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How to Find Your Subject in Photography.

How to find your subject in photography. Article cover by George Tatakis.

What is the importance of the subject in photography?

Subject in photography is one of the two core elements that are vital to either a single photograph or a body of photographic work. The other one is the composition of the frame, something that we are going to discuss in the article: composition in photography. Choosing a subject in your photography is an important part of your path as a photographer, as it is something that will follow you for quite some time, provided you want to create a significant body of work.

Of course, you always have the option to change your subject, and at times that might even be useful, to come up with something that resonates with you. Understand that the subject of your photos says something about you as a person. That is the subjects that catch your eye and attention and the ideas and notions you want to communicate to the world, using photography as the means of that communication.

When people start their path in photography, they sometimes expect that they will be inspired by an arbitrary external factor and come up with an idea about a new photographic project. In my belief, that never does the trick.

In reality, true inspiration comes while working.

What is a photograph?

Let's start with the basics and define what a photograph is, as a visual art. A photograph is a visual representation captured by a camera, consisting of light and shadows recorded on a photosensitive medium, such as film or a digital sensor. Photos freeze a moment in time, preserving details, emotions, and atmospheres that can evoke powerful responses from viewers. In photography, the subject is the central element that commands attention within the frame. It can be a person, landscape, still life, or abstract concept. The word “photography” comes from the Greek words “phos (φως)” and “graphē (γραφή)”. Their respective translations are light and writing. Essentially photography is the writing with light.

What is the purpose of photography?

The purpose of photography is multifaceted. Primarily, it serves as a means of storytelling and communication, allowing photographers to convey narratives, emotions, and perspectives. Photos also preserve memories, document history, and capture the essence of fleeting moments. Additionally, it can be a form of artistic expression, enabling photographers to explore themes, challenge perceptions, and stimulate thought. Ultimately, the purpose of photography varies depending on the photographer's intentions, whether it's to inform, entertain, evoke emotion, or provoke thought.

Storytelling in Photography

Storytelling is a fundamental aspect of photography. Through composition, subject choice, lighting, and timing, photographers can craft compelling narratives within a single frame or a series of images. Each photograph can depict a moment that invites viewers to engage and interpret the story behind it. Good photos tell a story by capturing emotion, highlighting relationships, or portraying a unique perspective. Visual storytelling in photography transcends language barriers, making it a universal form of expression that resonates with audiences worldwide.

How to find your subject in photography.

Start by taking lots of photos

Let’s find a strategy on how to go about finding your subject in your photos. What I suggest to my beginner students is to start by just going out, or even staying in, and just take photos of whatever they feel like. Whether this is portraits, landscapes, still life or abstract. So you can too start by doing just that. Start taking photos. Don’t worry about creating fine art. Pay little attention to the camera settings, camera equipment, composition, background and anything else. Just take photos whatever you feel like, in the best possible way you can. There are brilliant photographers out there, with a significant body of work, considered to be master photographers, who may not completely understand how a camera works or even be able to take photos in manual mode. What is important is the result. No one cares how you made it. No one cares what the camera settings were in a brilliant picture. Or at least they shouldn’t.

There is a very good reason for adopting this practice over a few months. You see, you already have a unique skill that no one else in the world possesses. You are yourself. There is no other person in the world that is you. In essence, no other person sees things the way you do. Art is all about taking advantage of this one simple fact.

This might be an over-simplified explanation of Art, but the best initial approach is to become able to honestly and directly communicate yourself to the world using the chosen means. The next part, of course, is that you have an interesting enough personality for your audience.

“To take photographs means to recognise—simultaneously and within a fraction of a second—both the fact itself and the rigorous organisation of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one's head, one's eye, and one's heart on the same axis.” Henri Cartier-Bresson

Image creation should be fun

Shooting many photos helps you towards the first goal, i.e. to be able to honestly communicate yourself to the world. What you are trying to realise, is what urges you to photograph the specific scene, being that an occasion, an inanimate object, a group of people, a landscape and so on. You can’t know if you don’t start doing it. To create a successful body of work, the subject you are photographing must live in an environment that you enjoy being in. You need to be with people that you want to be around, in a landscape or a situation you enjoy. If that is your home and you enjoy being by yourself and working with still life, that is fine. If you want to be inside a controlled environment, such as a photography studio, and work with professional models that is also fine, and if you want to be in a war zone and you enjoy danger and adrenaline rushes, that is also fine.

