How to Describe a Picture or Photo in English for Exams

Many, many students of English have problems when they have to describe a photo or a picture, and some of them need to do well in this activity for the FCE, TOEIC, PTE or other exams. So let’s go!

There are four main steps to effectively describing a photo or picture in English.

  • 1st SUMMARIZE:
    • Summarize the overall idea very simply.
  • 2nd GENERAL DESCRIPTION:
    • Describe the main focus of the image properly.
  • 3rd IMAGINE CONTEXT:
    • Speculate on a few (3-4) aspects of the picture.
  • 4th PRECISE DESCRIPTION:
    • Give as many precise details in the little time left.

Notice how if you do this exercise correctly you will have had the opportunity to show your English in the best way possible.

This structure gives you a great chance to use a variety of language and not just adjectives and some action verbs but also speculating, comparison, location language etc etc!

Much better than a list of “There is...” and “There are...”!!

Here below I will go into more detail about how to succeed at each stage of the process, giving you some great tips and useful language!


1 Summarize the Picture


When the picture or photo is presented to you, especially if you are in an exam, you can start to panic! Your brain just goes blank!

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to go blank:(here) to go empty, to have no thoughts!

One great way to avoid this panic is to arrive at the picture with a PLAN!

In the first section your objective is to summarize the picture giving a very general description – do not give much detail here – just stay calm and imagine that there is someone in the room who cannot see the picture at all.

How would you describe the picture?

- There are three people sitting at a table in a room talking and eating.
- There is a girl on a horse jumping in the air.
- There are lots of people in a street dancing to music.

What about this photo?


Pretty boring, right?

The idea here is just give a SUPER SIMPLE summary. I would not focus on any adjectives yet (if you say some that’s ok!) but instead focus on

  • People,
  • General Location (inside, outside)
  • Other Main Objects
  • Activities

The order is probably not very important except for the actual subject of the photo – who should probably be mentioned first.

In exams there are almost always people, so expect a starting summarize sentence as follows:

  • People
    • There is a (boy, girl, couple, etc)
    • There are (4 [young], lots of, etc ) people

  • Activity + General Location (Specific Location + Main Verb)
    • They are inside/outside, ...
    • ...in a kitchen, on a bicycle, at a table, in a queue, with dogs….
    • ...sitting, standing, walking, talking to each other, smiling and laughing, playing rugby.

  • General Observation of Main Object
    • The room looks like a restaurant.
    • The car interior is made of brown leather.
    • The garden is decorated for a party.
    • The park looks very big.

If you feel that you cannot easily stay calm in order to stay focused on deciding what are the main features of a picture, one idea could be to half-close your eyes (called ‘squinting’).

This might help you not notice all the extra details and focus on the photo’s main image.

Learning a Specific Starting Phrase.

If you don’t feel very confident about the very first sentence, you could arrive with a specific phrase format.

Doing so also avoids the risk of a rather uncomfortable and unproductive few seconds of silence!

One possible initial sentence structures could be as follows:

There [is/are] SUBJECT verb+ing [object?] preposition + place/object.

For example:

There is a woman buying some food in a shop.
There are some children playing a game in a park.
There is a girl riding a horse in a forest.
There are three young people talking at a table.

Practice just using this formula with many pictures!!

If you do approach the starting sentence with a fixed format like this, then it will be much easier to stay calm, and even more importantly, you will have prepared yourself well for the next steps because you will have identified the main subjects of the photo already, and, your brain will have ‘caught up’ and be ready to start working.

to catch up :(here) to reduce the space or time lost and get back into the right situation

So, let's get back to our Boring Picture.

There is a man cutting (carving) some meat at a table.

Next we will move onto giving more information about that first phrase….

2 General Description

So now we move on to really describing the main subjects of the photo.

Again, imagine that you are describing the photo to someone who cannot see it.

For this again we are going to follow a structure – the classic structure from journalism, the 5 Wh- Questions:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • When?
  • Why?
  • Where?

