Borussia Mönchengladbach Instagram exercise | | Photo adapted from original at

The 8 factors that constitute the meaning of a photo: A Borussia Mönchengladbach Instagram example

As the old adage goes, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words,’ and in today’s interconnected marketing environment it might be worth even more than that. Sharing photos with friends and strangers has become a routine for basically any smartphone user. Pictures get shared online more than any other kind of content (, accessed 11 January 2016). Hence, the compulsion for companies to add photos and graphs to online communication with their followers is increasing. According to Photoworld’s data from June 2015, 8,796 photos per second were shared on Snapchat, 8,102 photos per second on Whatsapp, 4,501 photos per second on Facebook, and 810 photos per second on Instagram (, accessed 11 January 2016).

Even though marketing professionals can now easily take photos for social media with their phone cameras, shooting an image that expresses exactly what the publisher wants is not necessarily an easy task. In this post we will choose one specific photo used by a football brand and analyse it in reference to what Nies calls ‘Faktoren der Bedeutungskonstitution’ (2013:12-22); in English: the factors that constitute the meaning of the photograph. This includes: Choosing the theme, choosing the subject, defining the image frame, finding the adequate release torque, deciding on focus and depth of focus, finding the appropriate camera-to-object position ratio, adding the right amount of light exposure and illumination, and considering the properties of the storage medium.

Referential & aesthetic photos

Nies (2013:3)” reflects in regard to a media semiotic point of view, “If a photo is always tied to a specific focal point/object and they are inseparable from each other (say, a pipe is a pipe), can the photo ever convey meanings beyond the mere show of the object?” Richard Avedon answers that question by stating that “Photography is not reportage, it’s not journalism, it’s fiction …. It’s my view. My idea of …. as a fiction. (Leonie’s Oca Learning Blog, accessed 11 January 2016)”

In the post ‘Leonardo Bonucci and the perfectly branded Instagram photo’, we have discussed how an Instagram photo by Juventus F.C. and Italian National Team center-back Leonardo Bonucci perfectly positions two sponsoring brands, Nike and Fiat, in a subtle way to convey a specific branding message. Whoever conceptualised the Bonucci photo, obviously did some thorough thinking. Nies (2013:9) differentiates between ‘referential photography’ and ‘aesthetic photography’ and defines the terms as follows:

Referential photographyAesthetic photography
Meaning constitutive:
‘What’ is in the photo?
Content of the message
Meaning constitutive:
‘What’ and ‘How’ was it shot?
Content and specific presentation of message
Reception as:
Documentary photography
Reception as:
Artistic photography
Witnesses, testify, store;
“This is how it was”
Mediation of a statement about what
is represented by artistic design
Illustration-to-Motive relation:
Neutrality postulate
Relation to reality
(Technical reproduction)
Illustration-to-Motive relation:
Product of individual creativity
Artistic constructedness
Producer reference
(‘I’ statement)

The exercise

In this exercise we will focus on a referential photograph. Nies (2013:9) explains that photographs with a referential-communicative function are primarily based on ‘What’ was photographed given that the informative content of the message stands in the foreground; he continues by stating that this is the case with photos that have documentary character and are supposed to portray a spatiotemporal moment of reality. The subject of our analysis will be a referential photo taken from the Instagram account of German Bundesliga club Borussia Mönchengladbach (link to photo).

This is the photo we will now analyse according to Nies’ factors that constitute the meaning of the photograph (2013):

Borussia Moenchengladbach Instagram photo

#1 Choice of theme

The ‘theme of what the photo should be about’ and its ‘definitive subject’ are crucial factors for conveying any sort of message. Choosing theme and subject might come to the photographer consciously or unconsciously. In the case of our photo, the theme is given by the nature of the business and the situation: football. We can be more specific and add that the theme is, ‘Borussia Mönchengladbach players warming up at Borussia-Park before a game that can be assumed to be played in front of a large crowd’. Football clubs have various themes they can choose from – and often do. Photo themes from football clubs on Instagram can include matchday photography, training, fans, players off the pitch, behind-the-scenes, history, merchandise, sponsorships, staff, ambassadors, and more, and they can focus on different types of subjects.

#2 Choice of subject

The theme for our photo has been defined above. Next we need to define the actual subject. In our photo the subject can be assumed to be the group of six Borussia Mönchengladbach players that are warming up on the pitch before the game in front of an already relatively large crowd. I am writing ‘the subject can be assumed to be’, because the subject could also be the crowd in the background – rather unlikely – or the commercial banners, albeit in a subliminal way. The copy that comes with the photo says, ‘Warm-up für #BMGFCI #Fohlenelf #borussia #Mönchengladbach #bundesliga’, which hints towards the subject being the players. Therefore, it is safe to consider the group of six M’glachbach players as the intended main subject of the photo.

#3 Definition of frame

Nies (2013:15) claims, “The frame defines the limits of the world depicted within the image.” In the case at hand, the frame was chosen to include multiple subjects: a group of football players (in the middle), a player or staff standing in front of the goal (on the left), a mascot (on the right), a vast array of commercial banners, and the fans. The frame could have been chosen to only portrait the main subject, the six players in the front. However, the photographer chose a wider angle and included all the above-mentioned subjects. The reason for this can only be assumed. A valid assumption could be that the photographer meant to include all subjects and portray a typical pre-match situation. Furthermore, the geometrical dimensions in the photo can be said to be well balanced. The green of the pitch reaches from the bottom of the picture to the middle, whereas the dark mosaic, which constitutes the crowd, reaches from the middle of the picture to the top, fading into black. Both sections are divided by commercial banners, which also divide the crowd into two sections.

