A Step-by-step Guide to Describing a Picture in English

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This article covers the following areas –

Describing a picture, an image, or a photo can be helpful for people with visual impairments to see it through you. Also, in many English exams (FCE, TOEIC, PTE, etc.), you may need to describe pictures in English. Finally, and most importantly, as an ESL learner, describing pictures in English can be a great way to practice and develop your general English skills.

To describe a picture in English, start with a general overview, identifying the main subject. Detail key elements like objects, colors, and people. Describe the mood, atmosphere, and composition. Use specific adjectives and, if relevant, similes or metaphors for vivid imagery.

Sample Description of a Picture in English

Let’s try to describe the following picture.

This AI picture is created to help you learn how to appropriately describe a picture in English.

Description: This picture shows a peaceful place that looks like a park. One person sits on a bench on the left side, reading a book. It looks like a quiet spot where someone can enjoy some alone time.

The park has lots of grass, and it’s very green, which makes it look fresh and pretty. It’s probably late in the day because the light is soft and warm like it is before the sun goes down. There are trees with lots of leaves and some without any, which might be around when seasons change, like when spring starts or fall ends.

The person with the book is near us, and we can see what other people are doing in the park. Everyone looks relaxed and happy to be there. Behind them, the park stretches out with different kinds of trees that make the place look like a little green world of its own.

In the back, a small hill goes up gently, and the light makes it look nice and gentle. The hill looks far away, making you think the park is big and open.

The whole picture feels calm, like a quiet break from a noisy day. It makes you think of the sound of the wind in the trees and birds singing somewhere far away. The picture tells us that relaxing in nature can be a lovely way to relax.

Well! Now, we’ll learn how to describe a picture step by step. In the following sections, I’ll provide you with some guidelines, phrases, and tips to make a good picture description. Before that, you may take a look at English Made Easy Volume One: A New ESL Approach: Learning English Through Pictures (Amazon Link). This book creatively uses pictures and text together to revolutionize English language learning, making it easier to understand and more effective overall.

Step 1: Ask Yourself WH Questions & Answer Them

To describe a picture in English, you may ask yourself a few WH questions and then try to answer them. If you can arrange the answers in a logical structure, the full description will sound like a story. Here are some sample questions.

1. What is this picture about?

This question sets the stage for the description, helping to identify the main subject or theme of the picture. Is it a serene landscape, a bustling city scene, a portrait of an individual, or perhaps a moment captured at a social event?

2. What is the setting of the picture?

Determining the setting involves looking for clues that indicate the location and the time of day or season. It could be indoors or outdoors, day or night, and in any weather or season.

3. What are the positions of the characters or the objects in the picture?

Describing where things are in the picture helps the listener visualize the layout. Use directions like left, right, center, foreground, and background to explain the placement of significant elements.

4. What are the characters doing in the picture?

This involves looking at the characters’ actions or any movement within the picture. It brings the scene to life by explaining what each character or object is doing.

Sample Picture for Description

Look at the above picture and observe minutely. Now, Answer the above WH questions, collect all the information, and organize it logically. You may also share your description in the comment box. I’ll surely provide you with feedback.

However, throughout the next part of the post, We’ll learn to describe a picture step by step. To do so, we’ll take the above picture as a sample. To get the full description of the above picture (Sample Picture), read the post till the end.

Step 2: Describe What the Picture Is About

Imagine you are describing a picture to a person who has visual impairments. How would you start?

The best way to start describing a picture is by giving an idea of what the picture is about. Give a concise general description that you see apparently at a glance. You don’t need to go into details at the beginning of a picture description.

Here are some example sentences that can help you start the description of the picture.

  • The picture shows some people buying clothes from a clothes shop.
  • In the picture, four people are standing in a clothing store; one is a salesperson, and three are customers.     
  • The picture is about a clothes shop. Some customers are checking different items.
  • This is a picture of a clothing store with three customers and one salesperson.
  • The picture tells us it’s a clothing store, and a salesperson is talking to a customer. And some other customers are checking different items.
  • There are four people in the picture. One of them is a salesperson, and the other three are customers.

Step 3: Describe the Setting of the Picture

Setting refers to the time and place of a picture. However, you may not always understand the time. But it’s pretty obvious that you can have an idea of a place.

To describe the setting of a picture, detail the location, time, and atmosphere. Note the physical environment, architectural elements, natural landscapes, lighting, weather conditions, and any cultural or historical contexts that define and give character to the picture’s background.

While describing a place, you first give a general idea and then point out every minute detail. Let’s describe the setting of the sample picture above. Generally, you can say this is a clothing store.

But you can also give some specific information about the store by using descriptive adjectives to give someone a clear idea. For example, you can say “a small clothing store” or “a well-decorated boutique.”

To describe the setting, especially the place, you should try to draw the same picture with words so that one can clearly see the picture through your eyes with the help of your comments.

By using vivid visual imagery, your description of the place in the picture can be recognized or understood even if someone has never seen it before.  

