph appeal to me?” Then ask yourself the question: “Why has this photograph become iconic?” We will return to these questions in Part 7: Writers and images. In the case of Earthrise, the photograph became iconic because it identified our planet with the significant environmental and social challenges going on in the world then. Earthrise continues to resonate with us, even though we have seen many more photographs like this from space. 

Blue Marble

There is another, some say, iconic photograph of Earth. It’s called The Blue Marble, an image made by a member of the Apollo 17 crew about 29,000 km away from Earth en route to the moon on December 7, 1972. It is also the name given by NASA to a series of photographs of the Earth taken in 2012. 

Writing about Images

There are more important things than kit in photography

Photography is not only a technological process. It’s not just about cameras and lenses. Much more critical than kit are the situations, people, places and issues depicted and the person behind the camera making choices about the images they create and share.

Images created by you

Writing about our own images is an excellent way to help further develop confidence in our writing skills. We are familiar with the material and how it was created; we can write about those images with first-hand experience. At the beginning of this course, you will plan and try out ways to represent a person positively. In another assignment, you will make photographs that help you appreciate the visual elements, including composition, that can make a photograph successful. 

Images created by others

In this course, we will also be analyzing images produced by other photographers. They may be individual photographs or collections of photographs found online, printed in books and magazines, or displayed on the walls of a gallery or some other public space. We will be exploring their visual qualities and their appeal to us either individually or to a broader audience.

We will put a lens on documentary photography, investigating images’ embedded content and messages, many of which you will be sourcing yourself. These photographs might be about social justice or cultural themes; they might be politically tuned or about development issues or environmental challenges. 

Visual literacy

When we look at a photograph, we might ask ourselves some questions. Is it entertaining? Is it educational? How, and more importantly, why does it inspire, inform or intrigue us? What particular attributes of the photo take us into its story? Does it have a political intent that is genuinely promotional, or does it feel like propaganda and the misuse of “the facts”? What truths are there in that image? What can we say, and write about how the image communicates well and impacts us individually or more broadly in society?

Writing about gear

Unless you have a personal drive to go there, this course will look only a little at the technical side of photography. We can write about cameras and lenses, how they work optically, compare them with one another and what is best for you. That’s the kind of writing (or watching on YouTube) you get in gear reviews or company promotional materials and the basis of conversations you might have in a camera shop.

We will get just a little bit “techy,” looking at things like aperture and shutter speed, resolution and depth of field—just enough for you to appreciate how photographs are made. We will not cover much about different lenses (primes, zooms, telephotos, macros) or cameras (analogue, digital, SLR, DSLR, mirrorless, full-frame). This is a writing course rather than a technical photography course, built around an appreciation of photographic images. However, if you are already into photography or aspiring to do more in the medium, you can include these technical issues in your writing, class discussions or questions. You might, for example, have an interest or curiosity about the use of photography in medicine or forensic science.

The photographic process (1)

This simple diagram goes about as far into the physics of photography as I plan to go.

Photography is about using light from the sun (or indirectly via some artificial source) and how it is reflected from surfaces, be it a building, a band playing on stage or a face in the crowd. Photography exploits reflected light energy, captured by film or a digital sensor, then converted chemically or electronically into a durable, visible image.

The origin or etymology of the word photography is from two Greek words, photos and graphe, which means drawing or writing with light.

The photographic process (2)

We have examined Earthrise from several perspectives: technically, about how the photograph was created; an analysis of its visual elements and composition; what does it mean, what is the context and significance?

The photographic process is not just technological. It is also a human process. The diagram below suggests how a photographer is interpreting how to use received light to create a photograph.

Ask yourself some other questions as you go through this diagram: Where is the light coming from? How does it represent the subject through the balance of light and shadow? What are the qualities of that light? Is it soft like at the end of the day, referred to as the “golden hour,” or is it the harsher, less-forgiving midday sunshine?

The camera utilizes reflected light coming off surfaces. The energy is captured on film or a digital sensor and processed chemically or electronically to form an image. Then that image is stored and either forgotten, deleted or used in some way. Its life may remain online, in a social media account that might hardly ever be seen or might go viral, viewed by millions of viewers. It might be featured in a publication or printed as a Polaroid to be shared personally. The photograph might get displayed in a gallery or pasted onto a door on the street.

A photograph may communicate in ways that influence our emotions and behaviour.

A photograph may communicate in ways that influence our emotions and behaviour. It might persuade us to buy a product or service or cast a vote for a particular politician. It might educate us. Inform, intrigue or inspire us.

The photographic process (3)

The diagram below brings the technical and human sides of photography together.

It shows the interaction between photographic equipment, human choices made by the person behind the camera (the photographer), the products they create (the photographs), and how they are communicated and responded to in society. That human process involving the creation and communication of photos is the focus of this Writing about Images course.

Photography as a physical and human process

Image reception (capture)

Image reception or capture is about using cameras, lenses, and lighting equipment. Then, a darkroom (chemical processing of analogue film) or digital processing software such as Lightroom, Photoshop and Premiere Pro (alternatives to these Adobe products are available) is used to make stills or movies. The processing of photographs is included in the workings of smartphones and digital cameras. Post-production can make further changes.

