“In the picture” / “on the picture”; “in a photo” / “on a photo” in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more.

The equivalent expression in many languages employs a preposition translated as “on” in most other contexts (e.g. “sur” in French). In English, however, the correct preposition is “in”:

correct The boy in the photo looks sad.
wrong The boy on the photo looks sad.

The pattern is the same no matter what word we use for the visual media (e.g. image, photo, picture, drawing):

correct There are no trees in the picture.
wrong There are no trees on the picture.

We only use “on” when we mean that something is on top of a physical object; for example “there’s a cup on a photo” means that the cup lies on a photo. However, “on” can also be used when one thing is part of the top layer of another thing. This can be a little confusing for words like “postcard”. You would say:

correct There’s a house on the postcard.
wrong There’s a house in the postcard.

The reason is that a postcard is the piece of paper itself, not what’s printed on it (unlike the word “picture”, which refers to the actual visual content). What you mean is in fact: “There’s a house (in the picture that is) on the postcard.”

Similarly, if you saw a picture of a man drawn on an envelope, you wouldn’t say that there’s a man in an envelope, would you? The (picture of the) man is on the envelope.

This article was based on my guide to the most common mistakes in English, which explains many similar topics. Why don’t you check it out?