Step 4: Describe the Positions of the Subjects in the Picture

To describe the positions of subjects in a picture, specify their orientation, arrangement, and interaction. Detail whether they are central, peripheral, foreground, or background, their posture, the direction they face, and their relation to other subjects or elements in the composition.

Use specific words/phrases, such as left, right, up, down, top left, top right, bottom left, bottom right, center/middle, etc., to give a precise, detailed position of something in the picture. Remember! There are uses of prepositions before those words. The following photo shows how to use correct prepositions while giving details about a picture.

Words/Phrases to Describe Positions

Now, let’s see some example sentences using the preposition.

  • In the center of the picture is a counter where a salesperson is talking to a customer.
  • At the top, there are some scarves on the hangers.
  • On the left is a collection of dresses, and a customer is checking them.
  • On the right is a collection of dresses, and a lady thinks about what she can pick.

Step 5: Describe the Objects in the Picture

While describing a picture, there can be so many objects. You are expected to describe just the most important things. You don’t need to go for detailed descriptions for every object you see.

To describe objects in a picture, detail their shape, size, color, and texture. Mention their location, relation to other elements, and any symbolic significance. Focus on prominent features that contribute to the overall theme or narrative of the image.

Suppose in the sample picture there is a collection of dresses. Instead of discussing every dress, you can say that dresses are kept on hangers on the left.

Yet, you can talk about the category of the dresses as a whole, but it’s not necessary to talk about the color and type of each dress.

Step 6: Describe the Characters in the Picture

To describe characters in a picture, focus on their appearance, expressions, posture, and attire. Note their positions and interactions with each other or the setting. Highlight any distinctive features or attributes that contribute to the overall narrative or theme of the image.

Characters can be of different types: a person or other animals. To describe a person in the picture, you may talk about their sex and appearance.

While discussing their appearance, mention the dresses and some notable physical features like height, overall build, hair, etc. You can also talk about their age.     

Now, look at the sample picture. What can you see about the characters? Here are some example sentences.

  • One of the customers is a blonde. She is wearing white pants and a blue top.
  • The salesperson is wearing glasses.
  • The other customer is wearing a T-shirt.

Step 7: Describe What the Characters Are Doing

To describe what characters are doing in a picture, observe their actions, gestures, and expressions. Detail their interactions with each other or their environment, and note any significant movements or activities that contribute to the scene’s narrative or emotional tone.

It would be best to discuss what is happening in the picture and what the characters are doing in it. All these must be in the present continuous tense.

Let’s see some examples.

  • In the picture, a salesperson is talking to a customer.
  • The other customer is probably looking for a suitable dress.
  • A customer is probably trying to negotiate the price.

7 Tips to Make Picture Description More Comprehensive

Describing a picture well means you help someone “see” it without looking. It’s like telling a story that paints the picture with words. You want to capture everything: the big stuff, the tiny details, and the feelings it stirs up. Let’s walk through some tips to make your descriptions stand out.

#1 Use “Might” and “Could” When You’re Not Sure

When a part of the picture isn’t clear, it’s okay to use words like “might” and “could” to guess what it is without being too sure. It’s like saying, “This could be a cat, but it’s a bit fuzzy, so I’m not 100% sure.” This way, you’re honest about what you see and leave some room for the imagination.

#2 Use Words That Show How Sure You Are

Sometimes, you know what’s in the picture, but not completely. Words like “probably” or “maybe” help here. They let you guess a little, like saying, “This probably is a birthday party,” when you see balloons and a cake. It’s like making an educated guess.

#3 Stick to What You See

Keep it real by just talking about what’s actually in the picture. Try not to let your likes or dislikes change what you’re saying. If a big red ball is in the middle, say that. It’s like being a news reporter for the picture—just the facts.

#4 Connect It to Your Life

If something in the picture reminds you of a story from your own life, share that. It makes the description more personal and interesting. Like, “This garden scene takes me back to my grandma’s backyard where I played as a kid.” It gives a personal touch to the picture.

#5 Compare to Something Familiar

If there’s something in the picture you don’t know how to describe, think of something it reminds you of. It could be as simple as saying, “This weird fruit looks like a mix between a pineapple and a melon.” It’s like using a shortcut to help explain what you’re seeing.

#6 Point Out the Differences

If there are two things to compare in the picture, go ahead and show how they’re different. It can be simple, like, “The first dog is huge and fluffy, but the second one is small and has short hair.” It’s like playing Spot the Difference, which can be really fun.

#7 Guess the Story

It’s cool to tell a story about what’s happening in the picture. If you see a boat on a river, you can imagine it’s on a long adventure. It’s a bit like writing a story based on just one scene, and it makes everything more exciting and alive.

So, when you use these tips, you’re not just listing stuff that’s in the picture. You’re making it pop out of the page with words that turn the picture into a vivid scene in the reader’s mind. Keep it playful, honest, and creative; your picture descriptions will be special.

