Taking better photographs: Knowing what your ‘subject’ is and composing your shot around it.


When taking a photograph, one of the things that can help you achieve better results is to pay careful attention to the how the image is composed. Essentially, what this entails is observing the scene that you wish to photograph, choosing which of its elements to include in your shot and deciding how to arrange them within the frame.

When it comes to composition (or any other aspect of photography), there are no hard and fast rules to follow or secret recipes that guarantee the result you want - so all of what I’ve written below should be ignored as you see fit. In my opinion, the most important thing about a photograph is that it does what you want it to do. Getting it ‘technically correct’ can often help you take photographs that achieve this but, at the same time, some of the most exciting photography is compelling and interesting because it breaks the rules. If it looks right to you, then it’s right.

That said, here are some things that can be useful to keep in mind when you’re composing a shot.


Identifying the subject.


Before you even lift your camera to take a photograph, you should be thinking about what the subject of your photograph is. In other words, the thing that caught your interest and made you stop walking to reach for your camera. Being able to identify your subject is what will help you decide how to compose your photograph.

If you’ve stopped to photograph a person, that person is, of course, part of your subject. Even so, there are people everywhere who you’re not interested in photographing. What is it about this one that you wanted to capture? Is it something they’re wearing? A facial expression or a gesture with their body? The way the light is falling on them? Whatever it is, that’s the subject.

 In this example, the subject (the thing that made me want to take a photograph) is the passion of the man in the foreground. What I wanted to bring attention to was the singer and his emotional expressions and gestures.

In this example, the subject (the thing that made me want to take a photograph) is the passion of the man in the foreground. What I wanted to bring attention to was the singer and his emotional expressions and gestures.

 

When it’s an object, it may be slightly less obvious what attracted you to it but that should still be pretty easy to identify. As with the example above, there’s usually something about the object that caught your attention. If it’s a neon sign hanging in a window, it could be the words on the sign that interest you but, equally, it could be the way the light is falling on and colouring everything around it. If it’s an old building, it could be a detail like the aged texture of the cracked and faded plaster, or it could be the way the entire structure is shaped. If it’s a boat, maybe it’s the unusual colour of its sails, or maybe it’s simply the sheer size of it.

 In this example, the shirt is the main element of the photo but the subject is the way the light shines through it and turns it into a kind of ghostly figure, floating in a dark room.

In this example, the shirt is the main element of the photo but the subject is the way the light shines through it and turns it into a kind of ghostly figure, floating in a dark room.

 

Often, the subject of a photograph consists of more than just a single element of a scene. It may be that different objects have combined to create an interesting result. For example, it may be that something has been lit in a particular way or it may be the way an element is positioned in its environment. It may also be that there is no specific person or thing in the scene at all but you think that all the colours within it look beautiful together or you want to capture the softness of the light around you or, in fact, you enjoy the vastness of an empty space. Even the absence of people and things can be a subject in itself.

 In this example, the most prominent element in the frame is the man in a suit but he isn’t the subject on his own. The subject is the solitude and simplicity of a single black silhouette, dwarfed by a vast white backdrop. I was interested not just in the man, but in the way he was positioned in his environment.

In this example, the most prominent element in the frame is the man in a suit but he isn’t the subject on his own. The subject is the solitude and simplicity of a single black silhouette, dwarfed by a vast white backdrop. I was interested not just in the man, but in the way he was positioned in his environment.

 
 In this example, the subject isn’t a particular person or object. I simply enjoyed the colours together and the way they all fall in vertical strips.

In this example, the subject isn’t a particular person or object. I simply enjoyed the colours together and the way they all fall in vertical strips.

 

When composing a photograph, what matters first and foremost is that you understand what made you want to take the it. That’s not so that you can decide whether to take the shot or whether to walk away. It’s so that you can figure out how to take the shot in a way that best captures and conveys your subject.

 In this example, I’m not sure what the subject is and I didn’t know while I was taking it either. I thought the scene had a bit of something but couldn’t put my finger on what it was so I just took the shot. As a result, it’s a boring image. If I’d been clear on what it was that attracted me to the scene, I would probably have composed it differently and may have ended up with something interesting.

In this example, I’m not sure what the subject is and I didn’t know while I was taking it either. I thought the scene had a bit of something but couldn’t put my finger on what it was so I just took the shot. As a result, it’s a boring image. If I’d been clear on what it was that attracted me to the scene, I would probably have composed it differently and may have ended up with something interesting.

