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.