Subject Is Not It

Fasade i Camden Town

With today’s sophisticated cameras it’s easier than ever to photograph. Even the simplest point-and-shoot cameras are more advanced on the inside than most professional cameras were a couple of decades ago. As a consequence in one way it is easier for anyone to make better images today than for pros 20 years ago. That’s the good news. The bad news is that this technology can lull you into thinking that if you have a decent camera and some basic instruction, all you have to do is find a good subject, point the camera at it, and you are done.

But good images aren’t about good subjects. The subject is a starting point from where the photographer transcend his or her image into something both universal for everyone who view the image and very specific with respect to the photographer’s point of view. The good photograph is not about the subject matter, but the narrative beyond the obvious elements depicted within the frame. Good photography does not simply come from capturing an image. It comes from the intention the photographed had when capturing the photo, it comes from how he or she «built» the image, whether literally building it or more intuitively working the elements and frame, it comes from the photographer’s interpretation of the subject and it comes from his or her emotional engagement.

Maybe the most important lesson for any aspiring photographer is to stop looking for subjects. Too often I see photographers focusing too hard on finding the «perfect» subject. That means looking for images their minds have at some point registered as great photos by other photographers, and then search for the same subject the saw in these photos. They have «learned» how a good photo looks like and associates it with the subject. Or they go to major locations and photograph only the big, iconic subjects. But when you start looking for subjects simply as trophies to be captured, you stop looking for the photograph. If you want to produce good images, your job as a photographer is to create compelling photographs, not simply to capture a subject. In other words; stop looking for interesting subjects – and start looking for interesting photographs.

We don’t want to make photographs to show someone what something looks like – at least not beyond registering photos for our own memories. There are already enough images of everything you can think of in the world if you need to find out what something looks like. All that is required is eyes. Photography as visual art or a visual expression needs to have meaning, emotion, power, and magic. So don’t merely show what the subject is; show what it isn’t, show what it means, show why it is, how it is, for whom it is, where it is, and/or when it is. Imagine a novel with only descriptions; without plot, motivation, depth, crisis, or crescendo, a novel would be merely a catalogue of object descriptors. It is the same with photographs.

One question all photographers should ask themselves is, «what is my photograph about?» The answer is not the subject. It goes beyond that. It relates directly to your point of view; literally how you look at the subject and more importantly how you relate to the subject and why it’s important for you to photograph it. This point of view with which you capture the image will profoundly affect how the viewer emotionally attaches to the image. Take time to scrutinize the subject, searching for the most important element for you. What is the photograph about? What is it about the subject that grabbed your attention?

When did you last ask yourself what your photograph is about? Or do you just go out looking for interesting subjects?

96 thoughts on “Subject Is Not It

  1. Otto, it’s my constant question, what is my photograph about, and what is my photography about, as well. Excellent article!

  2. Wise words. So very true. Thanks for the opportunity for some introspection. It tells me why I connect with some of my photos more than others … because of the story they tell. A good reminder.

  3. I think I do both, Otto.

    Sometimes I take lots of ‘happy snaps’ when outdoors on my walk. Other times, I see an interesting person or facial expression or body language and think it will make an interesting image that might tell a story.

    Sometimes it’s an ordinary subject and sometimes it’s a little more unusual.

    Perhaps professional photographers or serious amateur photographers are looking for more photo subjects that tell a story?

    I know one thing for sure. If I ever had the opportunity to travel through Europe and Asia again as I did in the 1970s, I would be looking for more detail or different angles. I wouldn’t take a photo of a temple or historic mansion front on with the subject in the middle of the frame. And if I did take a photo of a castle ‘front-on’, I’d be looking at the background, foreground and side details that frame the main subject of my image.

    Out of the 300 photos I took on my 9 week trip of Europe in 1976, I’d say there’d only be 5-6 images that actually look interesting and draw the eye into the frame. I could happily toss the rest in the rubbish bin.

    1. Well, we all develop over time don’t we. If I were to look at my photos from the 70’s I am not sure how many would survive. The fact that we see this in retrospect, is a testimony to our development – and as such a good thing. Reading what you say, it’s obvious that you do look beyond the obvious subject when you shoot. Again since good photography isn’t really about the subject, an ordinary subject is just as good a starting point as an unusual subject.

  4. You nailed it! My conundrum. What the heck am I trying to say? Everyone has already seen this scene or object. Why do I feel the need to photograph it? Still puzzling.

