Photography: A Critical Introduction

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Course Information
Terms offered: 
Fall, Spring
Language of instruction: 
Contact Hours: 


Additional student cost: 

Photo projects printing paper (50 A4 sheets or more) and site visits.

Students must supply their own digital camera (6 Megapixels or more) with manual controls, with a strong preference for a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex). Only in rare cases is a film camera acceptable for the course.


The main purposes of this course are: 1) to introduce the students to the basic techniques that eventually help them to master the fundamental rules of “making” (not simply “taking”) photographs; 2) to offer a general idea of the conceptual issues concerning the reading of photographs, and images in general. This encompasses how photographs are taken, what their different forms and meanings can be, why they occupy such a key role in our society, who controls their circulation, where their main centers of production are located and when this overwhelming global process originated. Since theory informs practice, the proposed conscientious engagement with questions about photographic meaning helps students develop not only a better critical understanding of the images they are wrapped up in the environment they live in, but also a deeper sense of the hidden agendas underlying the pictures they learn both to interpret and to construct. Students also discover how to combine their images with words and sounds and will create their own multimedia “audioslideshows”. Last but not least, recalling that linear perspective was originally invented, developed and formally described by Italian painters and architects during the Renaissance, students also have the opportunity to reconsider the entire photographic process from the point of view of the numerous artists that, long before the invention of photography, faced the problem of effectively representing the three-dimensional space (i.e. reality) on a two dimensional surface.

Attendance policy: 

Regular class attendance is mandatory. Students are expected to attend classes each day, including course-related excursions.

IES Abroad Milano allows a maximum of TWO excused absences per semester. Each further absence will automatically result in a penalty of two points off (2/100) on the final grade. SEVEN absences per course (including 2 excused absences) will result in a failing grade for that course. Furthermore, an absence on the date of scheduled tests, presentations or quizzes does not entitle you to recover/reschedule such tests. Failure to attend your midterm and/or final exam will result in an F grade on that paper/exam.

Learning outcomes: 

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

  • Use their cameras effortlessly and appropriately
  • Analyze and demonstrate a clear understanding of the role historically played by the Italian Renaissance’s view of reality on the development of the photography
  • Critically evaluate and discuss the role of photography and images in contemporary society, the arts and the media
  • Envision, elaborate and finally assemble a personal multimedia project based on images, words and sounds
Method of presentation: 

Lectures and discussions; presentations and video tutorials; critical analysis of required readings; experiments with photographic and lighting equipment; field study visits; students’ presentations of photographic projects; group discussions.

Required work and form of assessment: 
  • Active class participation - 10%
  • Mid-term exam: first photo project & first study paper - 20%
  • Intermediate exam: second photo project & second study paper - 35%
  • Final exam: third photo project & third study paper - 35%

Mid term exam:
Photo Project 1 & Study Paper 1: understanding technique and the theory behind light, color and composition controls.

Intermediate exam:
Photo Project 2 & Study Paper 2: a documentary or an art project and a written essay regarding contemporary critical issues on photography.

Final exam:
Photo Project 3 & Study Paper 3: a multimedia project and a written essay.

Study Papers:
These are 5.000 characters (or about 800 words) papers correlated to the course syllabus contents. Study Papers follow each section and shall be handed in by due dates.

Photo Projects:
Photo projects are to be presented to the class and the instructor on the stated dates. Projects should consist of 10-20 pictures each.

Class attendance and participation influence students’ grade in the course. Students are expected to attend every class and arrive on time for each. Unexcused absences lower their final grade.


Students must supply their own digital camera (6 Megapixels or more) with manual controls, with a strong preference for a digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex).  Fully automatic compact digital cameras (so called “point-and-shoot” cameras) are not recommended.





Lesson 1: Overview of the course, teaching methodology, bibliographical references, students’ personal presentation of own experiences and needs, course grading criteria and teacher’s expectations.

Lesson 2: Art and Visual representation, the Renaissance, the invention of perspective and the evolution of automatic image-making technology


Lesson 3: Camera equipment, films, digital sensors, image format.

Lesson 4: Lenses, focal length, exposure controls, sensitivity.


Lesson 5: Colour, tones, dynamic range, contrast.

Lesson 6: First Field study - S. Ambrogio


Lesson 7: Light - natural, artificial. Knowledge and control of practical lighting conditions.

Lesson 8: Composition, framing, proportions, perspective and image design skills.


Lesson 9: Digital workflow, image management, photographic processing software.

First written assignment hand out.

Lesson 10: The myth of photographic truth - the photograph as document.

Students hand in first written assignment.


Lesson 11: Mid term exam - Students present their first photo projects to the class and freely debate with the instructor and the rest of the class

Lesson 12: Second field study - a photographic exhibit in Milan


Lesson 13: The mass media and the public sphere

Lesson 14: Photography in the age of electronic imaging


Lesson 15: Visual persuasion - visual truth, visual lies

Second written assignment hand out.

Lesson 16: Image Ethics - part one


Lesson 17: Image Ethics - part two

Students hand in second written assignment.

Lesson 18: Tutorial - students present their second photo projects to the class and freely debate with the instructor and the rest of the class


Lesson 19: Multimedia Storytelling - an overview Telling stories with pictures and sound. The power of multimedia. Notable examples from the web. Multimedia components.

Lesson 20: Audio technical specifications, sound editing tools and software, audio genres and typologies.


Lesson 21: Audioslideshows - examples, elementary and complex editing software.

Lesson 22: Privacy and copyright issues

Final written assignment hand out.


Finals: Students present their final photo projects to the class and freely debate with the instructor and the rest of the class

Finals: Students hand in final written assignment.

Courses are divided into three consecutive sections:
A) technical, B) theoretical-analytical, C) project-oriented:

  1. Weeks one through four are devoted to an intensive survey of the technical concepts which constitute the fundamental bases of the photographic process. As a final test, a short (800 words) paper is assigned to students. They also have to carry out a simple photo project  that is presented to the class and jointly discussed.
  2. Weeks five through eight are devoted to the critical analysis of some crucial theoretical debates around photography. As in the previous section, a written paper will be assigned to students, together with a  photo project.
  3. Weeks nine through eleven are devoted to the knowledge of the most up-to-date techniques of presentation of audio/visual projects, both in the art world and in the documentary/journalistic milieu. The final photo project and written paper should concentrate on these themes and implement these techniques.
Required readings: 

A course pack (in digital form) including all the required readings will be available during the course, on a weekly basis.

  • Freeman, Michael. The photographer’s eye. Oxford: Focal Press, 2007.
  • Gross, Larry, Katz, John Stuart, Ruby, Jay (Eds). Image ethics in the digital age. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Langford, Michael, Bilissi, Efthimia. Langford’s Advanced Photography. Oxford: Focal Press, 2008.
  • Messaris, Paul. Visual Persuasion. The role of images in advertising. Thousand Oaks, London, New Delhi: Sage Publications, 1997
  • Simon, Dan. Digital Photography Bible. Desktop edition. Indianapolis: Wiley Publishing Inc, 2004.
  • Sontag, Susan. Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.
  • Sturken, Marita, Cartwright, Lisa. Practices of looking. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001
  • Wells, Liz (ed). Photography. A critical introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 2009.