Title- Your Subject Matters - The Importance of Getting The Subject Right

Your Subject Matters- The importance of getting the subject right

In photography, the subject is very important. It is the main point of interest in your photograph that makes it clear what the image is about and what message is being conveyed by the image.

Without a clear subject, your photo will be difficult to define and therefore unappealing. People like to know what they’re looking at. Once that is clear to them, they can decide whether they like it or not. So, you’re subject does matter.

So, before you take a picture, you need to think about your subject. This may seem obvious because anyone who takes a photo clearly has something to photograph, otherwise why would they be taking a photo in the first place.

True as that may be, there a few things that you need to consider when choosing and framing your subject.

What is a “subject”?

A subject can be a person or people, animal, or non-living things such as a car or a landscape. Even a drop of water can be a subject. It is, both figuratively and literally, the focus of the image.

Literally speaking, the subject is what you usually set your camera’s focus on. Everything else that is not your intended subject should be out of focus while the focus on your subject remains sharp.

The question then is…

How do you choose a subject?

Simple. Choose what inspires you. That’s what a lot of photographers do. Look around you and see what stands out to you or what you’d like to remember and capture it. Everyone’s worldview is different. Photography allows you to share how you see the world with other people.

Sometimes, however, the subject is not necessarily chosen by you. If someone asks you to take a picture of them, for example, the decision of who or what the subject is is already made for you.

In some instances, other factors can help you decide what to photograph. For example, light can hit an object in such a way that makes for a great photo. As a photographer, you need to look out for such opportunities, too.

photo of storm trooper toy reaching up from under a desk lamp

Choose an interesting subject

Having an interesting subject in your photo goes a long way in making the photo as a whole look appealing. If what you wish to capture is naturally interesting, then you have one less thing to worry about.

But what exactly makes a subject interesting? Well, depending on what your subject is, anything can make it interesting.

For example, if you’re taking a portrait of a person, they could have natural beauty or some unique facial features that grab the eye. It could be that they have beautiful, piercing eyes. Or it could be that they have a strikingly unique skin tone or texture.

smiling woman with flowers on her head against an orange background

If your subject is something inanimate such as food or an everyday object, it could perhaps have unusual qualities that make it stand out.

These are really basic examples and probably wouldn’t be interesting to some people. After all, interesting is subjective. However, in a lot of cases, something unusual or uncommon can be a really good subject.

On the other hand, what makes the subject interesting could have little to do with the subject itself but more about the environment that the subject is in.

Perhaps your subject is dressed in a way that wouldn’t stand out anywhere else but does so in the place they’re in. Or maybe, as already mentioned, the lighting hits the subject in a peculiar way that adds character or drama to the subject and image as a whole. This makes for photos that are visually appealing.

Simply put, when it comes to choosing a subject, anything that stops you in your tracks and grabs your attention can be regarded as interesting. Chances are it could make for a great mobile photograph. You just need to keep your eyes open so you can spot such opportunities.

But what if what you’re taking shots of has nothing out of the ordinary to make it interesting? Then...

Make your subject interesting

Sure, not everything you want to take a photo of will be something very unique or out of this world. But that doesn’t mean your picture is doomed to be unappealing.

An otherwise boring picture of an ordinary person could look much better if the subject changes their facial expression, poses differently, or you add a few extra elements in the frame.

1. Posing and positioning

For example, a lot of times when people take pictures as a group, they take a picture with everyone posed normally and then one where everyone strikes a fun pose or pulls an odd face. Why? Because it makes it that much more interesting.

When taking pictures of people and/or (obedient) animals, there are a number of poses and positions you can try in order to get a great shot with your camera phone. Standing and sitting are the most common positions people for.

You can expand on these tried and tested positions by having your subject strike different poses while sitting or standing. If possible, you can take things further and have your subject lie down on the ground.

photo that shows movement of a dog jumping up to catch a frisbee at the beach

Another way to make things more interesting, add movement. Have your subject walk, run, jump, or whatever else works. Just make sure that your shutter speed is fast enough to capture a sharp image and avoid motion blur unless that’s what you’re going for.

When it comes to inanimate objects, you can arrange them in such a way that is different and visually appealing. Food is a good example of this. You can arrange ordinary foods in a way that creates humour or conveys a certain message.

pineapples made to look fun with sunglasses, party hats, balloons and steamers

An important thing to keep in mind is the shape or form of the subject because it can make or break your photo. For example, a box taken from straight on does not look like a three-dimensional cube but rather a square. Its true form is hidden by the angle and position it’s in.

2. Take candid shots

Another thing that makes pictures look good is authenticity. When you capture people unaware and going about their business, there’s a certain realness that can make an image powerful.

candid shot of woman kneeling and praying

I personally find that candid photos can be quite attractive. Be it a moment of vulnerability or pure bliss, there is a beauty in candid photos that you can’t quite capture the same way with posed photographs.

3. Composition

Having an interesting subject is great but how you position the subject within the frame can enhance the image even more.

There are quite a few composition techniques you can apply to help you take pictures on your phone that look good.

The most popular is the rule of thirds. This is where the frame is divided into 9 parts by having two imaginary lines running across the from both horizontally and vertically.

Most often, positioning your subject along these lines and where they intersect results in aesthetically pleasing photos.

rule of thirds gridlines

One of the things you need to look out for when composing an image is headroom. No matter whether your subject is living or inanimate, you want to avoid chopping off the top of the subject by having little to no space between the top of your subject and the top of the frame while there’s a lot of space between the bottom frame the bottom of your subject.

