What Is Subject In Photography—& How To Harness Its Power

Now that anyone with a phone can take photos, subject has become a valuable currency for those looking to break away from the pack—and is often what divides photographers from non-photographers.

Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

Subject, above every other element, is most likely to leave a lasting impact on your viewers. A strong subject has the ability to communicate an idea, feeling or emotion and is often how people find meaning and purpose in their work or the work of others.

By understanding the role subject plays in photography and how to implement it into your own photography you can harness its power to take photos like a true photographer.

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Contents

Section One: Understanding Subject

  1. What Makes Someone A Photographer
  2. Clarifying Subject in Photography
  3. The Audience is a Participant
  4. Is There Any Truth in Photography?

Section Two: Harnessing the Power of Subject

  1. How To Infuse Subject or Meaning Into Your Images
  2. Where Everything Comes Together…
  3. Prompts and Tips for Using Subject
  4. Getting Started with Subject

Section One: Understanding Subject

What Makes Someone A Photographer?

The lines between a “photographer” and “someone who takes pictures” is only getting more grey as time goes on and cameras become more ubiquitous.

Many consider money as a key factor. A photographer gets paid for their images while the non-photographer only takes photos for personal reasons. Reducing photography to a medium that’s solely concerned with monetary gain is flawed. Just look at the life and work of Vivian Maier.

Photo by Lena Polishko on Unsplash

A photographer is someone who cares about the medium and engages thoughtfully with it. They understand that elements like composition, light, subject, colour, texture, etc., all matter and deserve attention. They are passionate about the medium’s ability to communicate a message and they are interested in exploring its potential.

Subject plays a key role in distinguishing people as photographers. Good light and composition can be stumbled upon, but you need to be intentional to incorporate subject in your photography. The non-photographer will probably not feel inclined to pursue the element of subject in their photos or even consider it in the first place.

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

Clarifying Subject in Photography

Most people confuse “subject” with “subject matter” and often use the two interchangeably. It’s easy to see why. There is, however, an important distinction between the two that ultimately lies in the level of detail.

  1. Subject matter refers to the specific content or message used in a piece of communication, such as a photograph.
  2. Subject, on the other hand, refers to the general themes of a communication.

The subject matter of a portrait, for instance, is the person photographed. Whereas the subject for that same image could be wonder or intrigue.

Photo by Chris Burgett on Unsplash

The subject of an image goes beyond the literal

Only looking at subject as “subject matter” does this powerful tool a great disservice. The subject of your photography can be so much more than what’s literally pictured.

Subject is intangible. It is the emotion, thought or feeling that you express through your image. It is the essence of the image.

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Subject and meaning often go hand-in-hand

When you display your work for an open audience, you quickly realize the question “what does this mean?” is inescapable. This question is daunting to answer but this act of questioning is ultimately a good sign. If people are pondering or searching for a deeper meaning in your images—it is probably because they recognize that there’s depth to the work. They just can’t put their finger on it.

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

The subject is often what gives an image its meaning or purpose. Non-photographers will very rarely connect with the technical aspects of a photograph. They may be able to recognize technical prowess but it won’t necessarily touch them. However, an identifiable, relatable or thought-provoking subject has the power to engage all audiences.

This form of communication is a universal language

Subject, and the medium of photography in general, is really quite powerful in expressing meaning or messages that can be understood universally. There are certainly cultural differences that might shift the way an image is perceived but, for the most part, photography allows people to communicate with one another despite cultural, linguistic, or class differences.

Photo by Laura Barry on Unsplash

The Audience is a Participant

Subject or meaning is not derived in a vacuum. In other words, the photographer does not solely determine a photograph’s subject or meaning. The audience plays a key role in this process.

As with any art, interpretation is subjective. The author of a work may intend for a certain response but it is ultimately up to each individual viewer to interpret the work in their own way. In a way, the artwork’s true meaning is all of these interpretations combined.

Photo by Amir Geshani on Unsplash

Effective photography will spark intrigue from audience members that naturally leads to a desire for a better understanding of the work. Regardless of the content or validity of someone’s interpretation of an artwork, the depth of their interpretation is often a testament to the substance of it.

