The subject is the essence of your photograph. Two photographers can stand at the same spot, at the same time, looking at the same scene and choosing completely different subjects.
The subject you choose and where you place it determines your final result. But how do you choose a photography subject? And how do you know where to place it in the frame?
Read on to learn the answers.
[Note: ExpertPhotography is supported by readers. Product links on ExpertPhotography are referral links. If you use one of these and buy something, we make a little bit of money. Need more info? See how it all works here.]
What Is Subject in Photography?
The subject is basically what the photograph is about. If you look at images or even other pieces of art, you will notice that they have something or someone in focus.
A subject is the person, creature or object that the photographer wants to draw attention to. This can be something unique, or an object that is popping out of its environment.
But your subject doesn’t necessarily need to be something extraordinary — everyday objects such as a chair or a window can make fantastic photography subjects, too.
There are photography genres which almost always have more subjects in one image. Think about travel photography, where subjects often include famous monuments and people.
In the above photography types, it’s usually easy to recognise the subject.
We need to distinguish between a photography subject and a photography object. A photograph can have many objects in the frame. What turns them into subjects is the way they are placed or highlighted by the photographer.
In other words, an object becomes a photography subject if the photographer gives it additional meaning.
How to Choose a Subject for Your Photograph?
Choosing a subject isn’t always as easy as it might sound.
There are cases where the subject of your photograph is already chosen. If you are a portrait photographer, your subject will be the person whose portrait you are about to capture.
As a wedding photographer, you have to focus on the bride, the groom, the guests, the wedding ring and the cake. You have a wide range of possible subjects. But you cannot start taking photos of the waiters, for example.
In other cases, you have the creative freedom to choose your subject to your liking. However, this freedom can sometimes be more frustrating than having an assigned subject.
It happens to me often that I go out to take photos, and I come home without snapping a single picture. Why? The pressure of having to take a picture blinds me from seeing potential subjects.
However, when I go on a casual stroll or a run, I stumble upon photography subjects all the time. That’s why I always have my iPhone with me too. This way, I’m ready to shoot whenever an interesting subject appears.
Of course, there are ways to train your creative muscle and eyes to find a subject without frustration. Professional photographers choose subjects that trigger their interest and inspire them. It can be anything from a raindrop to the Taj Mahal.
You can find inspiration by checking out the works of famous photographers as well.
Remember that the most essential thing is that the subject has to be inspiring for you. If you don’t find your subject interesting, nobody else will.
Tips For Choosing and Placing Photography Subjects
1. Tell a Story to Make Your Subject More Interesting
A well-chosen subject talks to the viewer and tells a story. If your photographs make people look twice, you’re in the right direction.
Sometimes, however, it’s not enough to find an interesting subject. You also have to decide what other objects you want to include in the frame.
Maybe you want to take a close-up photo of a person to show the emotions in their eyes. Or you go further away to incorporate a bigger scene. This way, you can shape the story you tell and the message your photo conveys.
You can also consider a subject that will be part of a photo series. This is an excellent way to tell a story with your photos.
2. Consider Composition Rules to Find the Right Placement for Your Subject
The placement of your subject will determine how much attention it gets. It’s not enough to have an object sharp and in focus. You also have to use composition rules to make sure the viewer’s eye find your subject.
When you photograph moving subjects, make sure to leave space in the frame in the direction they are moving towards.
The same rule applies when a subject is looking in a certain direction. This placement is visually appealing to the eyes and makes your subject stand out more.
3. Look for Light and Contrast to Emphasize Your Subject
Find a subject that stands out from its surrounding due to color contrast or lighting. Contrasting colors generally make your subject pop.
You can also use contrast in a narrative way. A man-made structure in a natural landscape speaks to the viewer. A portrait of a rich and a poor man will trigger emotions. You can even play with contrasting textures or shapes.
Different directions of light can give different meanings to your subject. Side lighting, for example, creates shadows and adds drama to your scene.
Diffused light softens the contrast and conveys calmness, while backlight can create outstanding silhouettes.
Use these tools to make your subject stand out.
4. Photograph an Ordinary Subject in an Extraordinary Way
However, instead of a boring approach, you can get creative and capture them in an unusual way. You can even turn ordinary objects into abstract photography.
For example, take a look at my photo of the melted ice cream below. When people take photos of ice cream, they capture it held in hand or served in a bowl.
But I saw this melted ice cream on a morning stroll in Croatia and liked how it kept its scoops after melting.
Also, the more I look at the photo, the more I think about it. Why was the ice cream left there like that? Did a kid drop it? Did they drop it because it wasn’t tasty?
See, even a simple subject like ice cream can trigger interesting thoughts if you capture it in an unconventional way.
5. Choose a Different Perspective to Change the Scale of Your Subject
The perspective and the angle you choose can change the meaning of your subject. By choosing a different angle, you can manipulate the shape and the size of your subject.
If you photograph a pet from your eye level, it makes it look small, and you make the viewer feel superior. However, if you capture it from the pet’s eye level, you bring the viewer to the same position and allow them to look at the world from the pet’s perspective.
Experiment with different angles and perspectives to see how the feeling of your image changes.
6. Declutter the Scene to Make Your Subject Stand Out
Everyhting you capture in the frame needs to have a purpose. And this purpose should be to lead the viewer’s eyes to your subject.
If there are disturbing elements in the scene, your subject will get lost. You won’t be able to convey your message or tell your narrative if the scene is a mess.
Think about the foreground and the background, too. If something doesn’t look right or doesn’t fit the scene, change your position.
Every single element should add to your photo and make your subject stand out.
7. Step Out of Your Comfort Zone to Find New Subjects
If you struggle to find interesting, you might be stuck in your comfort zone.
Do you prefer photographing landscapes because you’re scared of capturing people? Ask your friends or family members to model for you and try a new photography genre. You can even add human elements to your landscapes!
Have you been photographing portraits in a studio but you feel burnt out? Go out and try street photography!
Experimenting with new photography situations allows you to leave your comfort zone. Sometimes the best results come from unexpected and new experiences.
8. Try a Photography Challenge to Test Your Creativity
Do you want to pump up your creative muscle? Engage in a photography challenge!
You can find challenges that make you photograph different subjects every day. Or the opposite, you have to find the same subject but in different settings or environments.
These challenges not only help you get more creative, but your photography portfolio becomes more diverse, too. Improving your skills is key to becoming a great photographer.
Take your camera everywhere, even if it’s only your smartphone. You never know when the perfect subject might pop up in front of you.
The subject’s what your photograph is about, so it’s essential to choose and place it with care.
Use our tips to make sure your photography subject draws everyone’s attention.
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself, though! The best subject is whatever YOU get inspired by.
Want More? Try Our Composition eBook
Do you want to compose stunning images, even in ordinary situations?
You don’t need an expensive camera or a beautiful location to do that… you need a broad range of composition knowledge.
This used to be quite difficult to grasp, but Intuitive Composition allows you to master it in no time at all.