The Importance of Photography Subject

The day I realized that my photos needed to have a strong subject was the day I began making money with those photographs. While composition and light are other pieces of our photography puzzle, photography subject is probably number one on my list. Simply put, if there isn’t a photography subject, there isn’t a story for your viewer. You also don’t have a anything to compose with. Nor do you have anything that light revolves around.

The sheer volume of content getting published to social media today is staggering. Every minute over 200,000,000 pieces of content are published on the web! It is completely overwhelming to know this includes over 200,000 photos uploaded to Instagram in that same minute. As a photographer in today’s market, this probably has you feeling a bit overwhelmed. It definitely has me freaking out on a daily basis.

So how do you have any chance of survival in the photography world knowing these numbers? I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but this is like sprinting uphill, while continuously adding 10 pounds to your backpack every second. Although these numbers are monstrous, they really have no bearing on the quality of the content that is getting uploaded.

If you have clearly defined your photography subject though, your online content has the ability to gain reaction from viewers. This allows your work to rise up.

What is the photography subject?

Strongly defined subjects allow the viewer to see and understand the message intended by the photographer. I have discovered that if I know exactly what I am about to photograph, there is a fairly good chance that my viewer will identify with that photography subject as well. The key to defining your photography subject is complete honesty within yourself. When I am teaching clients during my weekend workshops, many people just throw out an idea when asked what their subject is. I am talking about truly analyzing your scene and thoroughly committing to the subject because that element has caught your eye. This in turn helps you to produce the strongest photograph possible right from the start.

The other piece of the puzzle is to ask yourself if your photography subject is truly is photo worthy. If you have decided that your subject is an albino banana slug and your goal is to produce an image with that slug as your photography subject matter, you may want to reconsider. Unless of course you are biologist and that photo of the albino banana slug is the topic of your study. Or if that slug is in an other worldly scenario that no one has ever witnessed. In which case, feel free to take the photograph. This leads us directly to question number two.

What is the action (or non-action) of the photography subject?

The photography subject needs to have purpose in your frame. Once you have honestly defined the subject, and come to the conclusion that the subject is photo worthy, you need create the composition so that the subject has purpose. In other words, surround the subject with context that highlights it, strengthens it, and has your viewer hanging on to the photo for a little bit longer. It needs to be different or even better than the other photographer standing next to you with perhaps a slightly different subject and concept in mind.

Is there a way you can highlight this subject that you haven’t seen illustrated before? Can you change your viewing perspective so that you are illustrating the subject from a different vantage point? Can you use your camera controls to illustrate the subject in a new way – think shallow depth-of-field, blurred or frozen motion, or selective focus. This will allow you to change your viewer’s perception of your subject. You can also add a challenging factor to the subject so your viewer has to work to identify it. Thinks something like camouflage. Be careful when you attempt this though. There is always the chance that you will lose your viewer if you are not truly decisive with the reasoning behind your actions.

How does your eye travel through the photograph?

Photos are two-dimensional representations of a three dimensional world. The more depth or layers a photo has, the longer people will look at it. Now that our photography subject has a clearly defined purpose in your frame, we can introduce elements that allow our eyes to interact with space our photograph. Photos flatten our view of the world, so adding some layers to what we are photographing can bring our viewer into our scene.

Consider adding an element like a guiding line that takes us deeper into your frame. Think about processing your photo in a way that lightens and darkens your shadows and highlights. Remember lights advance and darks typically recede to a human’s eyes. Think about using complimentary colors if they are available. Or even connecting shapes that are in proximity to or part of your subject. Essentially, we want to use anything that is available to us at that present moment to allow our viewer to feel as if they can become part of our scene.

Once you have thought about these three questions, create your photograph. The hardest part about this thought process is that it tends to happen in milliseconds. You will need to realize that this mental process is going to take time to master. If you are photographing a subject that has any kind of motion in your frame, timing becomes extremely important. Once you become accustomed to continually questioning what you are about to photograph, your photographs will have more purpose than you ever thought possible.

Redwoods Coast Photo Adventure by Jay Goodrich

Looking to build upon your current photography knowledge-base? Join us in an upcoming photo adventure. We not only take you to amazing locations. We teach you how to focus on being a creative photographer not just a technical one.


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