Subject is impacted by external factors (context)

The environmental, historical and cultural context with which a photograph is viewed influences its meaning. Photographers can use these contexts to further express a certain narrative, theme or subject.

Front Cover of “Black Joy and Resistance” by Adreinne Waheed, 2018.

For instance—on its surface, Adrienne Waheed’s portraits in her book “Black Joy and Resistance” express joy. This theme radiates through the smiles, movement and celebration of the people photographed. However, in the context of American politics, the history of slavery and the still on-going liberation movement the subject of these photographs shifts to something much more complex—joy and resilience in the face of extreme adversity.

Certain images may be more impactful in certain contexts. Consider how nature photography might be experienced in a densely populated city vs a rural small town. The reflections that the audience makes viewing the work in these separate contexts are likely to be quite different from one another.

Context, then, is a very powerful resource for photographers engaging with subject. Context can be used to strengthen a certain narrative, evolve the narrative, or completely shift it to new territory.

Is There Any Truth in Photography?

There’s this idea of “truth” that often arises in the discussion of photography. In the pursuit of an absolute subject you quickly run into issues. Is subject the photographer’s intention? Is it the audience members’ interpretation? Is it the opinion of esteemed professionals and art critics? One thing that we can say with certainty is that it isn’t a single one of these interpretations. The subject, meaning or purpose is instead some combination of all of these understandings.

Is the child crying? Wiping their face? Hiding from the camera?
Photo by Lucas Metz on Unsplash

Objectivity is unattainable

Photography is often considered to be an objective representation of reality but that’s rarely the case. In the most extreme cases, photographers manipulate their images in editing software which immediately throws truth into question. On a more subtle level, the photographer’s choice on what to photograph, what not to photograph, and what context to give the viewer fundamentally alters the “truth” that one might see in an image.

This is partially what makes photography so intriguing. If photography were truly objective, one would see an image of a sunset and never need to see another image of a sunset for they fully understand it.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

The Photographer is part of the subject matter

Photographers, even though they are typically not seen in their images, are very much a part of the subject matter.

The mere decision to record a certain event through a photograph is an important decision the photographer has made. Thus, the photographer has already engaged with the moment in their decision to record it. They are not a detached observer nor are they a choreographer. (Paraphrased from Andrea Rosen Gallery).

Photo by Fabrizio Azzarri on Unsplash

It’s important to understand that you have the power to skew the truth with certain decisions such as where you point your camera and what images you choose to share. This may not be a concern to most photographers but it should especially catch the attention of any ethical documentary photographers or photo-journalists.

Section Two: Harnessing The Power Of Subject

How to Infuse Subject or Meaning Into Your Images

The interpretation an audience makes of your photography is largely uncontrollable. However, there are certain devices that you can employ in your images to guide your audience toward a certain understanding, feeling or emotion.

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How does this work? When a viewer first looks at your image, they look for things that they can identify. A cloud, a person, a flower, a bird, etc. This is the first layer of understanding. Then, they may go one step further. Certain things in the image may spark a feeling or emotional state. A bird may trigger the idea of freedom. Then, the viewer may connect these things and their attributes with the other things in the image which may synthesize and form new understandings. They may even consider the context that they are viewing the photograph in.

Even though subject itself goes far beyond the literal, it does start there and using subject ultimately relies on the things within your image to communicate with the audience.

Photo by afiq fatah on Unsplash

As a photographer, you have many elements, devices, and approaches that you can use to enrich your images with subject and meaning. They are:

  1. Storytelling
  2. Symbolism
  3. Metaphor
  4. Colour

Storytelling

Storytelling in photography is difficult when you compare it to something like a book or a movie. These other mediums have the luxury of time whereas an image is the recording of fractions of a second.

For this reason, it helps to keep it simple. Storytelling in photography does not need to be complex. Your image could simply answer what someone or something is doing or where they’re going next.