[Just a note, there is also HOW, but this is less appropriate here because we don’t know the full story and we can do supposition later with WHY.]

At this stage we can use the 5 Wh- Questions now for just VISIBLE description, and then re-use the 5 W’s in stage 3 for making speculations, or for things we can imagine might be true.

It is not necessary to say something for each Wh- Question if you can’t think of something. And it is also ok to say more than one phrase.

The focus here is to be able to give clear descriptions using the best adjectives and nouns that come into your mind!

So let’s start!

The order does not really matter but WHO is probably the most natural to start with.

  • WHO – VISIBLE
    • How many people?
    • How old are they?
    • What are they wearing?
    • What are they each doing?
    • What emotions are they showing?
  • Next, we may naturally move onto WHERE
    • Is it inside or outside?
    • What type of building is it?
    • What type of nature is it?
    • Is it a house? A business?
    • Is it a garden or is it in the wild?
  • Now something about WHEN (that is visible)
    • Is it dark outside? But becoming light?
    • Is it light? But becoming dark?
    • What about the weather?
      • Is it sunny? Cold? Raining? Windy?

Now let’s move onto WHAT.

This is about the BIG objects in the picture.

Even if the object is ‘boring’ say so. (They are sitting around a very ordinary wooden table).

Remember that you describing the photo as if to someone who cannot see it at all!

  • What big objects can you see?
  • How many are there?
  • Colours? Sizes?
  • Are they… / Is it…. Old? Expensive? Big?
  • If there are animals (or vehicles) what are they doing?

EXAM TIP - Extra language to add here:
Here especially, you may also want to use some of the 2D and 3D placement language that we will look later when we talk about precise details (part 4).


Another type of language you can use here, or in any part really, is to make a comparison to general knowledge. So you could say…

“They are sitting around a very ordinary wooden table, exactly like the ones you see in every school canteen”
“They are standing next to an old car, just like the ones in old black and white films”

Finally we might be able to say something about WHY. Remember this is supposed to be just for visible information here – not for any other reason than just to make sure you use a nice variety of language.

WHY is often less easier to see: but there are some possibilities, and normally you would explain further..

They are celebrating someone’s birthday because I can see a “Happy Birthday” sign.
She is about to buy the newspaper because I can see her opening her wallet.


But don’t worry about WHY too much because it is often something you just see immediately or not (but it is nice to remember because it brings you to the next section…. Suppositions and speculating!)

3 Speculating


Or in other words, What do you imagine is the context or wider situation for this photo!


By now in the exam you should be fairly comfortable with the picture.

But also possibly bored and feeling limited about what you can say!!

Students often complain that very little is ‘happening’ in the photo, but this is by design!

The exam is not trying to get you to list endless adjectives and nouns, instead you are forced to start using your ‘imagination’ and so more complicated language!

endless: without end, here: implying a boring or repetitive style

The most common types of language that we can start using here are the modals and expressions of probability but also conditionals could be inserted here! – basically some more advanced language to ‘impress’ the examiner!!

Once again we can use the 5 Wh-Questions but this time we will aim to go into less detail in each section but instead look to get some inspiration.

And we are going to combine the 5 Wh- with the VERB from Step 1 (Summarizing).

Here is what I mean, imagine the people are talking. So we can make the following questions:

  • WHAT are they TALKING about?
  • WHERE are they TALKING?
  • WHEN are they TALKING?
  • WHO are these people TALKING?
  • WHY are they TALKING? {Last!}

And in this section the answers are NOT about what we can see but what we cannot see, so answers could be….

WHAT?

I think they are talking about something serious because they look very focused.

WHERE?

It seems to be in a very modern building, like perhaps a school or a library.

WHEN?

I have a feeling that because of the sun outside they are maybe talking in their lunch break.

WHO?

They look very young and it looks like a school so they are probably students.

Finally, we can move onto WHY, and here we can probably most easily insert a conditional phrase!

