back to top

How To Understand and Use Symbolism in Photography

A- A+

Subscribe Below to Download the Article Immediately

You can also select your interests for free access to our premium training:

Your privacy is safe. I will never share your information.
Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Symbolism depicts more than meets the eye. In this article, we’ll have a look at how to understand and use symbolism in photography.

What Is Symbolism?

Because of its many uses in literature and art, the term symbolism can have all sorts of meanings.

In basic terms, symbolism refers to using visual cues to express a concept. For example, a heart symbol is associated with love. But a crow is often a symbol of death.

Our associations with symbols shape the way we perceive visual experiences.

This makes symbolism a powerful tool for photographers.

atmospheric silhouette of a crow standing on rocks - symbolism in photography
Photo by Sergio Ibanez on Unsplash

A Brief History of Symbolism in Visual Arts

Symbolism developed alongside the origins of visual arts itself.

To understand symbolism in photography, we first need to investigate the history and origins of symbols in fine art.

Ancient Symbolism in Works of Art

The concept that a marking expresses numerous possible meanings is demonstrated in art dating back millennia.

The Mayans adopted the jaguar as a symbol of ferocity, strength, valour, and foresight. They carved likenesses of the big cat into temple walls and stelae.

Dramatic low key portrait of a jaguar - symbolism in photography
Photo by Geran de Klerk on Unsplash

The scarab beetle featured prominently in Egyptian art to symbolize transformation and resurrection.

An aquila or eagle with outstretched wings embodied the span and might of the Roman empire.

And ancient Chinese artists marked wealth with the depiction of a deer and adopted fish as a symbol of fertility and resilience.

Koi carp swimming in a pond - symbolism in photography
Photo by Sora Sagano on Unsplash

Symbolism in Medieval and Renaissance art

a portrait detail from a renaissance fresco painting - symbolism in photography
Photo by Torsten Dederichs on Unsplash

In an age where very few were literate, medieval art movements relied on conveying deeper meaning through symbols.

These symbols drew from religion, myth, nature, and society.

Symbols such as the dove, the cross and the halo were prominent in Byzantine art.

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus. Image from Wikimedia Commons

During the Renaissance period, in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, a type of symbolism is used to assign human values to mythological figures.

Venus herself represents love and beauty. The large scallop shell at Venus’s feet is representative of birth and fertility.

Roses blown gently across the shore illustrate love.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Symbolism (the Art Movement)

The Death of the Grave Digger by Carlos Schwabe. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Symbolism emerged as an art movement during the late 19th century.

Exaggerated gesticulations, muted colors, dark angels and grotesque figures featured heavily in symbolist artworks.

Symbolism in Other Modern Art Movements

Modern art movements such as Dadaism, Cubism, and Surrealism embraced symbology.

Woman with Buckets by Tadeusz Makowski. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Salvador Dali cultivated narratives that appealed to visual cues established in art history. He also invented new symbols, like that of the melting clock in The Persistence of Memory.

Frida Kahlo incorporated symbols into her artworks to describe larger ideas and experiences. And Pablo Picasso used symbolism to stress the dimensionality of his cubist subjects.

Symbolism and the History of Photography

Early photographers weren’t blind to the historical impact of symbolism in visual arts.

Symbols conveyed through traditional methods were soon translated to the photographic image.

Many early portraits depicted subjects with books to signify intelligence.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

As photography developed, many photographs also became symbols in themselves.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange. Image from Wikimedia Commons

Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother became a symbol of the great depression of the 1930s.

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of an American sailor kissing a woman in Times Square became an iconic symbol of the celebration at the end of World War II.

And the photograph of a lone Chinese protester stepping in front of People’s Liberation Army tanks in Tiananmen Square in in 1989 became a symbol of defiance in the face of oppression.

Symbolism in Contemporary Photography

As photography and symbolism evolved, the ways of reading and generating imagery have changed.

Photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Gregory Crewdson, Steve McCurry, and Richard Mosse have created unique approaches to photography. These resonate as symbolic of a period in visual history.