 

Generally speaking, the subject should be the most prominent element in the shot - or at least among the most prominent things. In this context, ‘prominent’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘large’, it means ‘noticeable’. If the subject of the photograph is the thing that drew your attention to the scene in the first place, it follows that you want the viewer of the photograph to have their attention drawn to that same thing. What you probably don’t want is for the subject to get lost amongst the rest of the image. There are various ways that this can be managed.


Positioning the subject within the frame.


Having understood what the subject is, composing a shot becomes largely about where in the frame that subject is positioned. Again, there are no fixed rules and if something ‘feels’ right, that’s all that ultimately matters. Many photographers learn ‘the rule of thirds’ fairly early on which is something that I think is worth having an understanding of but also not obsessing over. There are, in my opinion, far more fundamental things to consider when positioning a subject.

Once you lift your camera and go from observing the world directly with your eyes to looking at it through a camera viewfinder or screen, the most significant change is the sudden presence of a hard rectangular border, framing your view. This is obviously a pretty dramatic difference in the way that we usually see our environment, making the edges of that frame one of the most important areas to keep an eye on when composing a shot. Having the content of your scene suddenly cease to exist when it reaches the edge of the frame is distracting but also unavoidable since, of course, the frame of the photograph cannot be infinitely large. What can be avoided, however, is positioning any of the important elements of the scene on or so close to the edge that the frame distracts from them. With the subject being the most important element of the scene, you’ll almost certainly want to avoid positioning it too close to the frame - or worse, having the frame cut through it so they drop off the edge of the image completely! 

 In this example, I’ve cropped the image so that, although the guy I’m photographing is completely within the shot, he’s so close to the edge that the frame of the photo becomes something of a distraction. It feels slightly uncomfortable to look at.

In this example, I’ve cropped the image so that, although the guy I’m photographing is completely within the shot, he’s so close to the edge that the frame of the photo becomes something of a distraction. It feels slightly uncomfortable to look at.

 Fortunately, when I took the original, I was careful not to position him too close to the edge, allowing for a bit of room around his body. Although there’s nothing particularly interesting in that extra bit of the scene, it provides a little extra breathing space around the most important element of the photograph - my subject.

Fortunately, when I took the original, I was careful not to position him too close to the edge, allowing for a bit of room around his body. Although there’s nothing particularly interesting in that extra bit of the scene, it provides a little extra breathing space around the most important element of the photograph - my subject.

Avoiding this kind of mistake should come naturally to most people. However, even after several years of shooting and hundreds of thousands of compositions later, I’m still guilty of forgetting that this same principle applies not just to the left and right edges of a scene but to the upper and lower borders too. If the subject involves a person, for example, it’s important to avoid having their head crashing into the top of the frame or their feet dropping off the bottom. Firing off a few dozen shots of a great subject only to realise later that I’ve chopped them off at the ankles is something that has made me want to throw my camera out of a window on more occasions than I care to admit.

 When will I ever learn?

When will I ever learn?

 
 When?!

When?!

Whilst this principle should be applied first and foremost to the subject of your photograph, it’s also worth keeping in mind when considering the rest of the scene too. In an ideal scenario, even the less important elements will be given a bit of breathing space, resulting in the borders cutting through only the least interesting areas of the image.

 Although denim jacket guy isn’t the subject of this image, he’s still an important element within the scene so I was disappointed that I clipped his ear with the right hand side of the frame. 

Although denim jacket guy isn’t the subject of this image, he’s still an important element within the scene so I was disappointed that I clipped his ear with the right hand side of the frame. 

 
 I was happier with the way I composed this shot, leaving a bit of space around denim jacket guy’s head.

I was happier with the way I composed this shot, leaving a bit of space around denim jacket guy’s head.

In a situation where it’s difficult to control exactly how your subject is positioned within the frame (for example, when your subject is moving around a lot or you don’t have time to consider the framing too carefully), it usually makes sense to err on the side of caution and shoot from slightly further away. This creates more space around the entire scene, allowing more room for error and giving you the opportunity to chop off the parts you don’t want by cropping the final images.

 When I took this shot, I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to frame the scene so I stood back far enough to be confident that everything important could be included in the final image.

When I took this shot, I wasn’t entirely sure how I wanted to frame the scene so I stood back far enough to be confident that everything important could be included in the final image.