We can use one of the first 4 Wh- questions suppositions to create a possible IF clause.

But the easiest Wh- to use is often the WHO. For example;

If they are students then they could be talking about their last lesson or some homework they have to do. Or maybe about something funny that had just happened*.

Or if you feel it is less likely that they are students:

And if they were students perhaps they could be talking about their last lesson or some homework they might have to do. Or maybe about something funny that might have just happened*.

* We will discuss this language and grammar in the next section.

Let us Analyze the Language in Part 3 Speculating.

Ways to introduce your interpretations

  • It looks like…
  • It seems that…
  • I think that…
  • It appears that…
  • I have a feeling that…
  • It is possible that…
  • I suppose…
  • I guess…
  • I am sure that...

Modals to express Probability and Possibility


General Possibility

They may be talking in the school canteen.
They might be classmates.
They could be waiting for someone else.

NB. Be careful about using can for possibility in this exercise, this is because can is generally not used in specific situations – we use it for general situations – and so we do not know enough about the people in the photo to talk about their general life.

[However it is possible if you talk about life in general. They look very bored, waiting for a bus can be very unexciting]

Possibility in the Past


This language can be used to great effect in the conditional phrase!

They might have just finished work.
She may have just asked how much it costs.
He could have just woken up


Adverbials of Probability

We can also use some adverbs of probability to our ideas.

The most common ones in general are:

  • definitely
  • certainly
  • clearly
  • obviously
  • possibly
  • perhaps
  • probably
  • maybe

But I think for the photo description the most common ones are the weaker phrases:

,,,.
  • possibly
  • perhaps
  • probably
  • maybe

Perhaps and Maybe are normally used at the beginning of the clause.

If they are tired then perhaps they will go to bed
Maybe they are planning where to go next.

Adverbials of probability, just like normal adverbs, come before the main verb, except the verb To Be.

He could possibly be a doctor.
She probably wants to order some food.


Conditional Structures

It would be nice if you aim to naturally use a conditional sentence into your photo description.

Let’s have a look at the two sentences I wrote earlier:

1 If they are students then they could be talking about their last lesson or some homework they have to do. Or maybe about something funny that had just happened*.
2 And if they were students perhaps they could be talking about their last lesson or some homework they might have to do. Or maybe about something funny that might have just happened*.

FIRST CLAUSE, the IF CLAUSE

I don’t want to go too much into the grammar of conditionals, except to say that your grammar books are mostly wrong and make students think that conditionals are fixed long phrases.

They are not!

What if I simply remove the IF clause.

[Perhaps] They could be talking about their last lesson.

Using the IF clause just tells the listener WHY you are saying what you are saying.

I wrote two forms of IF clauses.

If they are students, [stronger]
If they were students, [weaker]

This only reflects your perspective.

If I win the lottery = super optimist [Present Tense]
If I won the lottery = normal pessimism for a lottery! [Past Tense]

This decision is only important because if you do use the weaker form then as in my example I continue to use weaker conclusions, eg

They could be is stronger than Perhaps they could be
They have to do is stronger than they might have to do


That had just happened is stronger than That might have just happened.

Once we establish the IF clause we can easily say three more clauses

  • A) Now activity clause
  • B) Future supposition
  • C) Past suppostion


2 A) THEN + ACTIVITY CLAUSE

This is the less impressive of the clauses but still nice

...[perhaps] they could be talking about their last lesson…
...maybe they are planning what to eat…

So it is a simple combination of modal of probability, or adverbial of probability, with the Present Continuous.


2 B) FUTURE SUPPOSITION

The structure that I like here is:

- [might] have to do later.
...perhaps they are practicing for a competition/match they have to do later…
---maybe they are discussing some work they have to do later...

2 C) PAST SUPPOSITION

The structure that I like here is:

- might have just [happened]

So for example…

...perhaps they are talking about the lesson they might have just had
...maybe she is practicing some skills she might have just learnt
...maybe she is paying for something she has just chosen

This section is by far the best way to impress the examiner!