Use of symbology within contemporary photography is pronounced too. Both old and new symbols continue to expand our visual culture.

a still life featuring a skull, lemons and a vase on a pale yellow background - symbolism in photography
Photo by Florencia Potter on Unsplash

Justine Reyes’s still lifes are highly symbolic. They reference Flemish still lifes from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Tami Bahat’s Dramatis Personae blends Renaissance-inspired symbolism and aesthetics with contemporary photographic technology.

a female model posing outdoors - symbolism in photography
Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash

Chen Man’s portraiture merges symbols with fashion and make-up photography. This creates a rich photographic experience.

And Honey and Prue use the landscape to symbolize concepts and metaphors.

Common Symbols Found in Modern Photography

There are many shared symbols that continue to inform our comprehension of art today.


Colour affects our mood and our impressions. As a symbol, colour represents emotional and physical experiences.


a red toned seascape - symbolism in photography
Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

Red has a palpable weight. It holds universal associations with heat, fire, and blood. These make red the color of physicality and human experience.


a meadow of yellow flowers - symbolism in photography
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Yellow is often linked with the sun and warmer seasons. Signaling the end of winter, yellow promotes joy and lightheartedness.


a light painted heart shape - symbolism in photography
Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Pink evokes impressions of innocence and compassion. The buoyant color is sometimes associated with femininity.


a close up of rain drops on grass- symbolism in photography
Photo by Sylwia Pietruszka on Unsplash

Green represents growth and nature, putting the eye at rest.


purple flowers collected in the arms of a stone statue - symbolism in photography
Photo by Chris Ensey on Unsplash

Purple is often tied to luxury or royalty, wisdom and magic.


overhead shot of a winding orange staircase - symbolism in photography
Photo by Maxime Lebrun on Unsplash

As a mix of yellow and red, orange delineates warmth and enjoyment.


an underwater shot of rippling water - symbolism in photography
Photo by Krystian Tambur on Unsplash

Blue is associated with water, but also with beauty and sorrow.

Black and White

a black and white shot of rain splashed leafs - symbolism in photography
Photo by Mihail Ribkin on Unsplash

Paired with each other, black and white can symbolize age, nostalgia and the separation of creative realities.


Floriography reflects the meanings ascribed to flowers for thousands of years.


a red rose - symbolism in photography
Photo by Ivan Jevtic on Unsplash

Perhaps the most prominent example of floriography lies with the rose. Red roses symbolize romantic love.


lavender flowers growing outdoors - symbolism in photography
Photo by Daiga Ellaby on Unsplash

The small aromatic flowers of the lavender bush have come to symbolise purity, healing, and calm.


dark and moody shot of red and white flowers - symbolism in photography
Photo by Richard Harris on Unsplash

Chrysanthemum blooms represent fidelity, optimism, joy, and long life.


a white lily growing outdoors - symbolism in photography
Photo by Matt on Unsplash

Lilies are the flower most associated with mourning, signaling the emotional state of a subject.

Fruit and Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables are another visual cue. Artists have used them throughout art history.

Like flowers, still lifes made up of fruits or vegetables signal the passage of time.


red apples in a box - symbolism in photography
Photo by Гульшат Бадалова on Unsplash

In Christian religious art and popular culture, the apple signifies the sins of the biblical Adam and Eve.

The apple has come to be a symbol of carnal pleasure.


a lemon on yellow background - symbolism in photography
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Due to their sour taste, lemons are often a symbol of resentment or conflict.


two and a half peaches - symbolism in photography
Photo by Sara Cervera on Unsplash

The peach is seen as a symbol of virtue.


a bowl of pears and grapes - symbolism in photography
Photo by David Fartek on Unsplash

Over the course of visual arts, pears have come to be a symbol of marital faith.


a rustic still life of garlic and dried flowers - symbolism in photography
Photo by LoboStudio Hamburg on Unsplash

Many cultures have used garlic for spiritual protection.


a still life of different shaped and sized pumpkins - symbolism in photography
Photo by Sydney Davidson on Unsplash

Pumpkins have come to be associated with Halloween and seasonal change.

The distinctive vegetable represents protection, warmth, and well-being.


