How I Look For Subject Matter

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Subject matter is always going to be difficult to find. The trick is knowing what to look for and when. For each person, it’s a little different, so there is no definitive way to select the subject matter of your next photograph. But I do believe that it helps to hear what helps others. It is for this reason that I have titled this article “How I Look for Subject Matter”, because I cannot gaurantee my methods will work for you. But I do hope that you will be able to adjust for your own needs.

Sudden Ideas
I would be lying if I were to tell you that I can think of ideas on a whim. Unfortunately, I usually think of ideas when I’m driving somewhere, at work, or when I am otherwise preoccupied. I used to carry a notepad with me at all times and I would jot down any ideas that suddenly pop into my head (for this and many of my hobbies). Thanks to technology, I now carry a Blackberry and I keep a notepad item titled “Photo Ideas”. I am constantly appending items to that list. They are viewable in Outlook when I get back to my computer or on my Blackberry at all times. Just remember that if you’re driving somewhere, pull over before you start writing anything down on your pad or in your PDA. Finally, when I have some time available, I can refer to my list and experiment with some of the ideas I wrote down.

The Obscure and Rare
Rare subjects and events will always be great subject matter. This may include such subjects as a solar eclipse, Olympic competition, rainbows, and so on. As a caveat, however, rare and obscure occurances will naturally attract many photographers, all shooting the same photo. The perfect example took place last month during a recent lunar eclipse. The very next day, there were thousands of pictures of the eclipse uploaded to web, most of which were better than my own images. With that in mind, you need to expect that your image will not be alone and plan accordingly. Think about what will set your photograph apart from the rest. This is not only great subject matter, but a great challenge.

Photo Trips
Very often, I will find some spare time, but I will not have any specific photographic concepts in mind. When faced upon these circumstances, it is not uncommon for me to take a trip somewhere with my camera. I’ll walk or drive someplace specific. Go to a place that you are familiar with such as a park, shopping mall, or any public space where you’ll find lots of people. This is often a good way to practice your portraiture or photojournalism techniques. You can also take trips to places that are a little more quiet: a big open farm field or an obscure foot path through a national park.

Timing is everything with some photographs. You may take one of these trips and discover a lot of great subject matter, but perhaps you aren’t happy with the time. Maybe shadows are cast the wrong way, there isn’t enough light or it’s too crowded. At least jot down some notes for future reference and plan on returning to the site. Especially if you’re using a digital camera, I would recommend snapping a couple of photographs regardless. That way, you have reference material for the future, or you can use your favorite editing tool to add some notes or sketches on top of the photo so that you are better prepared next time you visit the site.

Mimic Known Works
As is true with almost any form of art, sometimes it’s good to mimic photographs that you know and admire. You may need to experiment in order to duplicate the results of the admired photograph, but experimentation is good. You may learn a new trick, create a new effect or complete something entirely new.

Online Galleries as Inspiration
Personal galleries, such as mine, are one great resource. But it’s not a good idea to gain inspiration from only one source or one artist’s mind. Don’t discount the idea of an online community such as DeviantArt or even Flickr. Sometimes, browsing through the work of others will inspire you. It is not uncommon for many of these community sites to have weekly contests or challenges. Even if you don’t intend to enter, restricting yourself to a narrow scope in order to comply with the contest rules, you will be able to force yourself to think of that specific subject matter.

Limit Yourself
One way that I’ll get out of an inspirational funk is to limit myself in some way. For example, I might only allow myself to take photographs with an aperture of f/4, or I’ll only take photographs with slow shutter speeds. Perhaps I might limit the color spectrum by taking only Black and White photographs. The idea is that if I spend time trying to take photographs to meet this criteria, I will have created a logic problem for myself which I will attempt to solve. I am therefor less concerned about the subject matter, and more concerned about the technique or the process. While the subject is still important for the final product, I have removed from my shoulders the stress of trying to find a subject and replaced it with the burden of meeting other criteria. At a particular point in time, the latter may be more appropriate for my mood at that time.

Improve Weaknesses
For any given photographer, there is always going to be some technical aspect of photography which could be considered a weakness. In my case, I have limited experience shooting night photography and I consider myself less than proficient at using my camera in shutter priority mode. When I’m in a rut artistically, it’s a good time to brush up on my skills. You may not come out with anything noteworthy, but you’ll gain some experience making your next session much more productive. Every single photo can be a learning experience.

Shoot Everything & Anything
Finally, there are times where none of the above ideas will work for you. You may be in a public space without a single shred of inspiration. When in doubt, shoot everything. Thanks to the digital world, you aren’t wasting any resources by taking too many pictures. Take photographs of the wheel on a cart, people crossing the street, or a man reading the newspaper. You may just get lucky with a great photo. It is even more possible that the right amount of finesse or cropping may turn an ordinary snapshot into something really interesting. Just be careful: You don’t want to fall into the habit of shooting everything very often. The goal is to train your eye and your mind to appropriately select subject matter before clicking the shutter. Ideally, you want most, if not all, of your photos to be gallery worthy.

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About Author

D. Travis North is a professional Landscape Architect, a Freelance Photographer and founder of Shutter Photo. Ever since he picked up his first SLR, his father's Nikon N2000, he's been hooked on photography. Travis likes to photograph urban environments, architectural details and has a new-found interest in close-up photography. His work can be found at D. Travis North Photography. Follow Travis on twitter: @dtnorth.

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