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How to Understand and Use Visual Metaphor in Photography

Last updated: March 13, 2024 - 6 min read
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Metaphor is a powerful tool for understanding and creating images. It’s a way of using one thing to represent another, to see the world in terms of comparisons and symbols. When you understand metaphor, you can use it to your advantage in photography, finding new ways to see the world and express your ideas. In this article, we’ll explore metaphor in photography.

Metaphor in Photography: Common Questions about Visual Metaphors

Can an Image Be a Metaphor?

An image can definitely be a metaphor. Many commercials use visual metaphors to make their products look more appealing.
Photographers use visual metaphors to intensify emotions and make their photos stand out more.

What Is a Metaphor in Film?

In films, metaphors are symbols represented by objects or names. A great example of this is the movie The Truman Show. The main character unwillingly lives in an artificial world.
At the end of the film, he climbs a set of stairs to enter the real world. The stairs are a metaphor for freedom.

What Is a Metaphor in Art?

In art, metaphors are symbols of different themes. For example, the painting Love’s Melancholy by Constant Mayer (1866) is a metaphor for heartbreak and loneliness.
Other common themes include hope, self-discovery, feminism, and true love.

What Is a Good Metaphor?

Popular metaphors:

  • The apple of my eye
  • Drowning in a sea of grief
  • Life is a diamond
  • A heart of stone
  • A golden ticket to freedom

How to Use Visual Metaphors

Use Symmetry to Create a Sense of Peace

Landscape photo of a snowy mountain at sunset in purple hues
Symmetry is so appealing because it’s predictable and beautiful. You can use it as a metaphor for inner peace, friendship, or hope.
We can find symmetry almost everywhere. The kind you choose depends on your theme and your preferred genre.
For example, if you nature photographer, you can take photos of water reflections. If you’re a portrait photographer, you can photograph your model in front of a perfectly symmetrical wall.
If you’re a portrait photographer, pay attention to your model’s expressions. If you combine a sad expression with symmetry, your visual metaphor might not work effectively.

Create Hope With Negative Space

Photo of the silhouette of a man on top of a tall buinding at sunsetNegative space is extra space in your photo. This can be the sky, a wall, or any part of your image that’s empty.
Too much negative space can be distracting. But in commercial photography, it has the potential to be an incredible metaphor. Negative space is often linked to hope and potential.
Here are a few examples:

  • Someone standing on top of a mountain surrounded by a blue sky. This creates a feeling of victory and possibility.
  • People looking into the distance during the golden hour. This implies that they’re looking forward to the future.

Something as simple as an empty sky can make help you symbolize a variety of positive emotions.

Emphasize Emotions With the Help of Simple Props

Portrait photo of a woman with butterflies around her
Look at everyday items in your home. Is there anything that reminds you of a specific feeling or theme? You can use these items to make your visual metaphor photography even more powerful.
For example:

  • Paper butterflies can symbolize freedom.
  • Fake cotton clouds can be a metaphor for daydreamers.
  • Flying confetti can be a symbol of joy.

Turn Mirrors Iinto a Metaphor for Self-Reflection

A woman's face reflecting in a broken piece of mirror
Mirrors are literally a reflection of the self. In photography, you can use them to symbolize self-reflection or self-discovery. Using simple Photoshop skills, you can add even more depth to your images.
You can use pieces of glass to symbolize beauty standards or a shattered sense of self. You can make reflections look different to your model. This can be a metaphor for self-development or dishonesty.
A different mirror reflection can also be a metaphor for a dream. For example, a little boy who looks at himself in the mirror and sees a fireman.

Create a Feeling of Life and Growth With Nature Elements

Portrait photo of a woman with pink flowrs in her hair
Nature is often associated with growth, prosperity, and spirituality. You can use something as simple as a flower to suggest that your model is growing from an experience.
Photographer Bella Kotak often uses flowers in her fantasy-themed portraits.
These elements of nature make her images look grounded and magical at the same time. They also work as perfect visual metaphors for progress and growth.

Use Stairs to Emphasise a Challenging or Hopeful Journey

Photo of a small kid in front of a stairway with many steps
This is a great example of visual metaphor. The child seems to be looking at the very first steps of his life as big challenge. Given the large steps (and the fact that there’s no exit) you feel that the child has a long and stable life ahead of him.

On their own, stairs are just a way to get to another level. Metaphorically, they can be a journey. The way you place your model on the steps will determine if that journey is difficult or not.
If your model descends the stairs, they’ll symbolize failure. If they go up the stairs, they’ll symbolize progress and freedom.
Other things that will affect metaphors like this are composition and destination. Where is your model going? Is there a clear destination that will intensify the meaning of your metaphor?

Point Out Differences to Emphasise Uniqueness

Photo of a nincs perfect eggs and a broken one
One of the most popular metaphors out there is “the black sheep of the family” or “the ugly duckling.” Most artists explore this topic because it’s relatable.
Is there anything or anyone in your life that makes you feel unique? What makes you feel left out?
Instead of using these examples literally, you can replace them with everyday objects as creative metaphors. You can place a bright green apple in a crate of oranges to symbolize uniqueness.
You can point out the different stages of a butterfly’s metamorphosis as a creative metaphor for different stages of a person’s life.

Merge Two Photos to Make Your Metaphor Stand Out More

Photo of the silhouette of a woman reflecting on the window of a skyscraper
Cities are the opposite of nature. They can often symbolize isolation or loneliness. This double exposure seems to be a visual metaphor for feeling alone in a busy world.

Double exposures are one of the best ways to make a metaphor stand out. All you need are two photos. One of them should be darker than the other so that your final result is visually appealing.
Many photographers merge silhouettes with landscapes, cityscapes, and portraits. Placement is very important.
Imagine that you have a silhouette of a standing person and a photo of an open book. If you place the book right in the middle of the person’s head, it might symbolize intelligence, a love for reading, or daydreaming.
This is a very simple example. You can go very far with all kinds of photo combinations. If you don’t have a specific image, you can experiment with free stock photos online.


Once you learn how to use visual metaphors in your photography, you’ll be able to add more depth to your work. You’ll also find potential in simple, everyday objects that most people overlook.
By doing this, you’ll gain access to a whole new world of creative opportunities.