  5. Wonderful writing, as always your writing subject hits. When I think of it, about myself, I think, photography is a kind of journal for me, for my life… But this is clear, I am a cat photographer 🙂
    Thank you, with my love, nia

  6. If it’s something you would call your friends or family over so you could share it with them, it’s probably worth photographing. That said, I am interested in much more than what I photograph.

    The problem is that your eyes and the camera don’t see the same. Hence, many times I get asked why I’m not shooting a photo of something. The reason is the photo will not capture what I see.

    On the other hand, there are times photos will capture much more than what I can see (for instance, macros). And of course, as you say, the narrative always matters.

  7. what is good photography?

    For some photography is an art form, for some it is a kind of memory. As any art form, it is highly subjective. People may like or dislike an image, without being able to provide specific metrics why they feel one way or another. Critics may find words to praise and interpret images. I am, however, at a loss when it comes to defining “good” or “bad” photography.

    Any enlightenment?

    1. Enlightenment I don’t know, but I think by trying to recognize what it is that attacks you in a photo, you will better be able to make good photos. It’s not easy, and that’s why getting feedback can be of great help.

  8. Minor White has put this ‘About’ question even sharper, if I remember correctly: “What *else* can this photography about?”

    And here we certainly come into the realm of thinking on photography, where the photographer’s personality itself becomes a main ingredient of the image. Not by chance “On Photography” is the title of the late Susan Sontag’s book, and whilst you certainly don’t have to agree with all of her conclusions, even on a superficial read it gives an impression of how much thinking can go into photography.

    Last but not least Brooks Jensen formulated the claim “to become a better a.k.a. more interesting (and with it wider interested) person” in order to become a better photographer.

    So maybe the result of such personal developments can be images that are harder to read, therefore find a smaller audience. Which has to challence us photographers to adjust our image-making again to find the ideal mix.

    1. The Brook Jensen quote reminds me of Ernest Hemingway who said «In order to write about life, first you must live it!». And yes, Sontag’s book is not an easy read, but it does provide an insight to how much thinking can go into photography. Another philosophical milestone is Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. In the end I think a photographer should never try to cater for an audience, but stay true to himself and his heart.

      1. I totally agree with you. No need to cater to an audience, otherwise you can do stock photography! Great article. Hope to see you in person with Helge and Marco one of these days and chat photography!

  9. Great post Otto…and I am starting to think about why I want to photograph something, and how I can manage to create what I want to say…and reading other photographers on the subject of ‘Vision’

    1. It’s when we start to think about our photography we really start to develop our vision and expression – in contrary to just unconsciously snap an image here and another there.

  10. Once again your topic asks essential questions to be stored and retrieved throughout the creative process–regardless of media. Why are we doing what we do? What narrative is preserved in each frame? The more one ponders these kinds of queries the more our own potential to still particular aspects of our visual landscape appear? Thanks again for your insights into self-expression.

  11. When I read the obituary of the photography editor of National Geographic, I was struck by what he said about reviewing the portfolios of those who wanted to work for him. He said he was not looking for photographers; he was looking for story tellers.

    This past weekend my partner and I saw the National Geographic exhibit in Los Angeles at the Annenberg Space for Photography. The photos were so powerful and moving that at last we had to leave… because they were so moving.

    1. Great photos do tell stories – on many levels. And yes National Geographic photographers are indeed great story tellers. I hope you were able to return the the exhibition to view the rest of it.

  12. You hav well described the difference between art and technical skills. The most technically perfect photo or realistically rendered drawing may dazzle the viewer’s eye, for a moment. The image will that communicates will stick.

  13. Great post Otto! With so many photographs and photographers out there it’s a good reminder than the image is more than snapping what you see. There are times of course when, for example, you’re just taking a holiday memory. Maybe I’m becoming a photographic snob?! 😀

  14. Since my blog is about taking people on our journey with us, I always try to find the best way to photograph a subject. What will convey the feel of a place, or a different way of looking at an ordinary object. Great post.

  15. Nicely said. Once you start looking for the photograph, there’s no turning back. That’s why I’ll never stop making photos.

  16. What a great post to start the week with.. In the past year since I first started taking pictures I was all over the spectrum, meaning i was taking pictures of things because they were interesting to me. In the past few months (Yes, I say again thanks to your class) I am seeing that I want to take photos that are story tellers. One picture is really worth a 1,000 words.. I have a long way to go before I capture that story, but is so much fun getting there!

