Visual Literacy: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson introduces the concept of visual literacy, defining the term and discussing its importance. To help students develop visual literacy, we includes some techniques used in photography and how they convey a message.

Reading Pictures?

In today's society, where just about every technological device can take pictures, we are inundated with photographs. Most of the times, people are just trying to capture an event as it happens or preserve a beautiful scene without any deeper meaning. I'm sure you can relate and probably have a ton of pictures on your phone or computer that were taken in just this manner.

However, this also means that many of us don't think about the different ways that skilled photographers tell a deeper story with their images. Subconsciously, we may understand parts of what they're trying to say, but without being about to ''read'' the image, we can often be manipulated to believe the story we're seeing is the absolute truth.

For example, in the image below, we see a very powerful scene of destruction in the aftermath of the Joplin, Missouri tornado of May 22, 2011, but the photographer used a number of techniques to convey a larger message than just asking us to look at the damage. Let's explore those techniques. We'll be focusing on photography, but keep in mind that these principles can be applied when you're looking at many other types of images, from paintings to graphics in a magazine.

Try to think of how this picture makes you feel, what it might be trying to say. Then, look at the different aspects of the image that support that message.
Tornado Aftermath

Visual Literacy

The key to understanding images in their entirety is a skill called visual literacy, defined as the ability to recognize and understand the messages communicated in visual formats as well as the ability to create our own messages in a visual medium. In most cases, one has to enroll in art classes to learn the basics of visual literacy, analyzing imagines and deconstructing what techniques were used to craft a message. This is changing, however, as more disciplines incorporate the need for visual literacy in their own work, such as the field of visual anthropology.

Techniques and Elements in Visual Communication

While we can't offer a detailed study of each and every technique used to create a visual message, we can discuss the five basic elements and provide some examples. Not only will the examples help clarify the concepts, it will give you valuable practice in identifying them for yourself in the future.


Focus refers to the clarity, or sharpness, of an image as well as the depth of field, or the distance between objects that are clearly in focus, measured from nearest to farthest. This minimizes the background details that can subtract from an image's main message or most important feature, which we also call the focal point.

Focusing on only the fishing lure with a very shallow depth of field creates a focal point for the eye.
Fishing Lure


Framing is another technique that limits what we see when we look at an image. Rather than obscuring the background, framing defines the edges of the image, cutting away the surrounding details. The reasons behind selective framing can include the need to streamline a message or to eliminate information that could directly contradict the message in the picture.

We may see a particular scene, but what else is outside the frame?


This is the position of the photographer or camera in relation to the subject of the image. Different angles can draw attention to the subject in surprising ways, particularly when viewing an object from an angle not normally experienced in daily life, such as aerial photos or looking up at small objects.

We do not normally see a flower from the ground up.


Photographers can convey a great deal of information through the creative use of light. Manipulating light and shadow, as well as the direction of the light source, offers the possibility for startlingly dramatic effects and emotional force.

How does this image make you feel? Does the light play a part in your interpretation?

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