If Subject is the connection to the outside world and Light is the connection to the moment, then Composition is most certainly the connection to yourself. If Composition is the connection to yourself, you cannot be instructed in how to compose by someone else. Well then, you might wonder why there are so many people out there sharing instruction, engaging in conversations, and giving “tips” on Composition. The answer is that though we should not expect to receive compositions externally, we can expand our understanding of Composition and gain awareness of ourselves through discourse with others.
What beginners in photography (really in any endeavor) rarely do is think. Clearly that is a bit harsh and somewhat of an overstatement, but hopefully you can see the truth in it. The phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” helps us relate photography to writing. If you’ve ever tried to write a paper of at least a thousand words, then you know that it takes careful planning, attention to detail, understanding of audience, creativity, revision, and much more. A picture that lacks that same kind of care and thought is like a thousand word essay filled with run on sentences, loose trains of thought, backwards arguments, clutter, and repetition. In short, a photograph’s capability to portray information is only valuable if the necessary effort is invested in its creation.
Yes, you can go off the deep end and become way too analytical in your photography, thinking and thinking only to produce insipid results. Photography is an art form that is often at its best when practiced as a reaction, but we must have some intention of becoming fully engaged with our minds before engaging our shutter button fingers.
1) Try to determine if you have a goal for your photograph before you bother turning on your camera.
2) Mentally prioritize aspects of a scene in terms of importance to your photographic goal.
3) Think about what the camera will notice that you don’t, and make a careful check for problem areas.
4) Run through a checklist of “rules” with which you are familiar and decide “yes or no” for each.
5) Plan on trying a variety of compositions, if you’re not 100% certain that you can make the best choice in the field.
6) Don’t forget to have fun and relax as soon as you know you’re ready.
When you were first being taught about a camera, you were told that a photograph is a record of light (hence the name “photograph”). The only thing coming in through the lens and being recorded by the sensor is light, so it’s clear to see why people are convinced that light plays such an important role in pictures, maybe even the most important. You might even here some people say that they disregard other subjects altogether and focus only on light when they are making pictures. Those kinds of statements are difficult for me to accept at face value, but they speak to the importance of light in all situations.
The very thing that light has as an advantage can also be considered one of its downfalls, which is that the “right” light is usually fleeting. Light is often what makes a photograph unique and what makes it possible for numerous photographers to photograph the same subject with similar compositions while still getting a variety of pleasing results. The direction, color, and intensity of light are all constantly changing over the course of a day and from one day to the next. So what if the sun never comes out below the clouds on the horizon, the sky doesn’t catch fire, and a golden backlight doesn’t intensify all your subject’s detailed edges? If the light is the most important component of a photograph, then we could be waiting a long time before we have any use for a particular scene. Maybe we never will. You either accept that statement as unavoidable, or you find a way to work around it.
Many places in the world (not the least of which would be Juneau) have a prevailing type of light, and certain photographers have been extremely successful finding subjects to photograph in whatever kind of light that is. Some places it might be long days under cloudless blue skies; and other places it will be the even, soft, unidirectional light that is filtered through thick clouds. As a photographer, you might decide it’s your job to show the beauty of how your surroundings “really” are, not how they are once every ten years. If that’s the case, then light is forced to take a back seat to important subject matter and creative compositions. One thing is for sure, if you don’t have the light, you sure better have both other things in abundance.
My preference is to live in the middle ground where sometimes I need to have that special light that comes and goes in moments and other times I need to find ways to work creatively with the usual light. Where the light ranks in importance to you is for you to decide, and next time we’ll throw composition into the mix.
If you’re in my Landscape Photography class, I would like you to write another 100 work response to this blog entry, and by all means, put on some warm clothes and group up and go out and take some photos.
As an example of the kinds of things you would hope to know about your subject before you try making meaningful photographs of it, I would like to link here to an article I wrote for Nature Photographers Network a while back. It shares just the surface of things I’ve come to understand about experiencing, enjoying, and photographing the Mendenhall Glacier.
If you’re in my Landscape Photography class, this should serve as an example (albeit longer than necessary) of the kind of paper you need to write about your subject of choice. Be ready to turn your paper in as soon as possible.
In the last post, we developed an understanding of what Subject is in terms of photography. Along the way it became clear that the concept is expansive as far as what it includes, and it is obviously a key ingredient in any image. Today I want to talk about why I think the subject of a photograph is important and what advantages there are in focusing on Subject instead of Light or Composition (not that you could get away with ignoring any of the three).