Photo by Amogh Manjunath on Unsplash

The amount of context that you provide in the frame is paramount to telling an effective story. Imagine an image of a wet face with drops of water falling all around. Seeing this would likely make someone consider how that person’s face got wet—could it be the rain? A wider image of the same person now showing a water gun in their hand answers this question. Aha! It was the water gun—did they squirt water on themself? An even wider image that shows other people in the background tells the full story of a water fight. This fully rounded story is now understandable, relatable and likely to spark a sense of nostalgia in viewers.

Photo essays & photo series can tell more complex stories

Photographs can take on new meanings when they are grouped. This could be through a photographic series, a photo essay, a collage, a diptych, triptych, etc

To Look Without Fear, Wolfgang Tillmans (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2023)
Photo by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved

The exhibitions of contemporary photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans, is an excellent example of the new life an image can take on when it is displayed with other images.

“Filled with light, d, 2011” by Wolfgang Tillmans as part of the exhibition To Look Without Fear, Wolfgang Tillmans (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2023)
Photo by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved

On an individual level, Tillmans’ images display a wide range of subject matter from intimate portraits, rare celestial events, still life, camera-less photographs, abstract colour and texture—to name a few. When all of these contradicting images are displayed together with little boundary for one another, the subject noticeably shifts to something much broader.

To Look Without Fear, Wolfgang Tillmans (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2023)
Photo by Jesse Hebert © All Rights Reserved

Tillmans work as a whole examines awareness, existence and experience. One cannot help but consider the nature of reality and the depth of life in the presence of a photographic series as far-reaching as Tillmans. At the macro scale, it’s clear to see his “matter-of-fact” style of photography at play. Tillmans encourages audience members to consider the privilege of “looking” and the importance of doing so in an unprejudiced manner.

Themes as grand as these prove difficult to express in a single image. The series or grouping of images is a powerful tool for photographers to explore more complex subject matter in their work.

Photo essays take this one step further by including written or spoken word alongside the imagery.

To get started with storytelling, keep it obvious

First, learn to tell simple stories effectively. Practice cutting out the unimportant details to provide your audience with a clearer, more identifiable story. Consider what’s necessary to tell a certain story and explore compositions that include those elements. As you become more comfortable with this, you can start to explore more complex stories by incorporating some of the other devices listed below.

Photo by NEOM on Unsplash

Symbolism

Symbolism refers to the use of symbols which could be words, images, marks, locations, etc., to represent an idea beyond its literal meaning. A letter in an alphabet, for instance, is a symbolic mark that represents a certain sound.

Photo by amirali mirhashemian on Unsplash

Symbols are often culturally-agreed upon. In the West, a common symbol for love is the gifting of a red rose. In many Asian cultures, the mandarin duck is a symbol of love. This is one of the many reasons why the subject or meaning of your photography can differ from person-to-person, especially across different cultures. Your intended audience should then be considered when using symbols in your photography.

The meaning of symbols can also change over time. Perhaps the most dreadful example of this is the Nazi swastika which is now a representation of hate, prejudice and genocide. However, the swastika was used as a sacred symbol in Eastern religions for “wellbeing” for many centuries prior to the Holocaust.

New symbols can quickly gain traction and significance in pop culture. Especially in the age of social media.

Photo by Wei Ding on Unsplash

Ultimately, symbols are powerful tools in photography since they can quickly spark emotional reactions out of a viewer. Studying symbols in visual art throughout history is a great place to start using symbols in your work. Consider the symbols that appear often and why they are so effective. Consider how you can incorporate those symbols into your own work.

Metaphor

Metaphors are often described similarly to symbolism but they are distinctly different. Symbols are objects, marks, elements that represent something else. Metaphors, on the other hand, are figures of speech that compare seemingly opposite or unrelated things. They use one thing to describe another. In this way, they are similar to analogies.

In most cases, your photography may visually reference a common metaphor such as “life is a journey” or “nature is freedom”. Metaphors can also allow you to explore juxtaposition and allusion in your photography.

