Ambiguity in Photography

A lively discussion about ambiguity has ensued on my Facebook posting where I had asked for feedback on my Assignment 2 rework. Although the discussion mainly involved the merits of ambiguity I thought I would do a little more research into what ambiguity is in photography. I always find it is better to create a solid base of understanding and then move on from there.

I came across a very informative article by Mien Thein that explained this very well, which I will summarise briefly. Thein states that photographs can be divided into two groups: a) literal and b) ambiguous. “The defining characteristic of a photograph (is that) it is a recognisable and relatively linear representation of reality, both in spatial arrangement and luminosity” (Thein, 2015). According to Thein there are three items that need to be considered when trying to make a photograph ambiguous:

  1. Resolving power: by using size, light and depth of field, one can render a subject small and insignificant so that one will not realise it is not noticeable; if it is dark, e.g. silhouette, one will not be able to discern any details; if it is out of focus our brain will have insufficient details to discern the object.
  2. Spatial arrangement: the edges of a photographic frame imply a limitation to the composition of the photograph. One is, therefore, forced to consider only what lies within the frame. “It is the spatial relationship between not just the elements within the frame but the frame itself that has implications on causality and story: forced empty space in the center of the frame suggests deliberate avoidance; proximity suggests collaboration” (Thein, 2015).
  3. Conscious exclusion: look around the frame and see what can be removed. Go for a minimal approach. “The fewer distractions there are from your main subject, the more attention your audience puts on your intended focus” (Thein, 2014).
© Lynda Kuit 2012

Images benefit from having several layers. Apart from the aesthetics of the image, there should be a obvious message to interest the viewer and also a more subtle one that is revealed through more intense study. If we provide too much information, then only one interpretation will be forthcoming. There is a very fine line between being “vague enough” and “too vague”. The ideal is to have the viewer engage with his/her imagination and keep them guessing.

Reference List

Thein, Ming (2015) Ambiguity [online] Ming Thein | Photographer. Available at: [Accessed 10 December, 2016]

Thein, Ming (20145) Conscious exclusion[online] Ming Thein | Photographer. Available at: [Accessed 11 December, 2016]


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