Think first about your day-to-day activities. Maybe you enjoy some sport, or you have a hobby. Maybe you are in a band or a dancing group. That is a good start since you already have a place where you enjoy being, so that might give you the first place to go and take photographs.

There is no subject that you can’t touch, no subject that has been over-explored in the past. Remember, Art wants to see yourself and your unique view, so any subject is good enough.

A few months in your pursuit, try to sit back and review your work so far. Try to use your critical eye and find out which images resonate the most with you. Try to remember the actual time that you made the images, what was it that attracted you the most? What were the aspects of this situation that made you want to take this photo? What are the technical aspects of the photos that you like the most? Are they black and white? Colour? Are they horizontal photos? Vertical? Is there a specific lighting pattern in these photos?

Restrictions and obsessions are not always a bad thing

The next step is to now start placing boundaries in your photography. This is where it gets interesting. Write all of these elements down and make these, your personal “laws” of your photography. This is the part where you are getting deeper and moving towards a new gestalt in your photography. You are now channelling all your energy towards shooting around a more specific subset of subjects, rather than just shooting anything that catches your eye. Keep in mind that the more specific you are in your subject, the more you can say about it, thus the more interesting your overall body of work will be.

You now need to repeat this cycle, over and over again, forever. Hopefully, each time you will be inspired to work deeper within your subject, so your context will keep improving. Your subject must be something you obsess about, not simply like. This is the only way that you will want to improve and work on it to make it better, as it requires a lot of effort on your side. There is no way we as humans will put significant effort into a venture with which we are not obsessed.

Your photos need to have a deeper meaning

The second part is even trickier. I.e. for you to be an interesting enough personality for your audience. It is one thing to learn how to speak a language, and another to say something interesting in this language. But what does this entail? How can you nurture this?

This is a more complex venture since your personality is a complex structure. As you gather experience, you manage to achieve honesty with your photography, which means that each photograph you create now is a mirror of your personality. Every experience in your life, including the books you read, the films you watch, and the music you listen to, takes part in the creative process. Thus, the first part of this venture would be to cultivate your overall personality. This is through any kind of education, as well as by experiencing more art in any form.

The other aspect is the specific education and research on your specific photographic subject. While you are figuring out what that specific subject is, you need to dive deeper into its details at the same time you are getting deeper with your photography. Educate yourself about the subject, by reading more about it, participating in lectures or watching documentaries about this subject. You must master your subject to understand it and be able to portray your opinions through your photography.

Finally, let’s discuss another technique that is also used by many, which works. You can use this technique in conjunction with all of the above.

See many great images

How does social media affect our aesthetic criteria?

You need to see a lot of good photography. That is step number one. Unfortunately, today we are bombarded with shitty photography, especially since the evolution of social media. People produce utter garbage and they also find an audience who is willing to pat them on the back and congratulate them for the brilliant work they do. A huge percentage of the population is poorly artistically and aesthetically educated, so they find bad art to be good. I do not believe there is absolute democracy in opinions when it comes to art. By that, I mean that an aesthetically educated individual can understand whether a photograph is bad or good. You then have the freedom to decide whether a good photograph resonates with you, or not. You hear all the time that an opinion is subjective, and what makes to me a bad photograph, for someone else might be good. No. A bad photograph is a bad photograph. There are objective factors that make it one. As explained, photography, like any other art form is a language of communication. You therefore cannot communicate if you are not able to speak the language. So how can you decide what is good photography, especially if you are a beginner?

Where can you find great photos to study?