Photo by Veronica Benavides on Unsplash

Photographs themselves can be considered a metaphor of sorts. Photographs are not reality. They are not even a depiction of reality. Rather, they refer to the photographer’s specific view or concept of reality. As a viewer, the photograph acts as a metaphor that allows us to relate the photograph with a lived experience, feeling or emotion. In that way we can connect with the artwork and understand its essence.

Colour

The clever use of colour can imply certain meanings or elicit visceral emotional responses in viewers.

Photo by Kevin Mueller on Unsplash

The hue, saturation, and luminosity that make up a colour will impact the way that it influences viewers. Here are the common themes associated with each colour of the rainbow:

  1. Red: active colour that symbolizes danger, passion, and love.
  2. Orange: active colour that symbolizes excitement, enthusiasm, and warmth.
  3. Yellow: active colour that symbolizes energy, joy and optimism.
  4. Green: passive colour that symbolizes balance, prosperity, and hope.
  5. Blue: passive colour that symbolizes wisdom, sadness, and stability.
  6. Violet: passive colour that symbolizes royalty, power and luxury.
Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash

The awareness of your subject can be enough

You don’t always need to have a perfectly laid-out plan for how you will communicate a certain message to your audience.

Instead you can ponder a certain subject within yourself. Those thoughts are likely to subconsciously seep into the photography since they may inform your decisions on where to point the camera, what part of the frame to place emphasis on, or how much context to include.

Bringing the 3 pillars of photography together

The three pillars of photography—light, composition and subject—work together to create impactful imagery. In the case of subject, light and composition can be used as tools to introduce or strengthen subject.

Photo by Oliver Cole on Unsplash

Light, for instance, can be used to draw the attention to certain areas of the frame that are key elements for understanding the subject of the image. The characteristics of light can be used to create certain feelings which influence the audience’s interpretation of the photo. Consider high contrast light which will give a more dramatic feel to the imagery or under lighting which will feel unnatural and could make the viewer feel uneasy.

Composition determines the context for a photo which is a key ingredient of storytelling. Compositional techniques can also influence certain narratives or interpretations. For example:

  • Negative space can imply hope or potential
  • Symmetry creates a sense of harmony and balance which could make someone feel tranquil or stable
Photo by valor kopeny on Unsplash

Understanding each of these elements and how they can work together is essential to becoming a well-rounded photographer.

Follow this link to read our in-depth article series about light: Mastering Light in Photography: What is Light?

Follow this link to read our article on composition: The Simple Guide to Photography Composition—For Beginners

Prompts & Tips for Using Subject

Subject is a tool to use as a photographer to make sense of your work, direct your creative process and communicate with an audience.

In order to develop your ability to use subject in your photography, there is a certain amount of self-reflection that you must do. The following list compiles some prompts of key concepts to consider and provides you with a few practical tips for developing your skills.

1. Understand your purpose for taking photos

When you’re drawn to take a photo, investigate the root of what is interesting you enough to take out your camera. Is it nostalgia? Beauty? Curiosity? Humour? Activism? Whatever it may be—recognize that instinct to record a moment and give it a name.

Continually practice this and you will likely notice themes in what pulls you to photography. How can you explore those themes further or put yourself in situations that allow you to experience that pull?

Photo by Billy Aboulkheir on Unsplash

2. Connect with your subject

In order to photograph the essence of something, it’s important for you to first understand it on a deeper level.

Take portrait photography for instance. Even the most open people may feel uncomfortable when they step in front of a camera and so they become guarded and less open.

In order to break down those walls your subject needs to develop a certain amount of trust in you as the photographer. The best thing that you can do in this situation is to be present with your subject and connect with them on a human level. Slowly those walls will come down and allow them to be vulnerable and open for the camera.

Photo by Jaddy Liu on Unsplash

Connection goes a long way when capturing photos of any subject. It’s somewhat impulsive to look at the world through your camera when you’re out taking photos. While this can be a great exercise, there can be much more power in looking at the world—and to a certain extent, even composing your images—with your naked eye. Then, simply raise your camera, make final adjustments and capture the light. This keeps you in the present moment and aware of what exactly it is that you’re capturing. Otherwise, the camera can act as a barrier between yourself and the world around you.

