1.2 – Composition – Subject

If composition is the most important part of photography, then your subject is the most important part of composition. Again, this is my opinion.  It’s worth ranking it, because I want you to understand the emphasis you should place upon it.  So many people make the mistake of taking pictures of things because they’re pretty.  I think landscape is a great example of that.  We see a patch of flowers and we think, “hey, I’m gonna take a picture of that, cause it sure is purty.”

Our brains are funny in how they process stimuli.  We intuitively search out subjects, or points of interest.  Now, we may jump from one point to a next, but we definitely, subconsciously key in on subjects, rather than absorbing a whole scene. Generally, we will all be drawn to the same point in a photograph when we first lay eyes on a photo.  Good photographers guide your eye to their intended subject by the way they compose their shot and by the way they use light and other elements.

So you ask, “Kevin, why is it important to have a subject?” Have you ever seen a really crappy movie and asked, “What’s the point of this movie?”  That’s the way photography is.  We have a very short attention span and if you didn’t grab my eyeballs forcefully and glue them to a subject, they will probably wander around for a moment in your photo and then say, “What’s the point?”  Here’s an example of a photo with no subject compared to one with a subject.


Boring! What's the subject?

Much better.  The flower is a clear subject.

Much better. The flower is a clear subject.

You might say, “Well, I don’t take pictures of flowers.  I take pictures of people, so I always have a subject.”  That’s somewhat true, but people photos are boring as all get up if you’re not really telling a story with your subject.  Case-in-point, go look at most anyone’s vacation photos.  That’s fun, huh?  “Here’s Bob in front of the Great Wall.  Now, here’s Bob again in front of a fruit stand.”  As they’re telling you the story, they’re laughing remembering how Bob haggled with the fruit vendor or how Bob tried to scale the wall and fell on his kiester (<==Word doesn’t know how to spell check kiester so forgive me if I got it wrong).

You see…they experienced it.  They were actually there on vacation and the image helps them remember something that happened in real time.  But all you see is Bob’s stupid, canned smile.  That’s what you must do as the photographer… make people experience the image.  Take a picture of Bob and the fruit vendor yelling at each other. If you do it well, you will make people feel the emotion of the moment, absent even the sound, smells, and touch of actually being there.

Here’s the catch…you will have to work.  I just recently took photos for a friend’s birthday party and I ended up with 300 pictures.  I don’t make a lot of mistakes at this point in terms of blurriness and the like, and yet I only chose 70 that were worth displaying.  Honestly, I could have whittled that down to about 30 that were truly great photos.  So what traits did the failing 230 other pictures possess that the winning 70 didn’t?  Chief among many things, they didn’t have a clear subject.  You might have a shot of the dance floor and it’s a bunch of people dancing, and that one person locks on the camera for a split second with a look of sheer joy on their face.  That is interesting!  We need a subject.

Here’s a decent little article I ran across on subjects in photography…

LINK: The subject is key to your photography

Good tips like: be selective and change your perspective.  I like that.  And this is really easy to practice.  Make a concerted effort to ask yourself this question before you take a picture, “What story am I trying to tell in this picture?”  If you really try to accomplish this, I PROMISE your photos will dramatically improve overnight.

What makes the following photo interesting?


Can’t you feel the tension between the two boys as one is cutting in front of the other?  I saw this little melee unfolding at one of my daughter’s school events.  I could have just taken pictures of her and her friends smiling in a posed fashion, but this is the stuff that’s interesting: conflict, emotion, authentic moments of joy, etc.

Almost all of my favorite photos of my family are them NOT looking at the camera.  Because even children freeze up when we tell them we’re taking a picture of them.  But if you’re just snapping away, moving in, moving out, laying down, and standing up, then they will eventually forget you’re taking pictures of them and just be who they are.  Unless people are professional models, they almost always look better when they’re just being themselves and not smiling for the camera.  A genuine laugh trumps a great posed smile every time.

ASSIGNMENT: As you take your photos, practice finding a subject.  If it’s a picture of some flowers: get down at flower lever, pick a flower and frame your shot to make that the prominent flower of the shot.  If it’s a picture of your kids: get down on the ground and have them wrestle with you and snap crazy-angled photos of them wrestling with you, where you’re not even looking through the viewfinder.  You’re going to be amazed at the number of fascinating pictures that come out of the chaos.  Show us some of your photos at the KHP community group at Flickr.com at this LINK.  I’d love to see what you guys come up with!

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