Photography How To: Photographing Symbols

Creative Coping / Creative Coping : Eleanor Haley

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If you follow ‘What’s Your Grief,’ you know we think that artistic expression is a great way to deal with grief.  We specifically recommend using photography because it’s versatile, accessible, and easy to use on a basic level  We’ve blogged about the many ways you can use photography to cope with grief, self-portraits as a means for self-expression, and photographing inspiration.  

For those of you who don’t feel comfortable with a camera, the suggestions found in these posts have probably been out of your comfort zone.  Sure we say anyone can do it, but without a good camera and a little bit of know-how, do you really believe you will end up with decent pictures?  Probably not!

I think you should though, so today I’m going to give you a photography ‘how to’ on photographing symbols – symbols of hope, reminders, and mementos.  I will show you a few approaches (with easy to moderate difficulty levels) using a symbol that reminds me of my mother, an acorn necklace.  The images posted are straight out of the camera, no editing or Photoshop.

young girl wearing acorn necklace

1.  Cell phone photo processed with Instagram

Instagram is a free and easy way to enhance a photo taken on your smartphone by using one of Instagram’s many digital filters.  Instagram also makes it easy for you to share your photos on social media.  If you don’t want to register for Instagram, you can also try using the app VSCO.

For this photo, I simply asked my daughter to wear the necklace and took a picture using my phone.  After a few tries, I had a photo with no blur and good focus.  I tried all the filters Instagram has to offer and finally settled on the one I liked the best.  The filter I chose kept the focus on the acorn but blurred her face.  You may not like any blur but I intentionally added it to subtly emphasize the necklace.

That’s all there is to it!

2. Symbol against a flat background

Choose a background:  Using what you have around the house or outdoors, choose a background you think goes well with your symbol.  You can use a piece of fabric, bed sheet, blanket, piece of paper, or whatever is below your feet (i.e. carpet, cement, hardwood floor).  When in doubt look outside, there are all sorts of cool colors and textures found in nature.

open door

Look for good light: I am going to recommend you find a lot of light with the following exception: steer clear of direct mid-day sun which will cast hard shadows.  If you’re indoors, pay close attention to areas near windows and doors.

I chose the space just inside my front door (pictured on the left).  I like the natural look and texture of the hardwood floors and the light coming in through the door is abundant but soft.  I don’t need to worry about cleaning up the area because my symbol is small I only need to focus on a small section.

On using flash: Your camera probably comes with a flash.  Depending on how your settings are adjusted and the amount of light you’re working with, it may trigger.  Be aware, flash can throw off color and cast harsh shadows leading to results you aren’t happy with.  Try turning off your flash and see if that helps.  You can read your manual to figure out how.  If you’re like me and you’ve lost the manual, you’ll have to go online and Google your camera make and model along with “how to turn off flash”.  Here’s a hint: the symbol of a lightning bolt in a circle with a line through it (the ‘no smoking’ circle) means ‘Flash Off’

If you find your photo is blurry without flash, you probably need more light.  Try looking for alternative spaces with more light and when in doubt, go outside.

Take a variety of photos:  I took photos of my symbol in a variety of ways.  I took a few standing straight over the necklace and I took a few from a lower angle kneeling on the floor.  After taking several with just the hardwood background I decided to try something else and added sheet music as a background.  For me, music is also symbolic, so this makes the meaning of the photo even more dynamic.  Here are a few results straight from the camera – no cropping or editing.

acorn necklace
acorn necklace
acorn necklace in shape of heart
acorn necklace against sheet music

3. Isolating your symbol (Note: Manual Settings Required):  Another technique you may wish to use involves isolating your symbol by blurring the background (and/or foreground).

Manual Settings: In order to do this with your camera you must have the ability to adjust your settings manually, specifically your aperture.   Again, consult your camera’s manual to determine whether it allows you to adjust the aperture; all digital SLR cameras and some digital point-and-shoots will allow for this.  Your manual will have information about how to adjust these settings, but as a supplement, there are a multitude of tutorials online. We recommend this great Beginner’s Guide to Aperture and Depth of Field by, you can also e-mail me and I will try to help.

Choose Low Aperture: The key to isolating your subject is to use a low aperture like f1.8, f2.8, f4, the lower your aperture the more blur you will achieve.  The ‘Aperture Priority Mode ‘camera setting is good for beginners because after you set the aperture the camera will figure out all the other settings for you.

Choose a Background: Even though your background will be blurred, I suggest choosing one free of clutter and with colors that you find pleasing.  You may not have control over your background, using this technique will at least allow you to draw focus away from whatever is behind your subject.

Focus Carefully: Take extra care when focusing on your subject.  Low aperture means that only a select part of your picture will be in focus and the rest will be blurred, so it’s easy to focus incorrectly causing your symbol to be blurred.  Try several takes to make sure you get a photo you like.

Here is an example of my symbol in the same setting as before, but using a low aperture to blur the background…

acorn necklace in shape of heart

In these photos, I took my symbol into the backyard and found an area where I could hang the necklace in front of a nice greenish background.  Here I was able to take a photo of the acorn suspended in front of the green bushes and the two garden lights…

green field
acorn necklace in green field

For more information on using photography to cope with grief, check out the following articles:

Subscribe to ‘What’s Your Grief’ for more information about using photography to explore and express grief and emotion.  Email us at if you would like information on our next Exploring Grief Through Photography Course! You can also submit your grief photos here.

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4 Comments on "Photography How To: Photographing Symbols"

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  1. Vickie  June 10, 2013 at 1:00 pm Reply

    Where can I find a necklace like the one photographed? I’ve been looking for something like it for years!!

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