Pictorial Photography Guide

Last Updated on April 15, 2021

vintage photo of men in news room

What Is Pictorial Photography?

Pictorial photography is an early type of photographic process, popular in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Pictorial photographers employed techniques such as soft focus, selective cropping, and carefully-timed exposure to capture a mood or tell a story with their photographs.

A bit about how Pictorial Photography Works

The basic idea behind pictorial photography is to use creative lighting and composition techniques in order to convey mood or story through the image. Pictorial photography is also known as photo-illustration or “artistic” photography.

How To Do It

Pictorial Photography tools and techniques vary by photographer, but a few basic tips and tricks are helpful when taking Pictorial photos:

  • Use soft focus to convey mood or tell a story. Outdoor scenes often benefit from adding a touch of soft focus, while indoor scenes often benefit from using selective cropping that reduces or eliminates distracting background elements. “Props” (accessories) such as a doll or toy soldier can also be used to enhance a story when combined with soft focus.
  • Use shallow depth of field in order to focus the viewers attention on key elements of a compelling scene. A shallow depth of field is best achieved with large aperture lenses that are available for smaller digital cameras.
  • Use selective cropping to control the amount of information in your photo. Selective cropping (also called “thumbnail cropping”) is one the most powerful tools available in a digital camera, and it’s used by everyone from amateur to professional photographers alike. For example, when taking a “rainy day” photo, choose the best shot (say on a sunny day) and crop out what you don’t need.
  • Use creative posing and lighting to convey mood or tell a story. For example, a couple embracing is often best photographed indoors under soft light. A birthday cake photo is best taken in bright, overhead light.
  • Be very patient when taking your pictures. Especially with outdoor scenes, it may be helpful to get a tripod and then let the scene develop over time before taking the shot.
  • Experiment with different techniques and styles in order to achieve the effect you are looking for. Try taking one picture at a time, then wait a while and take another. Look at the results and use what works best with your subject matter for the next shot.
  • Keep in mind that no matter how challenging or difficult your subject may be, you can usually find a way to make it work in your photo. Pictorial photography is about finding creative ways to make an image work, not “getting it right”.

Knowledge Needed

In order to be successful with this type of photography, you will need to have a basic understanding of your camera and the elements that form the basis of your images. You will also need to know how to use some basic photo editing tools like cropping, selective focus and editing in Photoshop. A good basic understanding of exposure is also helpful in order to make wise tradeoffs when shooting your picture.


Pictorial photography is not for everyone. It can be a lot of fun to try, but don’t be surprised if it takes you a while to master the techniques needed to make good pictures. If you find that your photos aren’t turning out the way you want, work on your knowledge and practice until they start improving.

If you are interested in trying to learn more about Pictorial photography and vintage photography in general, consider joining a local photography club to help improve your vintage photography skill.