It is really important to note how this phase of the description would be very hard to do without passing through parts 1 and 2 – but that also parts 1 and 2 will help immensely in you finding let's say the 3 champagne phrases to say!

“Don’t just learn phrases by heart!”

Students are quite rightly told to not learn phrases by heart but here you are NOT learning phrases by heart. There is a difference.

If you learn the phrase: In the picture there are 4 people having a ball! But they are NOT having a ball then the examiner might smell a rat!

If you learn to say, as I recommend:

In the picture there [is/are] SUBJECT verb+ing [object?] preposition + place/object.

And then practice that structure, then maybe if you do say

“In the picture there are 4 people having [a ball / a great time / a discussion / dinner / etc... ] in [a park / a kitchen / outside / etc]”

Then the examiner will not feel it has been repeated because it genuinely describes the picture.

This idea of learning some structures is actually how we might well learn language, they are called Lexical Chunks.

So, let's get back to our Boring Picture.... what can we say here with the 5 Wh- Questions?


[who] The man is middle-aged, and he is wearing a black jumper and a colourful apron with red polka dots! He has a large orange knife and he looks like he is concentrating. I think he is preparing dinner for a lot of guests!
[where] It looks like he is inside a home, maybe in the dining room.
[when] I can see some light outside, it looks very sunny, so maybe it is a big lunch.
[what] The table looks very interesting because there are lots of plates and there is also an enormous cooked bird, I think it is a turkey or a very large chicken! It looks like it was cooked in the oven, because it is brown and it is sitting in aluminium foil. It looks very nice!
[why] Perhaps it is Christmas or Thanksgiving because I have seen people eat food like this at those times of the year.

So the key verb here is 'PREPARING'...(be careful not to repeat yourself, skip a section if you have said something about it already).

[what] I think he is preparing a big meal for a special occasion but he is not dressed formally so perhaps it is just his family and close friends.
[where] The man looks very relaxed and casual and I think he is at home.

And if we try to use a conditional structure or two;

If the man is cutting the meat then perhaps he has just taken it out of the oven, so it is very hot and probably smells fantastic!
Perhaps all the guests might have just sat down and are looking at him while he prepares the food.

Phase 4: PRECISE DESCRIPTION: Give as many precise details in the little time left.

We now move onto the final part of the description. The main job is done and you have had a chance to use some ‘champagne’ language.

Now we can use some more types of language. Location language and Precise vocabulary.

Firstly, location language:

Two Dimensional Placements

  • At the top/bottom of the picture ...
  • In the middle/centre of the picture ...
  • On the left/right of the picture …
  • On the left hand side / left hand part
  • In the lower/upper part of the picture
  • In the top right (hand) corner
  • In the top left (hand) corner
  • In the bottom left (hand) corner, bottom right
  • On right/left edge of the picture
  • At the very top/bottom of the picture
  • On the very left/right of the photo
  • At the dead/very centre of the photo

Three Dimensional Placements

  • In the foreground/background you can see …
  • Towards the back of the picture
  • Towards the front of the picture
  • At the back
  • At the front
  • In the front part of the picture
  • In the back part of the picture
  • Behind/In front of ... you can see ...
  • Between ... there is ...
  • in front of
  • next to
  • behind
  • near
  • on top of
  • under
  • to the left of
  • to the right of

There are many great expressions for locating objects, you will not need all of them but memorizing some can be very useful.

Again imagine that you are describing the picture to someone who cannot see it, and so placing the object you are about to describe can be very useful indeed!

Precise Vocabulary

The second main language area in this section is using as much precise vocabulary as you can.

The objective here is to give an indication to the examiner of the range of your vocabulary.

The basic sentence structure here can be repeated:

[Location] there (is/are) [adjective] [object].
At the back of the picture there is a wooden gate.
On the right of the picture there is a large crowd of people.
Behind the people talking there is an elegant clock.