  17. I like your point about “interesting photograph” vs “interesting subject”. I believe the former takes time to cultivate the skill and creativity. As previous post you had, setting up limits might promote these qualities of mind. However, I think both forms are supportive of each other but ones need to understand the roles of each.

  18. What a great post….stop looking for subjects. That is so true! Sometimes I go miles away because I want a certain photograph and then I don’t even end up with the one I intended. I’ll turn 180 degrees and see something else and say…now THAT’S an image! Of course I still am in my infancy but posts like this really get me thinking. Thanks!

  19. Photography is just amazing and incredibly enjoyable. There is so much beauty in this world!

  20. This post provides an excellent ‘refresher course’ for all photographers, however experienced or comparatively inexperienced. I particularly reflected on your comments on seeking a subject. Much of my creative work takes place during the processing stage. Rarely do I have a fixed idea of the final image at the time of taking the picture. My approach is to seek the potential of a subject. My enjoyment comes from the ‘playing’ later – but always with ‘impact’ as the objective.

  21. Otto, I knew this all along and never knew it! Now I understand because you explain it so well. My best pictures are targets of opportunity. I never know what I will photograph until I have pushed the button. Thank you for visiting me at Willy Nilly and allowing me the honor of visiting you that I might learn and do better.

  22. Very interesting (as usual). I admit that much of my photography has been of the “looking for a nice subject” class. But over time I feel that I have become more interested in spotting what you may call small stories. I also feel that the title one puts on a photo very often can have great importance – not as an explanation, but as a more or less equal partner in the game. I know that not everyone agrees with me here, but that will have to be their problem 🙂

    1. I think most photographers start out with looking for nice subjects and then eventually moves on wanting to tell stories with their images – whether literal or more intangible stories. Thanks for sharing your experience, Rune.

  23. Yet another brilliant article, Otto. They say photography is about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. It’s so much about how you see the subject rather than the subject itself.

    1. I agree with you. And yes, seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary is a well know quote – but I can’t remember by whom in the moment. Thanks for your comment, Uday.

  24. Another amazing article Otto. You always make me stop and think. However, I just posted a photograph where I did just that. While processing it, I began asking about its story and one began to unfold.

  25. I love this article so much! It is so interesting! I am not a photographer, or I mean, I take photographs, but I am not a real photographer. But there is something so wise about your article that goes beyond even photography. I think what you talk about mattes in all art forms, being painting, drawing, writing, or sculpture making. You are talking about the real, what can I say, motivation ?, behind creating art, how to be creative even. Yes, you talk about creativity. And I think in a way, you are also teaching people in this article how to be creative. It is so wonderful! 🙂 🙂 🙂 Brilliant! 🙂

    1. Thank you Line, you make me blush, But I think this do apply to more than photography. And yes, I am talking about the real, what is as it is sometimes referred to philosophically.

  26. Another very inspiring post, Otto. The last paragraph provides a really powerful conclusion. When I can’t quite decide if a photograph I’ve taken is a “keeper”, along the same lines, I ask myself, “Does this photo say anything?”

  27. Enjoyed this one very much Otto; very thought-provoking. One thing I think about though is that although I am very serious about my photography and am always intent on it having impact, there are many who simply enjoy taking pictures, and that’s OK too. Photography as art, or as fun, or as documentation – it’s all good. It keeps the equipment companies in business and focused on developing new products and techniques. It keeps good photographers employed teaching and selling books, and it keeps our wordpress follower-base growing!

    1. You are absolutely spot-on with your conclusion, Tina. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with «just» enjoying taking pictures. I write for those who aspire to something more, though, and hope even an occasionally happy snapper that visits my blog can pick up one or two ideas. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  28. I agree with you 100%. I completely understand what you mean and just right now I am about to write on similar topic, in fact I already did and now to post 🙂 this is really a nice pleasure to read your post and opinion. Thank you

  29. How a photograph/what I am photographing makes me feel is usually what I am trying to capture. If I can look at a photograph some time afterword and it brings up the same feelings that I had when I shot it then I consider it well done.

  30. This is really interesting Otto. I do ask myself what a photo is about and have an emotional attachment to images I try to create, but there is so much to learn and strive towards. Thank you.

  31. Not relating to what a picture is about is also why the average time people spend looking at a photograph, whether potographers or not, is only 18 seconds.

  32. Reblogged this on Svariato and commented:
    A very inspiring article about how we should approach photography today; with the technological advancement in equipments that makes ‘taking a picture’ so easy.

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