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The Ultimate Guide to Learning Photography: Subject

— Photo: Alain Gutierrez, Student

What’s in a Subject? The Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Photography Subject

What’s in a subject? Choosing a photography subject is essential to the process of taking a picture. Sometimes, the subject is selected by default or spur-of-the-moment inspiration, and other times, the subject is mulled over for days, even weeks, to determine just how to portray that object or person in pixels.

So what exactly is a photography subject? How do you choose a photography subject? Learn the ins-and-outs of photography subjects and find inspiration for photography subject ideas with this guide.

What is subject?

In photography, the subject is simply the object (or person or critter) that is shown in the image. But a single photograph can show several things — which one is the subject? The subject is the focus on the image, both literally as the sharpest point in the photograph and in a more figurative sense.

The subject leads the photographer’s decisions about aspects like lighting, composition, exposure settings and more. How do you decide what shutter speed to use without knowing if your subject is standing still or moving? How do you decide where to frame the scene without knowing what your subject is? The subject, then, plays an essential role in shaping the entire image.

How do you choose a subject?

Sometimes, the subject is chosen for you — when I’m hired to shoot senior photos, for example, the subject is the graduate-to-be. But often, the subject is left up to the photographer, both in what the object is and how it is portrayed.

Photographers often choose subjects by what inspires them — something in the scene that stands out, something that’s out-of-the-ordinary, or simply something they want to remember. Photography allows us to show others our own view of the world, and that’s often all the inspiration a photographer needs to find a subject.

The subject is essential to an image, and yet amazing photographs have been shot of things as everyday as a raindrop or a spoon. Subjects don’t necessarily have to be extraordinary to create a special image — though the photographer may have to work harder to find a unique way to portray that ordinary object.

While the subject is often the first thing that the photographer decides on, that’s not always the case. Photographers may decide on a subject after spotting great light, choosing something already in the scene that the light hits just right.

Photography subjects don’t necessarily have to be things either, or at least not easily identifiable things. Abstract photography focuses on an object’s shape or patterns. An image may actually be of folded paper, out-of-focus lights or ripples on water — in abstract photography, what the subject really is doesn’t matter — it’s the shape or pattern that it creates.

7 Tips For Choosing and Emphasizing a Subject

When it comes to photography subjects, the possibilities are endless — here are seven tips to help narrow down your choices to choose and emphasize the star of your photograph.

Placement is key.

— Photo: Kate Falconer, Student

Where is the subject in your photograph? Centered? Off to one side? Choosing where to place your subject in the frame can help your subject demand even more attention. Centering the subject emphasizes symmetry and pattern, while using the rule of thirds and placing the subject off to one side tends to draw the eye. For moving subjects, try leaving extra space in the frame in the direction it’s headed in.

Perspective plays a big role in how we see a subject.

Imagine the shape of a simple chair viewed from the front — turn it to the side, or even view it from above and the entire shape of the chair changes. The angle that you choose to shoot the subject from plays a role in how it’s perceived. Try experimenting with different angles and watch how the subject’s shape changes. Even the size of the object may appear to change — objects close to the camera’s lens look the largest, while shooting down on a subject tends to make it look small.

Look for light.

Angles come into play in more than just the shape of the subject — what angle is the light coming in at? Light can play a dramatic role in the way your subject looks. When leaves and flowers are backlit, for example, they appear to glow. Backlighting also makes it possible to emphasize shape by creating a silhouette. Lighting from the front tends to reveal all the details, while side lighting emphasizes shadows. Lighting with dark shadows creates a lot of contrast and a sense of drama, while lighter shadows create a softer, more elegant look.

Practice developing an eye for interesting subjects.

The more you shoot a variety of subjects, the more you’ll get a feel for what would make a great subject. Experienced photographers will often spot great lighting, an interesting pattern or an odd placement and immediately know that’s their subject. That comes with practice. Try a 365 photography challenge, start bringing your camera with you everywhere or take a weekly photo walk.

Practice portraying ordinary objects in unusual ways.

Boring subjects sometimes make great photos because it’s not necessarily about the subject, but the way that it is presented. Choosing the shooting angle, the lighting, the composition — all that combines to create either an ordinary or unusual presentation. Practice finding unusual ways to shoot everyday subjects — find the must ordinary object in your kitchen or bathroom and shoot it in a new way.

Tell a story.

— Photo: Alain Gutierrez, Student

People look at a piece of art, and they see a story. The human mind is always trying to fill in blanks — so work to give them some clues and telling a story within your photograph. Is the setting important to the story? Try taking a few steps back to show more of it. Setting not so essential? Try getting in close for an intimate look at your subject. When photographing people, look for emotion and action that helps to create a story in the viewer’s mind.

Surroundings matter.

The subject is important — but so is everything else in the frame. The background and foreground help to tell that story. Is the object where you’d expect to find it, or in an usual place? Is it by itself, or does it stand out among clutter? Consider everything in your photograph and if it doesn’t have a reason to be there, consider moving in closer or adjusting your angle to eliminate any distractions.

Find what inspires you.

— Photo: Alex Levine, Student

Often, the answer as to why the photographer decided to shoot that particular subject is simply that they were inspired. Photography is a way to show how you view the world — people and objects that matter to you always make a great subject. Some photographers love shooting classic cars, others birds. Find what inspires you, and then you’ve found your photography subject.

The subject is the essence of a photograph. Sure, there are many other elements to taking a photo, but having a great subject — or a boring subject presented in an unusual way — is essential to crafting great images.