The Thinking Photographer

Subject / Object

Ocean, Wind, Sun, and Moon

In the topic on black & white versus color, we touched briefly on gathering data and capturing reality. Let's delve further into this theme. Specifically, let's consider the information content of an image. We are interpreters of reality. We select some aspect of a scene and reproduce it on film. Our challenge is to put on film only the information necessary to convey our message; no more, no less. We must not only decide what we are trying to communicate before opening the shutter, we must also decide how to effectively communicate. If we put too much in a photograph, the viewer will miss our message and his attention will wander off with the distractions. Conversely, if we over-simplify we will probably miss communicating with those individuals who think a bit differently (like a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon that you don't quite understand). We have to strike a balance whereby most viewers understand exactly why we made a picture.

In considering this dilemma, I like to borrow a few concepts from English grammar. For example, in my view, most snap shots are the equivalent of a run-on sentence. The run-on photographer wants to get everything in a picture. The thinking photographer, on the other hand, wants to get every distraction out of the picture. The final image should be a well balanced, finely crafted sentence with a subject, object, and verb.

As we examine this analogy more closely, remember that we are speaking figuratively. This technique will be useful in producing quality images; however, it is not a simple prescription or recipe for cranking out great photographs.

A subject is the word in a sentence about which something is said. How many subjects should appear in a photograph? To avoid confusion, a photograph should have only one subject. The subject, of course, may be a leaf, a crowd of people, a lightning bolt, or an abstraction. A picture lacks a subject when you wonder, "What is this a picture of?"

A verb is the action word in a sentence. Likewise, an interesting photograph should be capturing some action This can be literal action like a sports photograph, or more refined action like the capturing of a fleeting moment, perhaps the last rays of a glorious sunset. Similarly, even in a totally abstract work, the image must have visual action in order to capture the eye and move it around the photograph.

Photographer Wynn Bullock emphasizes the importance of capturing the dimension of time in a photograph. This is exactly right! The most interesting photographs are those of events, not merely things. The criteria of time does not exclude scenic photographs. The best in this class are those in which the fleeting change is evident. The moment of exposure is as important as the composition. If a photograph simply records an object, the viewer may wish to go and see the object himself. When an event is captured, the viewer may wish he had been there, but realizes the image is an irreproducible moment in time.

The final component of our analogy is the object. An object in a sentence is the noun which receives the action of the verb. Translating the object into visual terms is more subtle than the subject and verb. Negative examples are probably more instructive. Lack of an object occurs when a photograph just does not have something to grab your eye. In a good composition, your eye should first be drawn to the object and then led around the image in a predictable manner. The photograph in question may be fairly decent: good lighting, sufficient action, but with no place for your scanning eye to rest. If no place on the image stands out, if all portions cry out with equal emphasis, then the picture will probably not be able to command lasting attention.

This rather extended analogy is not intended to be a set of rules to govern composition. The purpose is to encourage you to think about images in terms of communication. To benefit from this kind of analysis, learn to critique photographs with our analogy. Then, when composing in the camera the principles which you value will become internalized. Once you know more about what you like in a composition, the actual work of creating an image becomes easier. Nevertheless, good composition will never be the result of rout application of rules.

© Copyright 1999 Brian R. Page

  • Colloquia Photography Class Main Page
  • The Thinking Photographer: Introduction
  • What is a Good Photograph?
  • The Role of Black & White
  • Subject/Object
  • Style
  • Who's Who and What's What
  • Audience: For Whom the Silver Tones
  • Guts
  • Gladly Learn Home Page