Participants in the Shell Smarter Driver Challenge are filmed and photographed at a gas station in Vancouver at the end of their fuel-efficient drive across Canada on June 22, 2012. © J. Ashley Nixon

Later in the course, we will be examining the extent to which the manipulation of images is ethical and acceptable (Part 10: Aesthetics and ethics of photo-manipulation).

Image communication

Image communication is directed, amongst other things, by the training, experience and perspective of a photographer (and sometimes by a curator or photo editor).

A photographic exhibition is installed at cSPACE, Calgary on February 2, 2021. © J. Ashley Nixon

As mentioned, photographers make choices about how their images are created and the channels they use to reach an audience. These include social media, books and magazines and exhibitions at galleries as shown above.

Image perception

Effective communication of an image also depends upon the receiving audience. How are people prepared (through their education, beliefs, biases and more) to receive, interpret and decide on what they see in a photograph?

A sculpture of Andre Sakharov by Peter Shapiro in Washington DC. Photograph © J. Ashley Nixon

The image here was taken in the streets of Washington DC, outside Russia House. It shows a fabulous “floating” sculpture of the Russian physicist Andre Sakharov, a dissident campaigner against nuclear weapons, made by Peter Shapiro in 2002.

How we respond, individually or collectively, to a photograph is, amongst other things, dependent upon our behavioural response. The response is directed by our memory process and mood or level of consciousness as we view an image. Education and experiences influence our level of interest in issues suggested by a photograph.

Our level of attention comes down to what else is occupying our minds at the time. These are all variables that are not only different across people but change within us individually through time. What this means is that our understanding and appreciation for a photograph are more subjective than objective. Our perception and opinion about a photograph come from a complex, variable, conscious and sub-conscious process.

Narratives and stories

The best of photography, to my mind, tells a story. Consider the fairy tale story of Cinderella found in books and several films (there are animations, live performances and a musical). The same story gets told, but the narrative or way it is told (the order of events, direction, emphasis and character of the fairy godmother, the ugly sisters and more) may differ.

The image below shows a collection of photographs in an exhibition on the second floor of the Business School building at MRU. It’s called 100 Views of the World, an example of a series of narratives or interpretations made by different photographers about a global story.

Photographic exhibition at Mount Royal University. Photograph © J. Ashley Nixon

We have become very familiar with photographs like the one below. Other photographers would approach this story about the pandemic in 2020 using different narrative techniques.

Workers in Calgary, 2020 (from the book “Social Camouflage” © J. Ashley Nixon. See Betula Books below)

What would be your story about the pandemic. How would you use photographs to show your own narrative?

Writing stories about images

Here are some types of stories that fit well with this Writing about Images course.

Personal stories

We can tell and write our personal stories with photographs, even stories about photographers taking pictures of photographers taking pictures!

Waterton National Park. © J. Ashley Nixon

Technical stories

We can write technical stories about cameras and lenses and the process of photography. This photograph of an old camera was taken in a mining museum in Alberta.

Camera, Nordegg Mining Museum, Alberta. © J. Ashley Nixon

Life stories

We can tell stories about the lives of photographers and how they created images. What was it about their upbringing, education and experiences that led them to make photographs in their particular way? Martín Chambi (not the person in this photographer), a social documentary photographer in Peru, is featured here and later in the course (Part 20). You will be selecting a photographer yourself to write this kind of story in Assignment 3.

Martín Chambi exhibition, El Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), Lima, Peru, 2015. Photograph © J. Ashley Nixon

Evaluation stories

Contemporary stories about environmental, social and political issues are rarely told without photographs to illustrate or emphasize points and perhaps a call to action. You will be writing one of these stories in the form of an illustrated magazine article as part of Assignment 2. At face value, you might see this photograph (below) as being just a car.

VW Beetle, San Borja, Lima, Peru, 2015. © J. Ashley Nixon

Look further, and you see an orange car, a dusty and dirty parked-up VW Beetle. You might see the registration and wonder what PE means? Or you might wonder why the vehicle is secured behind a fence? Is it for security reasons? Probably yes, given its location on the streets of Lima.

Put this image into an article about climate change, and it might provide a visual metaphor to get the reader to think more personally about the vehicle they are using. How well does it run? Does it have a dirty engine, a polluting exhaust emission? Is there an alternative available? Should I keep it locked up? Those were some of the ideas running through my mind when I took this photograph. It wasn’t simply a photograph of a car. It was a picture of a dirty VW Beetle locked up. It was saying something challenging about individual and collective actions on climate change. Or at least that was my plan!

Analytical stories

The photograph below shows the photographer and environmental activist Cristina Mittermeier presenting her work at the Jack Singer Hall in Calgary.

Cristina Mittermeier presents her work at the Jack Singer hall, Calgary, April 23, 2018. © J. Ashley Nixon

Mittermeier was born and educated as a marine biologist in Mexico and now lives in Canada. She makes photographs and writes with huge passion about the natural world, particularly about the challenges of pollution and climate change to life in the oceans and cultural and humanitarian stories about indigenous people in the Amazon and the Arctic. You can read more here about Mittermeier’s work.

Writing about Images at MRU

This article is used in Writing about Images, a course I have taught undergraduate students across all faculties at Mount Royal University since 2016.

More images

You can see more of the photographic work of J. Ashley Nixon here.

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