Understanding Subject: The Heart Of Your Photograph

How often do you find yourself excited to take a photograph of something amazing, only for the photo to turn out dull, and not even close to what you expected? This happened to me countless times as I started out, and it still does occasionally.

More often than not, the problem with these photographs is a lack of a clear subject. the good news is that this is an easy problem to fix by taking the time to consciously define your subject before making your photograph.


Why A Subject Is Important

A photograph is all about the subject. It’s what made you want to create the photo, it’s what will help you decide how to frame the shot, and it‘s what will draw the viewer into the image. 

Without a defined subject, the end result will be boring, and communicating the reasons you made the photo will be nearly impossible. When people see your photo they might think “that’s an interesting place”, but it won’t leave an impression. Your subject provides a focal point for the viewer, and without one there’s nothing to hold their attention.

Below are examples of photographs I’ve taken that fall flat because they don't have a defined subject. They are awesome places, but these images don''t get across what made them special.


What Makes A Good Subject

A problem I often had early on was feeling like I didn't have anything to photograph. I thought that I would not be able to find anything interesting near by, and that I needed to travel to find something "worth it". I have since learned that a good subject is simply one that excites you! The subject is the heart of a photograph, so if you are genuinely interested in capturing and sharing it, the final product will be that much better.

With this in mind, I would argue that a good subject can be anything: people, wildlife, mountain vistas, buildings, a trashcan, your cat. If it catches your attention and you can visualize an image, then it is worth creating a photograph of it. Really that's what inspiration is. It's the spark of an idea that comes from something that kindles your creativity! From there, it is our job as photographers to create the best image of the subject we can.


How A Strong Subject Will Improve Your Photography

So defining your subject is super important, but it takes a just little more than that to make your photography better. Not only do you need to know your subject, but you need to understanding why you are photographing it.

There was something about the scene that caught your attention and made you want to photograph it. Maybe it was an interesting shape, the way the light was hitting your subject, or an atmosphere you wanted to capture. Keeping this reason in mind will help you better visualize your image, and create a photograph with purpose.

To demonstrate the importance of a defined subject, here are three pairs of photos. The first image in each pair has no main subject, while the second does. I don't know about you, but I think the second photo of each pair is way better.

The subject is also important for creating meaningful images that connect with the viewer. A portrait is powerful because the photographer understood the person they were photographing, and they were able to create an image that conveys who that person is. In the same way, a shot of a storm cell moving over the plains can elicit awe and wonder in a viewer because the person making the image understood what about the storm causes these emotions, and they were able to infuse this in their image.  

In both of these examples, defining and understanding the subject elevates the photograph from just another photo, to one that really captures the viewers attention and imagination. 

Below Are a few more examples of well defined subjects.


The Next Step

A strong subject is not only at the heart of a great photograph, but it is the reason the photo was made at all. By defining what we are photographing, we are able to create images that captivate the viewer, and communicates our experiences. 

To do this, you have to understand why you want to make this photograph in the first place. Once you have found something that interests you, take a few seconds and think on what exactly about the scene or object caught your attention. When you have an idea of what this reason is, try to visualize how you can best show that in your image. Doing this, you will be able to create meaningful photographs that resonate with your viewers. 

Next week we will discuss how to combine your vision and the subject, and actually compose your photograph. In the mean time, be sure to subscribe below to be notified of when it, and future posts, are released!