The Subject is Our Subject

BEGIN WITH THE END IN MIND. Good advice for business, good advice for photographers, good advice for anybody doing anything.  So many photographers have this idea that all they have to do is just aim their cameras and start shooting.   Do you think it just might sharpen your visual judgment if you didn’t take a shot until you could tell yourself how you were going to use it?  I’m convinced it could – and it will – because that’s the mental process, whether consciously or sub-consciously, the best photographers have.  Sure, it requires more effort; anything worth doing does.

The idea of getting a good shot by accident makes as much sense as showing up at the airline ticket counter and not knowing where you want to go.

I need to let you know why we’re on this particular topic, er, subject. It’s because, as an instructor, I see some students submitting images that meet the technical criteria of an assignment, but which show little thought about creating images that have emotional appeal. Their photos are technically acceptable but have little or no emotional appeal; they’re exposed and focused well, but there’s not much there that makes me want to display them. Learning how to operate a complex camera and master exposure and focus technique are commendable, but to be a Visual Artist requires more.  A good photographer has vision, the ability to see what others cannot and capture it in a way that resonates with one’s viewers.

Before I take a shot, I’ve already got a good idea of how it can be used.  What about you? How are you going to use your next photo?

  • Sell it?
  • Decorate a room?
  • Post it on the ‘Net?
  • Enter it in competition?

Choosing good Subjects is what this post is really all about and nailing it down to specific dos and don’ts is almost as easy as nailing Jell-O to the wall.  But, is there anything at the heart of choosing a good Subject?  Yes, it’s called good judgment.   Is there anything that can help someone develop good judgment?  Yep, it’s called making mistakes - then learning from them.  That’s what is meant by “failing forward” and the more we fail, the faster we learn.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a pretty good idea of what message I wanted to make and where that message would be used.

  • Sometimes it was for a client or a teacher
  • Sometimes for judges in a competition
  • Sometimes to use as a good or bad example in a workshop
  • Sometimes for my web site (or, uh, a blog)
  • Or it could be to decorate a room
  • Usually, it’s been for a combo of any of those

Okay, now we’ve got this humongous “elephant in the room.”  The question now is: WHAT’S A GOOD SUBJECT?

  • It “rings your bell”
  • It resonates with your viewers
  • It has visual and emotional appeal (IMPORTANT: what’s emotionally appealing to you might not float the other guy’s boat)
  • You’ve seen similar subjects win contests or appear in magazines or on greeting cards
  • It makes you laugh or cry,  hate or love,  calm or tense, or ….
  • A good subject makes you FEEL SOMETHING, doggone it!!!


  • Sometimes the Subject finds you – be ready
  • Usually, though, you find your Subjects by exploring…
  • Try varying your distance from your Subject  (Perspective changes with camera-to-subject distance – not with changing focal length)
  • Try viewing your Subject from different angles: move around it and try different elevations (higher and lower)
  • Wait for better light or circumstances or come back later
  • Visualize it as looking different than how it is right now.  Vision is seeing things not as they are but as they can be.
  • Be curious!  Go looking, not just with your eyes but with your heart, and put some real effort into it.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Go find just one landmark that everybody in your area knows about.  Move around it as much as possible.  Look at the whole thing and at just parts of it.  Observe it from lots of distances, and from above and below.  Check it out at different times of day and in different weathers and seasons.  Meanwhile, take lots of shots.  Make up your mind about the keepers later.  But, while your shooting and before you take each shot, ask yourself  IS THIS VIEW REALLY WORTH USING UP ALL THESE MEGA-PIXELS?                         Most of all, have fun!

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