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If you are being asked to describe a picture, what tense would you use?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

I would use the present tense to describe the picture itself. Reserve the past tense for talking about the subject if it's an old picture.

Matthew Brady's pictures of the Civil War are grayed and cracked in many cases, but they depict scenes that were emblematic of their era.

See? Present tense for the picture, past tense for the subject.

Use present tense to talk about the subject matter if the picture has just been taken. It's not cut and dried when you should begin talking about the subject in the past tense, but if I just take a picture of you on my cell phone, I might say, "You're not smiling enough. I'm going to take another." If it were, say, an hour old, I might say, "I wish you'd been wearing your blue jacket. It would have gone great against the yellow wall. Still, I'm not going to delete the picture. It's a good record of our friendship." And so on.

If by pictures you mean "paintings" the same rules would apply, only you are less likely to talk about the subject matter in present tense.

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I get it, so what really matters is when the story happened in the picture. – trVoldemort Mar 9 '11 at 11:12
If you are describing what is happening in the picture, you use present tense even if it is about the subject. "Here is a picture of your Great Uncle Jed from 1929. His shoes are untied and his hair is a mess (in the picture). He was always late for appointments too (not in the picture)." – Kosmonaut Mar 9 '11 at 14:36
@Kosmonaut: I don't know. I think you could equally say, "His shoes were untied and his hair was a mess when we took this shot." Or "His shoes were untied and his hair was a mess, which was uncharacteristic for him." – Robusto Mar 9 '11 at 14:42
@Robusto: The main thing I wanted to point out is that you can use the present tense to talk about the subject when you are talking about things exactly as they are in the picture. So you could say it as you describe, or as I describe (as long as it is at the moment of the picture), but you can't use the present tense to just talk about the subject in general. – Kosmonaut Mar 9 '11 at 15:30
@Kosmonaut: I see, and that's a good point. In the baby pictures I have of my college-age son I could say, "Here he's bonking his brother on the head with a toy telephone," etc. Or I could say, "You can see that he didn't mind bonking his brother." – Robusto Mar 9 '11 at 19:01

Depends, really

When this picture was taken, it was a grey day and had rained for 3 hours. I was completely soaked as you can see

In this picture you see me completely soaked after 3 hours in the rain

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On this picture? I distinctly remember a teacher saying that you are supposed to say in the picture. – user7610 Mar 21 '15 at 20:01
Thanks. Corrected – mplungjan Mar 21 '15 at 20:03

I used past tense for reviews, because you already read the book/seen the movie and the general idea is that you should use the same one all througout your text. For pictures, I also use the past tense, because you've already seen it.

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