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?