First of all, I can’t help but consider the subject as the base of the photograph. The objects in a scene are almost always what attract us to the scene in the first place. They hold the lines, textures, patterns, colors, and shapes that we find intriguing; and Composition is clearly a response to what is there in the first place. If we compose from nothing, then we aren’t talking about photography really because no matter how abstract our photograph might be or how extensively we enhance it in the processing stage, it starts with what was there. Where things belong in a frame is a product of what they are and what natural qualities they have.
I think Light must stem from Subject in much the same way. Every object has a “right” light that will enhance both the object and its surroundings, but that light is certainly not the same for everything. For some scenes, the best light is soft and unidirectional, giving equal luminosity to every detail in the photograph. For other subjects, the most flattering light is the warm last rays at sunset when vivid colors are spread across sky and land. Good light is oh so important, but we can’t really know what kind of light that will be until we truly understand our subject, which brings me to my next point.
The one thing that we really CAN understand out of the three components (Subject, Light, and Composition) is Subject. The reason we can understand it best is that our subject is consistently available to us. It’s possible for us to visit the same location day after day, month after month, and even year after year. In all of those visits, it’s possible to develop a deep an intimate understanding of the place and the subjects in and around it. Truly knowing the subject of our photograph helps us see unique compositions that other people would not. Understanding the subject means we know what light will bring out all of its best traits and hide its flaws. I think no matter whether we agree that the most important thing in a successful photograph is the subject or not, we should all accept the challenge to understand our subject as well as possible.
If you are in my landscape photography class, I would like you to pick one subject (it could be a place or single object) that will be your focus for the next several days and possibly even the rest of the semester. It can be somewhere specific near the school, near your home, or somewhere else you will be able to visit frequently. Tomorrow and over the long weekend, I would like you to begin your research. You can do your research on site (writing down careful observations), on a computer, or in the library. If you can bring in a paper tomorrow that demonstrates you already have a very good understanding of a specific subject, you may be able to take home a camera until Monday.
There is a debate that occasionally comes up among photographers (though it is usually more of a conversation) about what things matter most in an artistic photograph. Of course the end desire is to generate some sort of connection, possibly emotional, with the viewer, but I’m talking about the raw elements going in. Typically the discussion comes down to three main contenders: Subject, Composition, and Light. This of course assumes some level of technical proficiency; such as important objects being in focus, colors being some form of accurate, and brightness or darkness not hiding important details. Together, I would like to take the important components individually and examine them, so that when we are through, we will have come to personal conclusions about the priority of each.
Whether by chance or personal bias, I’ve decided to think about Subject first, and we may as well attempt to come to a definition or common understanding. One part of Webster’s definition is, “something represented or indicated in a work of art.” It’s easy for me to understand what subject I might represent in a photograph because I must be representing a tree if there the tree is, right in the middle of my photo. Alternatively, how is it that I might only indicate my subject in a photograph, and is that even possible? If the trunk of the tree in my photo is tack sharp, and the leaves and small branches are all blurred in different amounts and directions, what is indicated in the picture? Just like a fever indicates an illness we can’t see, the blurred leaves and branches indicate the wind that is impossible for us to see in a photo.
There’s a tree represented in the photo, and there is wind being indicated in the photo, so by now you might be wondering which one is really the subject. I would submit that it can be both. I think the subject can be, and very often is, more than one thing. Whether you call it “a windblown tree” or “wind blowing a tree,” the two objects are inseparable and equally the subject of the picture. An entire scene that includes a tree, a barn, a path, and an old tractor can be the subject when you’re photo is about their relationship to each other. On the other hand, we have to draw the line somewhere before we say that Composition and Light are just more pieces of Subject, which would be taking the easy way out of this comparison.
The conclusion is that Subject can be various and even multiple things ranging from a texture, to a color, to a dew drop, to a mountain. To over simplify, it’s a tangible object or some characteristic of a tangible object that we are either representing or indicating through our photograph. Developing a common understanding of Subject is only half the battle, but I’m ready to share my perception of the importance of subject…next.
If you’re part of my Landscape Photography Class, I would like you to respond to this post either electronically or with paper and pencil. In 100 words or more, tell me what you agree with, disagree with, find confusing, or find interesting about my definition of Subject. If you need more to ponder, click on the link in the first paragraph.