Great photography is the result of a photographer seeing what the rest of us do not. Many introductory courses and books will speak broadly of exposure and composition. But understanding these two elements, though important, will not entirely help you to take great photographs. One of the things that intrigues me about photography is that so many photographers can look at the same object and shoot it in different ways. Or, if you ask a number of photographers to shoot within certain parameters, they will again respond with vastly different interpretations. Why? It all comes down to subject and vision.
[singlepic id=282 w=320 h=240 float=right]Define a Subject
Subject is, in my opinion, an aspect of photography that is often misunderstood. For many years, I believed that the subject of my photos was the physical object that I was shooting: The child, the ball, the mushroom, the building, and so on. But that’s a very narrow way of thinking and such thinking will stunt your creative growth. Instead, think of subject as the purpose for taking the photograph. I’m not taking a photograph of the child, I’m taking a photograph of a child’s happiness as he eats his ice cream cone. I’m not photographing a ball: I’m photographing the moment before the ball makes contact with a player’s foot. To use one of my own photos as an example, I wasn’t shooting an asphalt plant, I was shooting a dilapidated structure that has seen many years of character-building weather. If this is all difficult to understand, it may be easier to think of subject as the story behind the shot. Your subject must communicate itself through your photograph – and your photograph must stand on its own. After all, most viewers of your work will not have an opportunity to ask you why.
Develop Your Vision
Vision is what sets photographs apart from snapshots. It is what makes you a photographer, and not just a guy with a camera. Like subject, it is an essential part of the photographic process. Now there is one prerequisite in order to define your vision: You need to know your own limitations and the limitations of your equipment. Note that I did not say you have to have great equipment – you just need to know what you can and cannot do. Having vision is like setting a goal: You see an object and have a subject in mind, now you have to define how you will communicate the subject. This is your vision. Your vision is closely linked to your subject. For example, I have come across a field of flowers. I have defined my subject as flowers reaching for the sun. So what’s my vision? In this case, the vision is almost entirely defined by the subject (this was intentional, of course). My vision is to show a flower clearly reaching for the sun. Seems simple enough, now what? Now I have to fulfill my vision. I know that in order to communicate my vision, I need to frame the shot to include the flower and the sun. This means I have to get low, really low – below the flower – so that the sun can be part of the shot. I’ll probably need to position the camera behind the flower – basically looking over the flower’s shoulder. Now the rest just falls into place. I can move the camera slightly to refine the composition, I can change the settings on my camera to make sure the flower is in focus and the sun is identifiable. Snap the shot, and the vision has been fulfilled.
So let’s try a little exercise. I want you to limit your shooting zone to your kitchen – maybe after a meal so you have lots of clutter to shoot. Now prepare to shoot some photographs. Before you snap each photo, find an object and, with that object in mind, define a subject. Remember, we’re thinking in terms of purpose and/or story, not object. Now, with your subject in mind, define your vision. Finally, start putting all of the technical elements (point of view, composition, exposure) in place so that your vision is fulfilled. For each shot, I want you to go through these steps: Define a subject, define your vision, fulfill your vision. Now you are thinking about each shot. Continue to practice repeating this process every single time. Feel free to share the results of this exercise here.
Every time you pick up your camera, I want you to think of this process and I want you to continue using this process throughout the rest of your photographic life. As you grow more experienced and gain better equipment, what you can achieve will of course grow with you. But the rudimentary elements will remain unchanged: Define a subject, define your vision and fulfill your vision. Eventually, it will become second nature. But once it does, you’ll be able to define subjects as soon as you enter a space. And that is when you’ll find your true photographic groove.
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