Exploring Your Subject, Part I

I imagine this has happened to you. You see something really exciting, frame it up in the viewfinder, snap the shutter, quickly glance at the back of the camera and then begin to look for other subjects nearby that may evoke the same kind of excitement. When you get back home and review the work you realize that the image or images just don’t communicate the emotion you felt at that time. It’s an easy rut to fall into, and at some point every photographer finds themselves in this situation.

The reason for this misstep might actually be two reasons. One might be that you were just too darn excited to take a bunch more photographs, or two – which is more likely – you didn’t truly figure out what it was that drew you to the subject to begin with. Not to panic however. It can be a rare occasion to happen upon a subject that lights a creative fire within you, and to also know what sparked it.

Many photographers I know have certain compositional tendencies, such as camera position and focal length, which dictate how they approach most subjects. Because it’s easier for some folks to compose an image based mainly on details like texture, color or shape within their subjects, they simply attach a telephoto lens and go. However, it might be something else, such as the subjects’ environment which attracted them in the first place. Instead of thinking about it, they take a few shots with their perspective in mind, thinking “that’s it, I got it,” and go on their merry way only to receive the disappointment later. This failure to fully explore all the alternatives and consider the overall environment might have led them to miss what it was that caused the initial “wow” in the first place. On the other hand, other photographers I see in the field tend to approach scenes with an all or nothing attitude by sticking with the wide-angle lens to “get it all” and suffer similar disappointments … you get the point.

Essentially we have only three ways to portray any subject matter. These are environmentally, intimately and abstractly. The subject matter makes no difference. It could be a person, flower, doorknob or a mountain.

1. The environmental portrait – (subject in its environment). This perspective means that the elements surrounding the subject are essential in supporting and describing it.

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2. The abstract portrait – (detail within the subject). This means that a detail in light, color, texture, shape and/or idea is the primary element within the subject that describes it.

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3. The intimate portrait – (subject itself). This means that the details within – and the environment surrounding – the subject are not significant elements in the communication.

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The proverbial “line in the sand” between these concepts isn’t stagnant. Some compositional ideas may have a more intimate approach, but with some environmental elements included which still support the subject and vice versa.

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Some abstract ideas could also have either an environmental or intimate influence as well. We do not have to capture all these concepts every time we push the shutter, but when we consider a perspective for each subject, contemplating these three portrayals sure helps to fully explore and then capture the “expression” of what we see. And an added benefit beyond the exploration is that it forces us to slow down, which is something we all need to consider in the fast pace of a digital life.

The discussion in next week’s blog post, Exploring Your Subject, Part II, will use these concepts to talk about going beyond one picture to create a more descriptive story.