I can...provide rules of thumb that will guide you on what to mention and how. With experience you will develop your own style.
- The cardinal rule of description is “Describe what you see.”
- To get you in the right frame of mind, imagine you’re talking on the phone to one of your good friends. It’s one of those phone calls where you’re just shooting the breeze. Imagine you’ve casually mentioned that you have just gotten your photos back from the developer, or you’re working on a portfolio downloaded from your digital camera. Now imagine telling your friend you especially like this certain picture. “Oh?” your friend asks. “What’s it look like?” “Well, it’s a picture of...” A picture of what? The way you’d finish that sentence is pretty much the way you’ll write a description.
- Here’s another approach: What words would you use to describe the photo to clearly distinguish it from another photo – from every other photo there is? Does it show a person, as opposed to an airplane? Is it an indoor or an outdoor photo? Daytime or nighttime? Is it actually a line drawing rather than a photograph? Are there mountains in the photo, or a canoe on a lake?
- With personal image collections, it can be quite helpful to explain nice little details about how the photo came about, particularly if the text of the original page mentions it. You could add, for example, “Jim still has his cast on at this point; it came off the next day.” That kind of folksy tone is unlikely to be appropriate in a business site, for example, but, as with the fun you can have with the
titleattribute, a colourful writing style can jazz up an otherwise dry description, actually fulfilling the goal of rendering the essence of the image in words.
- Mention the point of view or position of the camera or observer, if only implicitly: “A black Labrador retriever sniffs the beach sand nearby. Farther down the road, an elderly man leans over and waves a leash.”
- Definitely mention colours. All blind and visually-impaired people understand the social significance of colour: Everyone knows red is the colour of blood and connotes passion; the sky is blue, and blue is peaceful; green, the colour of grass, represents nature. Brown eyes are common, blue eyes unusual, green or grey eyes very unusual. Keep in mind that most blind people either now have or used to have some usable vision; even people blind from birth have a conversational understanding of colour.
- Point out details that would be unexpected based on common knowledge of the visual world.
- “On top of Marge’s head sits a two-and-a-half-foot-tall column of blue hair with a rounded tip. Her eyelashes are prominent and she wears a blue dress, round earrings, and a choker with big white stones. Like all the Simpsons, her hands have four fingers, and her skin colour is dull yellow.”
- “Salif Keita sings into a microphone onstage, his backup band playing drums, guitars, and congas behind him. Keita and his band are all black guys, but Keita is also albino, with very pale, pinkish skin and translucent hair and eyebrows.”
- There’s no such thing as a graphic with nothing to describe.
- An image in which not much seems to be going on – a simple snapshot of a person, for example – gives you the opportunity to describe what the person looks like. Tall or short? Curly brown hair, long blond hair, shaved head, reddish sideburns? Make-up? Flannel shirt, leather jacket, silk blouse, striped tie, tuxedo? How would you describe the facial expression?
- If the graphic is a drawing of an object, what does the object look like? If it’s a guitar, is it acoustic or electric? What colour? Tell us the shape of the guitar. If it’s a bass guitar, say so, and maybe mention how few strings there are. Is it plugged into an amplifier? (If a cord is plugged into the guitar but you can’t see the amplifier, the answer is no: “A patch cord is plugged into the guitar’s jack.”)
- If the photo shows Nick poking his head out from behind a palm tree, what does a palm tree look like? How tall is it? What do the leaves and trunk look like? (Feel free to make a comparison: “Unlike pine trees, with branches nearly all the way up the trunk, palm trees concentrate their long, rubbery leaves at the very top.”)
- Use tight, evocative adjective phrases: “long, furry tail with two matted brown burdock burrs near the tip”; “bright-red earphones half the size of a grapefruit”; “navy-blue cargo pants, with Velcro-flapped pockets on the sides of both legs and an elastic waistband”; “hundreds of wide concrete steps lead to the massive wooden doors two storeys up”; “low-hanging, dull-grey clouds almost touch the church spire in the near distance.”
- You don’t have to include every single detail (like how many flowers are in a vase), but exceptions should be mentioned: “The vase holds a few dozen roses, all red except for a single yellow one in the centre.”