What Is “The Subject” Anyway?

What Is “The Subject” Anyway?

If you listen to photographers talk, you may hear about a mysterious creature called the “subject”. It’s really no mystery though (even if it is a funny way to talk). In photography, the subject is just what you’re trying to photograph: the Golden Gate Bridge, your cat Mittens, Grandma, or just a flower in your backyard.

The Problem with Not Having a Subject

A common error I see in pictures is what I call “photographic confusion”. It has a double meaning, because it means that the photographer taking the picture was confused, but it also is leaving me, the viewer, confused.

Can you see a subject?
Can you see a subject?

I call it photographic confusion whenever I can’t tell what the photographer’s subject is because there is just too much happening in the shot. For example, if you take a picture of your child in the backyard, no zooming, no composing, just point and shoot; you will have a picture full of photographic confusion! There will be that ugly green hose, an old rake the kids left out, random patio furniture, a partially deflated kiddie pool, not to mention whatever bits of trash the dog managed to strew about your yard. I will see it all at once and I won’t be able to tell what you meant for me to see when you took the shot.

How to Know What the Subject Is

If you’re confused about what you are taking a picture of (because the whole scene is pretty!), just pick the most important part of the picture (usually where you’re eyes were looking when you thought, “hey, I should take a picture of this!”) and use one of the techniques I’m about to share to make sure that your viewer can see what you saw. You are the artist, direct their eye! If you’re really stuck on what part of the picture to make the subject (in a landscape photo for example) look for some part of the foreground that would be interesting: a twisty tree, an interesting rock, train tracks, a road or other line stretching away. Make something like that the subject of your photo and use that gorgeous view you’re seeing as its backdrop.

5 Ways to Make Sure Your Subject Is Clear

So, when you take a picture, make sure you’re thinking about ways to make your subject stand out. Here are five examples:

  1. Shoot the subject against a very simple background.

    whatisthesubjectanyway-blueangels
    Fly like the wind angels! I know, this caption isn’t relevant, but I didn’t want this image to feel left out.
  2. Make the subject in sharp focus, while the background blurs out.

    whatisthesubjectanyway-kitten
    As you can see, the foreground is also blurred. Very narrow depth of field.
  3. Zoom in (with your feet or the lens) so that your subject is the largest thing in the picture.
    NOT zoomed in
    NOT zoomed in

    Correctly zoomed in to eliminate photographic confusion
    Correctly zoomed in to eliminate photographic confusion
  4. Put your subject in an area where they are brightly lit, and the background is dark.

    whatisthesubjectanyway-momandbaby
    Yes, this was a studio. But the same thing would apply if the background were an open barn door.
  5. Use the rule of thirds (and other compositional techniques) to draw the viewer’s eye to your subject (more on this in the next post).

    This shot uses a leading line (the bench support underneath) and the rule of thirds to draw your eye to my daughter.
    This shot uses a leading line (the bench support underneath) and the rule of thirds to draw your eye to my daughter.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, there are a ton of ways you can make your subject pop. These are a few to get you started, but give it a try and see what happens. That’s the great thing about digital photography: feedback is instant and cost is zero! Whatever you do, don’t let your picture become “photographically confused”. Having a clear subject is one way you can take your pictures to the next level and make them really stand out. Don’t make people who see your picture have to ask you, “What were you taking a photo of here?” Keep on clickin’! Chris

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