The only tool you can use for that is to see photos that have been filtered - curated - by a respectful entity, being that an organisation or an individual. Photography books are a great start. Try to find books that were produced by a respectful publisher with visual appeal. Later on, when you can tell the difference between good and bad photography, you can also select some self-published books. The list of photography books I provide is a more-than-enough start. If you cannot afford photography books, then try to see photography online, through the websites of respectable agencies, such as Magnum Photos, VU agency and so on. You can also visit photographic exhibitions, curated by respectful organisations, such as Museums. But that is not always available to you, depending on where you live. As a last measure, you can also go through my and google the names of the photographers to know more about them and see their photos.

While browsing these bodies of work, you will find at least one or more photographers, whose photos resonate with you. You most probably will feel a bit jealous, in the sense that you wish that you too could create similar work. Now is the time to start optimising your process.

Copying the work of master photographers

Decide upon who photographer is your absolute favourite, so you can find influence. Whose subject speaks to you? The next thing will be to creatively copy this photographer. This is a very old technique that has been used centuries before photography was even a notion. It was mostly used by people working toward becoming a painter. They would try to copy paintings by great artists, down to the last stroke. They would learn about their lives and try to understand their psychology and their psychological status during the period of creating the painting.

This is what you also must do now with the photographer of your choice. Of course, we need to change the process a little bit, because this now is not painting, but photography. So it is impossible to re-create a specific photograph since a photograph is a snapshot of a fraction of a second in time, a moment that will never be repeated. Instead, you will try to copy the style in photography of your favourite photographer, as well as the subject. Therefore, this technique works for both finding your subject and practising composition. But in this article, we are interested in the subject.

Try to get into the mind of this photographer. Not only about their work but also about their life. Read books about them and their topic, read a Wikipedia article, watch documentaries or films about their life and go through all of their work. Be as analytical as you can. What aspects of their life made them choose their subject? Was it by chance? Is it one of their obsessions? Was it through commissioned work? How does their work reflect their character? what is the meaning behind their photos? Next, research their subject and how they go about it. Is there a lot of travel involved? Do they need to be in war zones? Is there a lot of hiking, or climbing? If some aspects are not for you, then either try to find another favourite photographer of yours to copy or try to compromise if that is an option. For example, if your favourite photographer travels all around the world and that is not a viable option for you, maybe you can do similar work by travelling around different parts of your own country.

Finally, research their style. This will also give you an idea of whether this subject is for you. At what time of the day do they take their photos? What does their exposure look like? What focal length do they use? Under what kind of light? What season of the year? Do they prefer summer or do they go for gloomy winter days? Do they utilise specific weather conditions, such as snow, rain etc.? How do they arrange their objects? Do they make wide-angle shots or tight crops? Are their compositions complicated or minimal and simple? What level of contrast do they prefer? Is there a deeper meaning behind these choices? After researching the subjects and composition of your favourite photographer, you will find a common denominator in several of those aspects. This is what defines their style. The physical aspects of them being able to have the style they do can also provide you with a hint of understanding if this is a viable option for you.

Conclusion

The subject in photography plays a pivotal role, standing alongside composition as fundamental elements that shape a photograph or a photographer's body of work. Selecting a subject is not just a technical decision but a reflection of the photographer's personality and vision. The subjects that resonate with us speak volumes about our interests, perspectives, and the messages we wish to convey through our photography.

Photography is more than capturing light; it's about storytelling and personal expression. Each photograph tells a story through composition, lighting, and subject choice, evoking emotions and sparking curiosity. By immersing oneself deeply in a chosen subject, whether through practice, research, or emulation of admired photographers, one can cultivate a unique artistic voice and perspective.

In essence, the importance of the subject in photography lies not only in its visual presence within an image but in its role as a conduit for personal expression, storytelling, and artistic evolution.

Other resources

How to go about finding models for your photography.

Need the help of a professional? Get a portfolio review session.

Love xx

FAQ

What is a photograph?

A photograph is a visual representation captured by a camera, preserving a moment in time through light and shadows recorded on a photosensitive medium, such as film or a digital sensor. Each photograph freezes details, emotions, and atmospheres that can evoke powerful responses from viewers. The subject, composition, and technical aspects like lighting contribute to the unique narrative of each photograph.

Why We Make Photos?

Which subject is best for photography?

What subjects are related to photography?

 

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