Sample Conversation: Describing a Picture in English

Situation: Jake and Zoe are sitting in a café, and Jake is showing Zoe a photograph he took during his recent trip to the mountains.

Jake: Zoe, check out this picture I took during my trip to the Himalayas!

Zoe: Wow, Jake! This is breathtaking. The snow-capped mountains in the background create such a majestic view. And the crystal-clear blue sky contrasts beautifully with them.

Jake: Thanks! I was lucky to capture the golden rays of the sunrise hitting the peaks. It gives the whole scene an ethereal glow.

Zoe: I can see that! And the meadow in the foreground with those wildflowers adds so much vibrancy to the composition. It’s like nature’s own palette of colors.

Jake: I’m glad you noticed! And there’s a small wooden cabin to the right. Can you see it?

Zoe: Oh yes, it looks so quaint and cozy. It must be amazing to wake up to such a spectacular view every day. Your picture truly captures the essence of the place.

Final Words

describing a picture in English is a skill that combines observation with expression. By asking the right ‘WH’ questions, we start to unlock the story and the details within an image. We begin to understand not just what the picture is about but also the setting, the positions of subjects and objects, and the actions taking place. It is a methodical approach that ensures we cover all aspects of the picture, allowing us to share a comprehensive and vivid description.

As we refine this skill, we learn to add depth to our descriptions with comparisons, speculations, and personal associations. We become adept at painting a picture with words, even when our knowledge is incomplete, using modal verbs and adverbials to express possibilities and probabilities. This approach to describing images is not just about relaying what we see; it’s about bringing a static image to life for the listener or reader.

Every picture has a story, whether it’s a snapshot of a busy street, a serene landscape, or a moment of human interaction. By applying these steps and tips, we can narrate that story effectively. This guide is not just about the mechanical process of description; it’s about developing an eye for detail and a way with words that can transport others into the world captured by the lens. In doing so, we enhance our linguistic skills and deepen our appreciation for the moments, big and small, that photographs immortalize.

FAQ: Describing a Picture in English

1. How should I start when describing a picture?

Begin with a broad overview of the image. State the main focus, whether it’s a landscape, a busy street scene, or a portrait. Set the scene by mentioning the dominant elements or subjects immediately catch the eye. This provides a foundation for a more detailed exploration.

2. What elements should I focus on when describing a picture?

When describing a picture, prioritize the most striking aspects. This includes the foreground and background, which give depth; the variety of colors and their intensity; prominent objects and their significance; people, including their actions and expressions; and any notable emotions or atmosphere the picture conveys.

3. How can I describe the colors in a picture?

Be specific when talking about colors. Use terms like ‘vibrant’ for bright, eye-catching hues, ‘muted’ for soft, subdued shades, or ‘contrasting’ for striking differences. Relate the colors to the mood of the picture – for instance, bright colors might suggest joy, while darker tones could imply melancholy.

4. What if there are people in the picture?

Observe their actions, expressions, attire, and interactions with others or their surroundings. Describe how these elements contribute to the overall narrative or theme of the picture. Are they the main focus, or do they play a supporting role in the scene?

5. How can I describe the mood or atmosphere of a picture?

Use descriptive terms that capture the essence of the picture’s atmosphere. Words like ‘tranquil’ might describe a peaceful landscape, while ‘chaotic’ could fit a bustling city scene. The mood is often reflected in the picture’s composition, colors, and expressions.

6. How should I describe the composition of the picture?

Talk about how the picture is structured. Describe the arrangement of objects and subjects, the symmetry or asymmetry, and where the viewer’s eye is naturally drawn. Is the composition balanced, or does it create a sense of movement or tension?

7. Can I use similes and metaphors when describing a picture?

These can greatly enhance your description, making it more engaging and relatable. Compare elements of the picture to well-known objects or concepts to evoke a stronger image in the viewer’s mind.

8. How can I describe the lighting in a picture?

Note whether the lighting is natural or artificial, the direction from which it comes, and the kinds of shadows and highlights it creates. Lighting can dramatically alter the mood and focus of a picture.

9. How should I conclude my description?

Summarize your overall impression of the picture and the emotions it evokes. This could be a reflection on the theme, the effectiveness of the composition, or the story you think the picture tells.

10. Is it essential to describe every detail in a picture?

While some pictures warrant a detailed analysis of every element, often, it’s more effective to focus on the aspects that contribute most to the overall impact of the image. Consider what the artist might want the viewer to focus on and how the elements work together to create a cohesive scene.

If you have further questions or suggestions about anything specific related to this topic or anything else related to learning English as a second language, feel free to ask me in the comment box. You may also help the ESLA community by putting your valuable suggestions here to help every member improve their English language skills.

Niaj A A Khan is an ESL Instructor with over 7 years of experience in teaching & developing resources at different universities and institutes. Mr. Khan is also a passionate writer working on his first book, "Learn English at Ease."

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