Photography Composition

Punctum – Why Good Photographers Should Know This Word

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Written By Nate Torres

Punctum, you may or may have not heard this term before, but you’ve probably experienced it yourself when viewing a photograph.

In photography, the goal is to capture the beauty of life around us and craft an image that evokes emotions, tells stories, and offers unique perspectives.

In this guide, I’ll be covering:

  • The definition of punctum
  • Why punctum is important for photographers
  • Origin of this term
  • How to create punctum
  • Punctum vs. studium

Let’s dive right in.

If you’re more of a visual learner, be sure to watch the video I made discussing Punctum:

"Punctum" - Why GOOD Photographers Should Know This Word

What is Punctum in Photography?

Punctum is a term used in photography to describe an element in an image that grabs the viewer’s attention and evokes an emotional response that may have been unintended or uncontrolled by the photographer.

The element could be a specific detail or aspect in the scene with which the viewer can resonate on a deeper level, creating a more impactful image.

For example:

I took this photo in Japan and I was trying to emphasize the sunset.

Another viewer could potentially look at this photo and notice the boats on the lake.

The boats could remind them of their childhood which would make the image more impactful to them.

This would be an emotional response the viewer has that was unintended or uncontrolled:

Lake in Japan
Lake in Japan

Why is Punctum Important in Photography?

Understanding punctum as a photographer is very important.

But it’s important to note that a photographer can not intentionally set out to “add” punctum to their photographs.

Rather:

It must come naturally because everyone will have a different emotional response to an image.

A photographer could try and tell a certain story through an image to evoke a certain emotional response in the viewer.

However, it’s hard to say that 100% of the viewers will feel the same emotions as the photographer set out to evoke.

Roland Barthes and Camera Lucida

The term punctum was coined by Roland Barthes, a French philosopher, literary critic, and semiotician in his book “Camera Lucida.”

Roland Barthers - Punctum
Roland Barthers – Punctum

Camera Lucida explores the nature of photography along with the emotional impact photography could have on its viewers.

It also covers the relationship between images and life, death, and memory.

The most significant concept in his book is the concept of punctum, as defined earlier:

Roland Barthes - Camera Lucida
Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida

Barthes argues that punctum is not always apparent in a photograph and that it can not be easily explained or written out in words.

He does not mention this in the book.

But I believe it can be like trying to describe love.

We know it when we feel it.

but it may be hard to express into words the full scope of the word.

He mentioned that punctum is a personal and subjective response to a photograph that is unique to each viewer.

In order to understand punctum, one must also understand studium.

Punctum vs. Studium

Along with punctum, studium is another concept that Barthes addresses in Camera Lucida.

Studium refers to the general context or subject matter of an image.

Studium denotes the “cultural, linguistic, and political interpretation of a photograph.”

It is the information that is made apparent to the viewer such as the location, the setting, the people, and the objects in the photograph.

It allows the viewer to know the necessary information to understand the image.

Take a photograph of a group of people at a party as an example.

The studium would include the setting of the party, the people at the party, and the general atmosphere and mood of the party.

In short:

Studium adds interest, but in the order of liking, not loving.

The punctum, on the other hand, could be specific details a viewer notices.

Such as a specific expression a party member has on their face or a particular object a viewer notices in the background.

These details could evoke a specific memory or emotion for the viewer.

people at a party
people at a party

Notice how most people would recognize that it’s a party, but not everyone would have the same punctum.

Each viewer may have a different emotional response or memory to different elements within the photo.

For example:

It could be a specific drink they see someone drinking that reminds them of college.

It could be a sofa they see in the background that reminds them of one they had in their garage

It could be a gaming console they notice in the background that reminds them of their childhood.

How to Create Punctum in Photography

One cannot necessarily “create” punctum because it will occur naturally and cannot be forced.

The chances of you creating an emotional response for the viewer, however, can be influenced by certain techniques you implement.

Let’s take a look at some of those techniques:

Composition

First and foremost, composition plays a crucial role in any photograph.