 
 
 Once I had time to consider the framing, I decided I wanted to crop in a little closer to the subject and lose some of the more distracting elements of the scene. So I chopped off the top, left and right edges of the image (being careful not to come in too close to the lady on the left, of course).

Once I had time to consider the framing, I decided I wanted to crop in a little closer to the subject and lose some of the more distracting elements of the scene. So I chopped off the top, left and right edges of the image (being careful not to come in too close to the lady on the left, of course).


Positioning the subject relative to the rest of the scene.


The idea of giving your subject ‘breathing space’ doesn’t only apply to its proximity to the edges of the frame - it also applies to its relationship with the elements of the scene that sit around it. In the same way as having the image’s borders crashing into your subject pulls attention away from it, another object or person in the image can be equally or even more intrusive. When looking through the viewfinder and trying to consider everything else, it’s very easy to become so fixated on the capturing the main subject that everything and everyone else in the scene gets ignored. It’s extremely frustrating to have framed a shot perfectly, only to find that there’s something positioned so close up to the subject that your eyes can’t help but wander over to it.

 Not the worst result in the world but I’d have been happier if I had allowed a little space between the guy’s hand and the top of the chair. The chair really isn’t as important a part of the image as the singer but it’s pulling attention away from him by being pushed up so close - particularly when the rest of the scene is so empty.

Not the worst result in the world but I’d have been happier if I had allowed a little space between the guy’s hand and the top of the chair. The chair really isn’t as important a part of the image as the singer but it’s pulling attention away from him by being pushed up so close - particularly when the rest of the scene is so empty.

 

Again, all of that probably comes fairly naturally to many people but what often gets forgotten about is what’s happening in the background. Despite there being physical space around the subject itself, prominent objects or people behind the subject can be just as distracting as something crashing into your subject from the side - or even slightly obscuring it from the front. I think the reason this is so easy to forget about is that these background objects can actually be very far in the distance in real life so they don’t seem like they should be an issue when considering a shot. Yet, if they line themselves up just right, they become surprisingly prominent in the final image.

 When I took this shot, my attention was so focused on the subject’s face and paintbrush that I failed to spot the writing behind her head. Since it runs straight through the most important part of the image, it’s very distracting.

When I took this shot, my attention was so focused on the subject’s face and paintbrush that I failed to spot the writing behind her head. Since it runs straight through the most important part of the image, it’s very distracting.

 
 
 After pausing to review the first few shots, I spotted what was happening and shifted my position to place my subject’s head against a less distracting background. The second shot has problems of its own (I don’t like the lighting and the pose as much) but the composition definitely benefits from being less ‘busy’ and becomes much easier to look at.

After pausing to review the first few shots, I spotted what was happening and shifted my position to place my subject’s head against a less distracting background. The second shot has problems of its own (I don’t like the lighting and the pose as much) but the composition definitely benefits from being less ‘busy’ and becomes much easier to look at.

In the above example, it was possible for me to control the background quite easily - all I had to do was adjust my position before taking the shot. However, when the background is constantly changing (usually as a result of people or cars moving through it), timing as well as positioning will effect the result of the shot. In these instances, it’s necessary to not only find an angle that eliminates any distractions from your subject but also to pick a moment that does that too. The principle is the same though - it’s about drawing the viewer’s attention to the right place.

Shooting in fairly dynamic environments such as on the street or at a wedding (as opposed to rural landscapes or studio portraiture) can make this a significant challenge - but keeping it in mind and trying to find the right moment to press the shutter can make the world of difference to the impact of a final image.

 In this example, I had placed myself in a good position to create a bit of space around my subject but I didn’t choose the right moment to press the shutter. As a result, when viewing the image, it’s hard not to be aware of baggy chinos guy strolling along behind my subject’s head.

In this example, I had placed myself in a good position to create a bit of space around my subject but I didn’t choose the right moment to press the shutter. As a result, when viewing the image, it’s hard not to be aware of baggy chinos guy strolling along behind my subject’s head.

 
 
  Waiting for a few seconds for a gap in the foot traffic resulted in a composition that is much less distracting and keeps the attention on the subject.

Waiting for a few seconds for a gap in the foot traffic resulted in a composition that is much less distracting and keeps the attention on the subject.