Also, if your subject is facing away from the camera, it is commonly good practice to have enough space in the direction they’re turned towards within the frame. This is known as looking room.

4. Make proper use of lighting

I have touched on this briefly before but I will mention it again because it is super important. Lighting is the backbone of photography, so you need to take full advantage of it and its properties if you want to make your subject that much more interesting.

For example, at different times of the day, the sun gives off light of varying intensities and colour temperatures. Make sure you understand how lighting works and how light from the sun affects the look of your subject as the day progresses.

Doing so will help you can choose the right time of day to take the best photos of your subject with your smartphone.

If you’re working with artificial lighting indoors or in a poorly lit environment, it’s also important to note how the number of lights you use and their position in relation to the subject affects the look of the subject and the overall image as well.

window blinds casting shadow pattern on a man's face

One of the things you should not be afraid to play around with is shadows.

Depending on how you use them, shadows can add drama and intrigue to your subject.

An otherwise bland image can be made to look interesting by having shadow patterns fall on your subject.

You can also have your subject cast a cool shadow onto something else.

How to emphasize your subject

If your subject is one amongst many others in the scene, it can be quite difficult to make out what or who the main subject of the image is. For this reason, you need to emphasize your subject in order to make it clear what the photo is about.

Below are a few ways you can do that.

1. Focus

One of the ways you can make your subject clear is by making sure that the focus on your subject is sharp and whatever is in the background is out of focus.

This way, the blurry background will direct the eye’s attention to the foreground subject in focus.

And if your subject is in the background, whatever elements you have in the foreground can similarly by blurred so that the focus is directed at the subject in the background.

foreground flower in focus and background out of focus

Because of the limitations of mobile phone cameras, it’s easier to play around with the focus on dedicated cameras like DSLRs. But that’s not to say you can do it on your smartphone. Cell phone cameras use computational photography that makes it possible to adjust focus.

If you’re taking a wide shot of a scene, you probably won’t see this in action compared to if you take a photo from quite up close. Depending on the phone you use, you can tap on your phone’s screen on the area you want to focus on and the camera will automatically adjust the focus to that area.

Another way of doing this is to adjust the focus manually. You can switch to the Manual mode of your camera and then adjust the focus slider to where you want. I generally like this method because one of the benefits of shooting in Manual mode is the amount of control it gives me.

If your phone has multiple rear cameras, then chances are your native app has Portrait mode or something similar to that. This makes it possible for you to blur the background while retaining a sharp focus on your subject in the foreground. Depending on your phone, this feature can yield some really impressive results.

2. Adequate lighting

I cannot stress this point enough. So I’ll mention it again. It doesn’t matter how interesting and well-composed your subject is, if you do not have enough lighting available, your photo, let alone your subject, will not look good at all.

The issue of adequate lighting becomes most challenging at night or in low light environments. Remember, smartphone cameras have really tiny sensors, so they need as much light as possible in order to produce good quality pictures.

If you find yourself taking photos in poor lighting conditions with your phone, either find the nearest source of available light or set up your own.

Whatever you do, do not rely on the flash on your camera, even if you’re using a high-end flagship camera phone. Photos taken with the phone camera flash tend to come out looking flat, washed out, and unflattering.

If you have to use flash, consider investing in an external flash unit for your smartphone camera.

3. Declutter the shot

It is a very common mistake many beginner photographers make to want to include everything in a photo.

Decluttering your shot means getting rid of any other elements or unnecessary objects in the frame. In composition, this is known as simplification.

a hand holding a pink flower against a clear blue sky

For example, if you take a picture of a specific flower amongst other flowers, plants, and leaves, your eye might end up wandering all over the frame looking at everything else that’s in the shot.

If you remove the flower and place it against a plain background, the simplicity of the background will drive the eye to focus on the flower because there’s nothing else to look at.

4. Use contrast and juxtaposition

dark skin woman with head wrap against light background

By using contrasting colours, you can make your subject really stand out.

For example, if the dominant colour in a scene is green, having a subject that’s mostly of a contrasting colour like yellow will draw attention to your subject.

Your eye will find it difficult to ignore the one yellow thing in a sea of mostly green.

Another example of using contrast is putting something light against something dark. If your subject is darker than the background, it will definitely stand out.

Besides contrasting colours, you can also juxtapose different looks, ideas, or themes to further enhance your subject. By this, I mean placing your subject in an environment that is not common for the subject.

For example, taking photos of a clean, well-dressed subject in an abandoned and run-down building full of graffiti will create a very interesting contrast that will really pull the eyes’ attention. Just make sure that the background is not too distracting.

Does every photo always have to have a definite subject?

No, having a clear cut subject is not always the case in photography. When it comes to abstract photography, the focus is not on easily identifiable or defined subjects.

Abstract photography is not really that easy to define but simply put I’d say it’s more concerned with lines, shapes, form, patterns, etc.

It basically takes the rules and conventions of other types of photography and throws them out the window and allows the photographer to the visual world in a unique way.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that abstract photography is simply taking random pictures and calling it abstract art. Odd and non-traditional as it may be, abstract photography is still deliberate, albeit even more subjective.

link to free 22-page ebook

Well, that’s it on this subject. Haha, see what I did there? Pun aside, I hope this article was super useful and informative. If you take the time to choose and study your subject carefully, your mobile photos can improve quite a bit.

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