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Great Photos are like Great Books – They have a subject!

MattKrumins Tutorials

Have you ever read a book that has pages and pages of intricate and detailed descriptions of the scene but just never feels like it really goes anywhere? I’ve read books before where after the first 10 pages of description about every detail of a room I started to wonder if there was any plot at all or if the author just had an insatiable love of adjectives. It didn’t give me direction and even more importantly it started to feel as though it lacked a specific subject altogether. Sometimes it can feel the same with photography, there is a scene that at the time says so much to us that we could spend countless hours describing it but when we look back at the photo later it feels as though it didn’t come close to doing the scene justice. This my friends is often because we get caught up in the moment and forget that without a specific and obvious subject our images can feel like a poorly written book, showing every detail of a scene with no real subject for the audience to follow. So below are my top 4 steps to ensure your scene tells a good story by bringing yuor subject to life!

Both images are shot at the same location but the image on the left lacks a real subject making it hard for the viewer to make sense of the photos story.


  • Step 1 - Find a detail to act as your subject

    Use a feature of the scene in your photography that makes it unique and use this as the main subject. It could be a rock formation in a landscape, an object in a market scene, a person in most any environment. By calling out a single feature in your image you direct a viewers attention and get them started on their ‘journey’ exploring your image rather than throwing them in the deep end and expecting them to know where to look.

  • Step 2 - Isolate your subject

    Isolate your subject. Having a feature subject in your image doesn’t mean you need to ignore everything, else it is simply a start point for your audience. As it’s a start point, we need to ensure we attract peoples attention to it immediately. We can do this through a number of techniques including: 1 – lighting (using an off camera flash or re-positioning the subject in brighter natural light than the rest of the scene). 2 – Try getting close to the subject to exaggerate its size relative to it’s background or 3 – Use a shallow depth of field by adjusting your aperture to keep your subject sharp but slightly soften the foreground and background.

  • Step 3 - Be your worst critic

    The best way I’ve found to help perfect photos is to play the image back on your screen and ask yourself where do your eyes immediately go in the image. If you hesitate, pause for a while or come up with several different options it’s probably a wise idea to revisit the shot and adjust your perspective or technique because if you can’t immediately tell what the subject and story of the image is then your audience is going to have a pretty tough time too. If you find it hard to disconnect yourself from the feeling or place you are in, sometimes it’s worth asking a friend (or even a stranger) the same question.

Examples of creating or isolating a subject:


Moving your subject to natural light can emphasise them in a scene

Adding an extra feature to a sunset can create interest, like the rocks in this landscape

Including a recognisable feature in a simple scene can build a story

Blurring your background using a low f/ number in your aperture settings can isolate a subject

Now there isn’t anything wrong with whipping the camera out to photograph a spectacular scene simply for the sake of a spectacular scene but generally these images are met with a short lived ‘Wow!’ that isn’t usually related to your ability to photograph the subject but rather about the subject itself. It is a detailed description about something broad and non-specific that sounds great for the first few moments but doesn’t entice us to journey on. By implementing a deliberate subject we can change the way our photos are viewed, turning the reaction from ‘wow that is a cool sunset’ into ‘wow, what an amazing photograph’. The difference might seem subtle to some but for those who love their photography there is a world of difference.

Want to learn more about telling stories and creating photos with purpose? Click on the link below to check out my full and half day workshops!

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