When you’re connected to what you’re capturing you have the power to create more nuanced relationships or simply show that subject matter in the most honest or flattering way.

3. Capture what interests you

To connect with your subject, you have to be interested in it or at least find interest in it. This will lead you to create deeper connections which will strengthen the subject of the image. It could even lead you to capture a subject matter in a unique or unconventional way.

Consider what it is that interests you, what you consider to be effective photography and what an interesting photograph is to you. While this path may not be as quick as copying what trending photographers are shooting, it will lead you to more fruitful results in the long run.

It’s worthwhile to dig into what events led you to photography or what hobbies you have outside of photography. There are likely subjects to be discovered in this exploration which can be developed into your practice.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

4. Presence & awareness

Photographers can often get wrapped up in the image they just shot or the image that they planned to shoot next and forget to be present in the moment. Breathe! The more time that you spend with your subject, the more you will start to understand its essence. As you learn about this subject, you may realize the perfect composition or light to shoot it in to highlight that attribute that really speaks to you.

This is the reason many photographers will achieve some of their most meaningful work with their own children. What can you possibly know more closely than your child? There is a certain level of understanding, empathy and adoration that permeates into the imagery and touches the viewer.

Strive to achieve a similar level of understanding with all of your photographic subjects and see how your images transform with complexity.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

5. Photograph a single subject many times in many different ways

One way that you can understand a subject on a deeper level is to photograph it many times over. Photograph it in different light, with a different focal length, at different distances, etc. Experiment!

After shooting for some time, assemble the photos and review them. Which ones fully capture the essence of that subject? Why were they more successful?

6. Trust your intuition

Don’t let the conceptualization of subject stand in your way of capturing what calls out to you. The secret that many artists may not openly share is that often the “meaning-making” comes after the creation.

Follow your gut instinct and when something pulls at you to take out your camera—listen to it and capture that moment. Later on, you can articulate what subject lies in the photo. That understanding can then be used in your process moving forward.

Photo by Ekrulila on Unsplash

7. Create a photo series or photo essay

It’s difficult to tell a story or even explore a theme with a single image. Dedicating yourself to a photo series or photo essay alleviates some of the pressure and also allows you to explore much more complex stories and themes.

And it’s so easy to do! You can create a carousel on instagram, you can print your images and tape them on the wall in a certain arrangement, you can put together a photo-blog. Your creativity is your only limit.

Photo by Brigitta Schneiter on Unsplash

8. Publicly display your work

This can be a terrifying step to make but it is crucial for understanding how an audience interprets, reacts to, and engages with your work. Each time I have publicly displayed my work I have left that experience with a reworked understanding of my photography and voice as an artist.

When you display your work you are given the opportunity to engage in conversation about the images, hear the way people interpret your work and even receive constructive criticism. These are all crucial experiences to develop your craft.

Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

9. Avoid spoon-feeding your audience

People don’t like to be hit over the head with an idea so blatant and obvious. It can cheapen the work. People like to search for meaning and can feel a sense of accomplishment when they “find” an idea or concept that is seemingly below the surface. There is, of course, a fine balance. You must give some sort of symbol, metaphor or story for the viewer to investigate.

10. Study photography & lots of it!

Take time to study the photography of old masters and contemporary photographers. How did they deal with subject in their photography? What devices can you notice in their work? Are there themes that run through their photography?

There are plenty of books you can read that dive into these ideas for certain photographers. These are great resources for understanding photography.

Danger, 1965 by Fan Ho. © Fan Ho Trust and Estate

Getting Started with Subject

Subject is a tricky aspect of photography. It takes time to fully understand and develop into a practical part of your photographic process.By merely understanding the difference between subject matter and subject you are already ahead of the pack. As you move forward, consider the devices that can be used to infuse more meaningful and complex subjects into your work and pay attention to what pulls you to create images in the first place.

Were you surprised to learn anything about subject in photography? How do you plan to explore subject in your photography? Let us know in the comments below.

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