The photographic subject 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 here. Choosing a photographic subject 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.
You always of course have the option to change your subject, and at times that might even be useful, in order to come up with something that really resonates with you. Understand that the subject really tells something about yourself as a person, the matters that catch your eye and attention and the ideas and notions you want to convey and 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.
So let’s find a strategy on how to go about this. What I suggest to my beginner students is to start by just going out, or even staying in, and just shoot photos of whatever they feel like. So you can too start by doing just that. Start to shoot photos. Don’t worry about getting anything right, about the camera settings, camera equipment, composition and anything else. Just shoot 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, that may not completely understand how a camera works or even be able to shoot in manual mode. What is important is the end result. No one cares how you made it. No one cares what the camera settings were in a brilliant image. Or at least they shouldn’t.
There is a very good reason for adopting this practice over a period of 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.”
Shooting many images 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. In order 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 actually 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 in a dancing group. That is actually a good start since you already have a place where you enjoy being, so that might give you the first place to go and make 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 yourself. 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 make this photograph? What are the technical aspects of the images that you like the most? Are they black and white? Colour? Are they horizontal images? Vertical? Is there a specific lighting pattern in these images?
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.
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. If you manage to achieve honesty with your photography, that means that each photograph you create now is a mirror of your personality. Everything you experienced in your life, including the books you read, the films you watched, and the music you listened 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 part 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 in order 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 and definitely works. You can use this technique in conjunction with all of the above.
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 actually 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?
The only tool you can use for that is to see photography that has 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. Later on, when you are able to tell the difference between good and bad photography, you can also select some self-published books. The list I provide here 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 book list and google the name of the photographers to know more about them and see their images.
While browsing these bodies of work, you will definitely find at least one or more photographers, whose work really resonates 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.
Decide upon who is that photographer that is your absolute favourite. Whose work really speaks to you. The next thing will be to creatively copy this photographer. This is actually a very old technique that has been used centuries before photography was even a notion. It was mostly used by people working toward being 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 again. Instead, you will try to copy the style of the photographer, as well as the subject. Therefore, this technique works for both finding your subject as well as practising composition. But in this article, we are interested in the subject.
Try to learn as much as possible about this photographer. Not only about their work, but also about their life. Read books about them, read a Wikipedia article, watch documentaries or films about them 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? 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 make their photos? Under what kind of light? What season of the year? Do they prefer summertime or do they go for gloomy winter days? Do they utilise specific weather conditions, such as snow, rain etc? How do they arrange their subjects? Do they make wide-angle shots or tight crops? Are their compositions complicated or minimal and simple? After researching the work of your favourite photographer, you will be finding 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.
I hope that helps.