This is some sentences in a flyer test.

I took this photo by the lake last Saturday, Grandma. It looks lovely. Do you know any of these people?

Yes, I do. The man who’s reading the newspaper is William.

He’s wearing a nice hat.

He is, isn’t he? Grandpa knows him, I think!

Why don't they say "he was wearing a nice hat" because that was happening in the past?

Can we use the present tense to describe people in a video?

For example, "Look at you in this video! You are smiling and swimming in a bathtub".

  • 23
    Out of curiosity, which language doesn't do this? It sounds fairly natural to me because the few other languages I know enough to be sure do the same.
    – Pere
    Jun 1, 2020 at 13:00
  • 3
    @Pere Languages without tenses (e.g. Mandarin)? I imagine to a native speaker of such a language this could be very surprising.
    – idmean
    Jun 1, 2020 at 14:13
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    I'd say the difference becomes clear if you add some omitted information: "He's wearing a nice hat [in the picture]", but "He was wearing a nice hat [when we took the photo]". However, usually the focus is on the photo, and not the situation.
    – ljrk
    Jun 1, 2020 at 15:28
  • 3
    Well, in the picture he's still doing that isn't he?
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 1, 2020 at 23:57
  • 2
    @idmean Nope, not surprising. Mandarin has no morphological tenses, but when describing images and such things, the same constructions are used as when describing present (continuous) occurrences, not past occurrences. Jun 2, 2020 at 23:34

5 Answers 5


You can use the past tense, if you are talking about what the person who was photographed was doing.

But normally, when you look at a picture you describe the things in the picture in the present tense. The picture doesn't change, it's always the same.

It's the same type of thing as describing what's depicted in a painting. Especially if the painting doesn't represent anybody in reality, there is no past for the people shown. Within the context of the painting itself, it's always the present.

As such, both past and present are possible:

"What was he doing just before you took this picture?"
"What is he looking at [in the picture]?"

The same also holds true of video:

"I remember when we shot that. We were all having a good time."
"This is when I couldn't figure out what was going on. Just wait until you see what happens next."

The context determines if you're asking about the present content of the picture or video, or about the past experience of the person who was captured in the picture or video.

  • 8
    I would add that it's even common to narrate stories in the present tense, sometimes even if the events being described are actual historical events but have been fictionalized or are being presented in the tone of a fictional narrative.
    – phoog
    Jun 1, 2020 at 13:56
  • 1
    I would argue for maybe simple present instead of present continuous. Obviously "he" was doing what "he" did as the pic was taken - but rather unlikely kept doing it until "now"
    – eagle275
    Jun 2, 2020 at 15:19
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    There's an interesting subtlety here. If you say "He was wearing a nice hat" it sounds like you're recalling a memory, whereas "He is wearing a nice hat" is an observation you are making on the spot.
    – Flater
    Jun 3, 2020 at 8:32
  • @Flater Aren't both sentences judgments about the hat itself, whether it's your memory of it or your observation of it? Saying that he was wearing a nice hat doesn't change your current opinion of that remembered hat being nice … (Although I see the subtly different interpretation too: I remember thinking it was a nice hat at the time … It's a bit ambiguous without clarification.) Jun 3, 2020 at 8:38
  • @JasonBassford: Not sure why it matters whether it's a judgment on the hat or not. Your comment seems to imply that I'm talking about your current opinion of the hat vs your past opinion of the hat, but I'm not. My point is that recalling a memory is restricted to using past tense (e.g. "He's wearing such a nice hat. He crashed his car later that day, you know" => the latter part is a memory and cannot use present tense as it's not a current observation) whereas a current observation allows for (and commonly favors) present tense.
    – Flater
    Jun 3, 2020 at 8:49

When describing what is present in the picture we tend to use present tense:

That is granddad. He is wearing a hat.

The continuous form is used, although it might not be "logical", at any rate we treat the picture as if it were happening now. It's not required, and if you use a past time you'd also use past tense

That was granddad in 1951. He was wearing a hat.

When we describe facts that are not present in the picture, we will tend to move to a past tense.

That is granddad. That was the trip he took to Rome in 1951.

You can do the same with videos: If you need to describe what is present in the video you can use the present continuous (but its not wrong to use a past tense) if you are making inferences from the picture the use past tense

You are smiling and swimming in the bathtub. You were such a happy baby.

  • 3
    I think the distinction you make between what the picture is showing (sic!) as opposed to what was (!) really happening at the time is the key. In a courtroom a witness may be asked "the photograph shows you facing the scene. Were you able to observe the event?". What's in the picture: Present tense. Actual past events: Past tense. Jun 2, 2020 at 8:41

It's a narrative trick. The speaker is trying to engage the listener, probably emotionally, and using the present tense can make the story seem more immediate and relevant.

"He is wearing a hat" induces further questions, like 'Why? Where did he get it? Does he wear it a lot?' The past tense makes such details seem distant and unimportant.

It's a subtle effect. It's not necessary, and a lot of people use it without really knowing why. You may also encounter that in the absence of pictures; somebody telling about an experience they had last week will use the past tense when simply conveying information, but the present tense when attempting to engage or inspire.


The reason we use the present tense to describe a person in a photo or a video, is similar to the reason that we use the present tense when we are discussing or criticizing the actions in a novel or a play, but sometimes the past continuous is correct as in the example that follows.

For example, in discussing the play Hamlet we would generally use the present tense: Hamlet investigates the sightings of the ghost of his father. Later, he finds a skull in a graveyard that he grimly jokes is of a court jester that he knew when he was younger. That is, before the actions of the play begin. Hamlet does not realize that the grave that is being dug is likely for Ophelia.

Generally, the present tense is correct for discussing fiction such as in the example from Study.com where the story of the tortoise and the hare is explicated:

'The fast hare challenges other animals to a race. The slow and steady tortoise accepts the challenge. The hare, who is confident in his abilities, decides to take a nap on the course. As a result, he loses.'

Since the present tense is used to discuss poems, stories, novels, plays, it follows that the present tense should also be used for film and video, and also for photographs and paintings.


As others have said, we can and do sometimes use the past tense. However, from childhood, we are used to looking in a picture book and an adult saying, "See the rabbit? What is the little rabbit doing?"

It is easier for children to understand the present tense and to imagine that what they are seeing is happening now.

As adults, it is natural to continue with this childhood fiction.

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