4. Release torque

According to Nies (2013:16), the image frame defines the pictorial space and the release torque defines the time represented in a reality snapshot. Loeffler (2004:8) expresses his view on capturing meaning and facilitating connections through photographs by writing that each photograph acts as a memory anchor for the subject as he or she recalls the moment of the photograph, it’s intention, and the affective context surrounding it. The keyword(s) is ‘snapshot moment’. Especially, in regard to the photo at hand, the snapshot moment is crucial. Almost every subject in the photo is in movement. The group of football players in the middle is warming up by passing the ball around, the player or staff standing in front of the goal is throwing or catching the ball, and the mascot on the right is animating the crowd or will at some point. Hence, choosing and finding the right snapshot moment that melts all subjects perfectly together is crucial, no matter how small their contribution to the meaning of the photo is. It has a definite impact on the design of the photo. The photographer of our Borussia Mönchengladbach photo captured a good snapshot moment. Only the group in the middle seems to be in movement. The other subjects seem to stand still in that very moment. It can be argued that because of that the group can be perceived as the main subject.

5. Focus and depth of focus

Nies (2013:18) explains that focus adjustment and depth of focus hierarchise elements in a photo by conventionally portraying the more important elements sharper and in focus as compared to less important elements. In our photo example all elements can be said to be in focus and the depth of focus is negligible, since there appears to be none. This means that viewers can recognise all subjects on the photo, also the commercial banners in the background carrying the names of sponsors. The photographer did – consciously or unconsciously – make all pictorial information available to the viewers by not giving the photo any depth of focus. Depth of focus could have pointed the viewers’ attention towards the main subject and made everything else blurry. Nevertheless, the sponsors and the crowd received the opportunity to show themselves on the Borussia Mönchengladbach Instagram feed. This technique can well be used to help sponsors or partners of a football club activate their sponsorship investments.

6. Camera-to-object position ratio

Objects that are photographed with a phone camera appear to be smaller – or further away – on the phone screen than we perceive them to be in reality. This can be compensated by simply moving physically closer to the object to achieve the desired object size on the photo. Certain situations, like maybe in the situation at hand, might not permit the photographer to move closer due to unwanted disturbance for the players. Further possibilities include using a wide-angle lens that provides a different distance context in the photo as compared to a conventional lens. It is difficult to assess what kind of lens was used for our photo example. It seems as if a phone with a conventional camera was used and that the photographer actually stood on the pitch, relatively close to the players. Even if that was not the case, the photo is able to convey a sense of belonging, or, standing in the middle of where the action is happening.

7. Light exposure and illumination

Light exposure and illumination are two vital factors in creating a photo with a meaning. Photographers can play with both factors and influence the outcome in regard to feel and mood. In the case of this photo, the light exposure and illumination is given by the stadium setting. It can be assumed that the illumination of the stadium creates a bright enough environment that enables photographers to take any kind of photo from any angle. Here, the light shines bright onto the pitch and fades slowly into the dark, towards the upper-levels of the stands, providing a vignette effect in the upper-left corner of the photo. An idea could be to point the lens directly into the light, while having the main subject standing between lens and light. This might provide an unconventional color combination and mood to the photo. Photo apps such as Instagram provide effects that can be added to the photo in post-production and tweak light exposure and illumination. However, it is advisable to create a photo without assuming that color and light features can be fixed digitally after the shot. As a general rule: bad photo in, bad photo out. Never rely on post-production to fix content. Make the shot count.

8. Properties of storage medium

When analogue film was the norm in photography as a storage medium, photographers were able to experiment with the different techniques and create a certain feel or mood with the properties given by the storage medium. Today, conventional cameras store their images (or data) on a digital medium. This does not offer much creative freedom in regard to shooting the photo. It simply stores the image the way the lens sees it. In the case of our Borussia Mönchengladbach Instagram photo, I would again assume that the photo was taken with a digital camera. It is practical and easy to handle. If the photo was taken with the camera in a smartphone, the photographer was able to upload it onto Instagram within seconds of shooting it. That practicality is an important component when choosing which storage medium to choose. Shooting on analogue film might offer creative freedom, which might lead to unique and artistic photographs, but the necessary post-production will not allow for immediate sharing of the photos online.


The eight factors that constitute the meaning of the photograph according to Nies (2013) depict a certain thinking process that is wise to undertake as marketing managers or photographers in preparation of photo shootings or even if the social media manager just wants a snapshot for Instagram. I would assume that most experienced professionals somehow involved in this topic ask themselves questions that arise during the above-described process. Nevertheless, I have observed that beginners and amateurs often do not consider factors such as illumination, release torque, or camera-to-object position ratio. I recommend analysing the situation before a photo job and taking the necessary actions beforehand in regard to equipment (lights, wifi connection, access to pitch, etc.). And, be pragmatic in your approach.

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