The way you implement composition in your image and use certain techniques such as frame within a frame or the rule of thirds can allow you to create a more visually appealing image.

These images could emphasize certain elements within the photo.

By emphasizing elements in your photo, the viewer has a greater chance of experiencing punctum.

For example:

Here’s an image I took utilizing the frame within a frame composition technique.

Frame Within a Frame Example Image
Frame Within a Frame Example Image

Contrast

The second way you can influence the emotional response in the viewer is by playing with contrast.

Playing with contrast in your photograph can create a strong visual impact.

You can use contrasting colors such as blue and orange, light and shadow, or textures to create and add contrast to your image.

For example:

Here’s an image I took using color contrast of blue and orange:

Example Image of Contrast
Example Image of Contrast

Depth of Field

The third way is to play around with depth of field.

If you really want to emphasize a certain subject, you can use a shallow depth of field to focus on that subject while blurring out the background.

You will draw attention to a particular subject while simultaneously creating a sense of depth:

Depth of Field Example Image
Depth of Field Example Image

Timing

The final way to increase the chances of creating punctum in your images is through timing.

The timing you have when taking a photograph can make or break the photo.

Capturing a decisive moment or a fleeting expression could add an emotional impact and add that extra spark to an otherwise dull-looking image:

Timing For Punctum
Timing For Punctum

Ultimately:

You cannot create punctum in your photograph but you can increase the odds of someone experiencing punctum while viewing your photograph.

Using Punctum in Different Types of Photography

Let’s look at how you can influence punctum and create an emotional response based on different types of photography:

Portrait Photography

In portrait photography, an emotional response can be influenced by capturing a subject’s unique features or expressions that would reveal their true personality.

Out of this, someone could then either get an emotional response from their personality or not.

Portrait Photography and Punctum
Portrait Photography and Punctum

Landscape Photography

In landscape photography, an emotional response can be drawn by the moment and vast scene that you are able to capture.

A unique element they notice in the scene or a specific landmark could draw the viewer’s attention and it could create an emotional response for them.

For example:

It could be a lone tree in the middle of the vast landscape or the light shining down covering the mountains during sunset:

Landscape Photography and Punctum
Landscape Photography and Punctum

Street Photography

In street photography, then capturing the decisive moment is your best chance of being able to evoke an emotional response from the viewer.

For example:

You could capture a decisive moment that reveals the complexity of urban life such as unique interactions between two or more people.

Street Photography and Punctum
Street Photography and Punctum

Wildlife Photography

In wildlife photography, an emotional response can be created by capturing a certain behavior or interaction between animals that reveal the complexity of mother nature.

For example:

Capturing an image of a mother caring for her young or a predator hunting its prey:

Wildlife Photography and Punctum
Wildlife Photography and Punctum

Should Punctum be Considered in Every Image?

I wanted to end this article on punctum with a consideration of whether we as photographers should be considering punctum in every image we take.

I believe we should always be taking photos with the intent of telling a story.

It is hard to say what emotional response the viewer will have toward the image and the “punctum” he/she experiences.

Here’s the bottom line:

Our focus should be on storytelling.

Punctum can add an emotional dimension to a photograph.

But it is not always necessary or appropriate to experience deeply in every image.

Some photos may simply be intended to document a scene or moment, without any particular emotional response.

In other cases:

The subject matter or context may not lend itself to a punctum.

For photographers who do wish to incorporate punctum into their images, it can be a powerful tool for creating a connection with the viewer and conveying a deeper meaning or message.

Ultimately, whether or not punctum exists in an image is up to the viewer.

We can incorporate elements into the image to steer the viewer toward a certain emotional response.

But it is up to the viewer to decide how they feel about the image based on where they are at in their life.

In conclusion:

I hope you enjoyed this guide on punctum and learned more about it.

When I first learned about the term and Roland Barthes, it allowed me to look at pictures and images in a different light.

It put into words what I had felt at times when looking at a particular picture.

Experiencing punctum in an image isn’t just an emotion.

It’s a mirror reflecting who you are as a person and the experiences you’ve had in life.

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