Key vocabulary here would include adjectives that describe visible characteristics.

BONUS LANGUAGE

Sometimes there are features of a picture which are unclear.

This could be because they are out of focus, or they are very small, or they are so big we can only see some of it.

Some good phrases here include:

  • It looks like
  • It might be a ...
  • He could be ...ing
  • Maybe it’s a …

And using there is/ there are:

  • It looks like there is…
  • There seems to be
  • There appears to be
  • There is something which looks like a..

So if we combine describing something unclear with precise description we could say:

[Location] [Language of uncertainty + there ] [adjective] [object].
On the right hand side of the photo it looks like there is a very large tree.
At the very back of the photo there is something which looks like a red car.

In this section try and use as many precise words that are suitable for the picture, if you do not know the correct word for something you have two options.

You could ignore it and say something you do know.

Or, you could use descriptive language based on the visual features or it’s function.

How to Describe something you don’t know the precise word for

Sometimes we can’t think of a precise word for something, don’t panic!

The exam is a speaking and communication exercise, NOT a vocabulary test.

So the trick is to communicate the object or action a little bit less precisely.

the trick :(here) the little idea or action that solves a problem

This is actually a major activity in language speaking even amongst natives who don’t know or can’t remember the word for something!

So relax, and in fact you may even score more points!!!

So imagine there is a music concert flyer on the wall.

You could describe it as ‘a piece of paper with information about a music concert’

Or functionally you could say, ‘one of those things they give you to promote a concert”

or as something that is similar, ‘it’s like an advertising leaflet but for a music concert” another example….

Ok so now you have a general structure for how to approach describing the picture,

Now let's quickly look at some additional problems:

Further Questions

#1 What to do if you can’t think of anything

This is a real problem and my advice is simply not let it happen!!!

The best, and possibly only, way to avoid this problem is to avoid thinking!!!

To avoid thinking you must arrive with a plan and know the plan.

So you learn and practice the structures in this article, or you create similar phrases with your teacher.

And then you arrive at the exam knowing that you just have to go A, B, C, D.

Apart from the initial summary all the other phrases and steps can be skipped or they can be done in a different order, so don’t panic if you jump sections in the exam.

However, do not arrive with no structure. Arrive with a structure as a back-up plan and then choose to follow it or not.

Limit the energy thinking, maximise the energy for talking!!

#2 What to do if you don’t know the word and it is IMPORTANT for this picture!!

Ok, so in the section above we talked about describing something without knowing what the precise word is.

But what if the main subject of a picture is a word that you don’t remember, or you just can’t remember?

The very first thing to remember is that this is a speaking exam, not a vocabulary test.

It is not fantastic, but it is still not a complete disaster. So don’t panic.

Can’t remember the word ‘elephant’? Say ‘animal’ or “big animal” or better “huge mammal”.

Can’t remember the word ‘rugby’” Say ‘sport’ or ‘team sport’ or ‘a sport a bit like football’

Can’t remember the word ‘market’” Say ‘outdoor shops’, ‘small open shops’, ‘shops in the street’

Obviously the teacher will not be particularly impressed with your vocabulary, but they will be impressed with your communication. And that is the skill being tested!

#3 What if there are no people in the photo?

Occasionally there are photos with no people.

Imagine a book and a table.

Now just treat the book as the subject.

“In the picture there is a book lying on a wooden table.”

Now describe the book. Closed or open, new or old, big or small etc.

For some more champagne language imagine the person who organized this or these objects.

Perhaps someone put the book here for someone else.
If the book was left here by accident, then maybe someone will have to come back and get it.


So treat the inanimate object as a subject and then for the more complicated non-visual section imagine the person or people who created the scene.

If the scene is a natural scene, then imagine someone arriving here. What have they just done, what are they doing, what might they have to do next?

Here are some links that could be of interest!

Check out: Conditional-Perfect-Uses