From ancient cave paintings to Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Lady with an Ermine. Animals have had a continuous presence in symbology and visual art.


a cute brown and white cat - symbolism in photography
Photo by Mikhail Vasilyev on Unsplash

Known as figures of liberty, intelligence, and grace, cats of all sizes are an enduring symbol in artistic history.


atmospheric pet portrait of a black dog on black background - symbolism in photography
Photo by freddie marriage on Unsplash

The companionship, loyalty, and intelligence of canines have seen their likenesses immortalized in portraiture for centuries.


three brown wild horses - symbolism in photography
Photo by Doruk Yemenici on Unsplash

Horses have had a significant historical presence in art. They are used to elevate figures of importance and add movement to an image.

Depending on their color, horses can reflect themes such as victory, aristocracy, virtue, victory, death, war and intrigue.

Small Mammals

atmospheric photo of a rat on a persons hands - symbolism in photography
Photo by on Unsplash

Some may associate rats and mice with destruction and disease.

However, rodents are also known for their intelligent and industrious nature.


an eagle in flight - symbolism in photography
Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

Birds, in general, have come to be associated with freedom of spirit.


Incorporating familiar and specific objects into a photograph establishes a wordless dialogue between a viewer and an artwork.


a pocket watch in a persons hand - symbolism in photography
Photo by Veri Ivanova on Unsplash

Clocks signify the passage of time. They remind us that time is a limited resource.

Vintage Objects

a person typing on a vintage typewriter - symbolism in photography
Photo by MILKOVÍ on Unsplash

Dated objects are another reminder of the progression of time.

Vintage fashion and items like typewriters, old cameras or cars can evoke a sense of nostalgia.

Skulls and Bones

atmospheric photo of a human skull on black background - symbolism in photography
Photo by Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

Skulls and bones inspire reflection on mortality.

Locks and Keys

a padlock on a wooden door - symbolism in photography
Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Keys signal potentiality and mystery. Locks can symbolize commitment or secrecy.


close up of piano keys - symbolism in photography
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash

Instruments add an audible dimension to an image.


the reflection of a photographer in a car side mirror - symbolism in photography
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

A mirror can stand for truth or vanity.

A self-portrait in a mirror can symbolize self-reflection.

How to Use Symbolism in Photography

Placement, repetition, line, colour, and depth of field are some of the many aspects that control the delivery of a symbolic subject.


the silhouette of a persons hands making a love heart shape around a setting sun
Photo by Mayur Gala on Unsplash

The placement of a symbol conveys the visual weight of a subject.

A symbol in the center of an image emphasizes the symbol as the subject itself.

An off-center symbol or a symbol in the background of an image is more subtle, soaking up atmosphere and context.


lines of holy Mary statues on a shelf - symbolism in photography
Photo by thom masat on Unsplash

The repetition of symbolic subjects expresses a pattern of behavior.

A strong, singular symbol holds weight as an established subject.

A repeated symbol emphasizes a message with each repetition.


a robin on a branch - symbolism photography
Photo by Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

Line plays an important role in drawing attention to symbols in a photograph.

A curved line is more organic, and pairs with symbols that are natural.

Sharp lines are inorganic and bold, delivering the viewer’s eye straight to a symbol with urgency and efficiency.


a close up of small white and lilac flowers - symbolism in photography
Photo by Natalia Luchanko on Unsplash

Like line, the human eye tends to seek out colors.

A bold pallet leads the viewer’s eye straight to a symbol.

A symbol made up of muted colors will merge with the rest of the image, cultivating a slower viewing pace.

Depth of Field

a snail on a log - symbolism in photography
Photo by Валерия on Unsplash

A sharp symbol within a focused environment speaks to the entirety of the photograph.

Symbols nested within a softly focused background and/or foreground create a sense of intimacy.


a photographers shoes and reflection in a puddle - symbolism in photography
Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

The symbols and techniques listed in this article are by no means exhaustive.

However, they should give you a good idea of using symbolism in photography.

Symbology represents something more than the physical resemblance of a particular subject.

By appealing to impressions drawn from experience and visual culture, symbology conveys imagery layered with meaning and narrative.

Show Comments (1)