 This guy was doing a lot of pointing so I was trying to catch a moment where his finger was in the air. During one of those moments, red shoes guy decided to walk through the frame, placing one red shoe next to my subject’s face and the other by his finger - pulling attention from the two most important parts of the scene. His green backpack at the top doesn’t help things either.

This guy was doing a lot of pointing so I was trying to catch a moment where his finger was in the air. During one of those moments, red shoes guy decided to walk through the frame, placing one red shoe next to my subject’s face and the other by his finger - pulling attention from the two most important parts of the scene. His green backpack at the top doesn’t help things either.

 
 
 After a bit of waiting, a moment with fewer distractions arrived. It would have been nicer not to have that person coming out of the top of my subject’s head but, all things considered, this was the best of the bunch.

After a bit of waiting, a moment with fewer distractions arrived. It would have been nicer not to have that person coming out of the top of my subject’s head but, all things considered, this was the best of the bunch.


Providing context for the subject.


Everything covered so far has revolved around eliminating distractions and excluding elements from a shot. That’s because one of the easiest and most common ways to prevent the viewer from being drawn to the most important things in your photograph is to include things that pull their attention elsewhere. However, as much as the presence of other elements can be disruptive, they can also be necessary in order for an image to make sense - and even help add impact to the subject. So long as they don’t encroach on the main attraction, they can be the difference between a bland scene and one that’s exciting or intriguing.

It’s often quite difficult to differentiate between the elements in a scene that are intrusive and those that are adding something positive but this is why it’s so important to have a real understanding of what your subject is (beyond simply the main element in the frame). Knowing why you stopped to take the photo and being able to identify each of the elements that came together to capture your attention will make the biggest difference in helping you decide which you want in and which you want out.

At the very least, your image needs enough information to ensure that your subject makes sense. If you see a group of people playing basketball and you want to capture the enthusiasm and passion being expressed by one of the players, there are more elements to your subject than simply the player’s face - even though that’s probably where most of the energy and excitement is. In order to understand the scene in the same way as you do, the viewer needs to be shown where the person is, what they’re doing, what’s happening around them and so on. To achieve that, perhaps you need to show enough of the player’s body for it to be clear that they’re dressed to be playing sports or for it to be obvious that they’re moving quickly. Perhaps you need to position yourself so that a basketball or a net is within the frame if the specific sport is important to you. Perhaps the competitive element is part of your subject - in which case it’s probably best to include one or some of the other players. Without any of that, with nothing more than a sweaty grimacing face in the frame, you may not be fully capturing what is you set out to. Conversely, it may be that none of the context is important to you at all and you simply want to portray, I don’t know, the expressiveness of the human face. In that instance, you may prefer to come in extremely close so the face alone fills the frame. Either way, neither the basketball, the net, the other players or anything else will likely be the most significant element of your image but any or all of them may be part of your subject. If they are, then treating them as such will ensure that their presence within the frame adds impact to your image and helps your viewer see what attracted you to the scene in the first place.

 In this example, the subject (the thing that made me want to take a photograph) is the passion of the man in the foreground. What I wanted to bring attention to was the singer and his emotional expressions and gestures. With this in mind, I positioned myself close to him so that I would be able to capture the passion in his face. That meant losing much of the background but that’s something I was happy with - whilst it was a beautiful building with intricate patterns painted onto the walls, that wasn’t the subject of my image and it would only have served to distract from what I wanted to show. On the other hand, if I had moved in any closer, the borders of the frame would have encroached on or cut into the singer on the left and the guy with the double bass on the right. Whilst they weren’t the main attraction within the scene, they’re absolutely part of the subject. They provide important context, enabling the viewer to understand that the man in the foreground is part of something musical and must be singing passionately (rather than, say, preaching the gospel or howling in pain). I’m pleased with the composition because everything that needs to begin the image is there, but there is nothing to pull attention away from what interested me about the scene.

In this example, the subject (the thing that made me want to take a photograph) is the passion of the man in the foreground. What I wanted to bring attention to was the singer and his emotional expressions and gestures. With this in mind, I positioned myself close to him so that I would be able to capture the passion in his face. That meant losing much of the background but that’s something I was happy with - whilst it was a beautiful building with intricate patterns painted onto the walls, that wasn’t the subject of my image and it would only have served to distract from what I wanted to show. On the other hand, if I had moved in any closer, the borders of the frame would have encroached on or cut into the singer on the left and the guy with the double bass on the right. Whilst they weren’t the main attraction within the scene, they’re absolutely part of the subject. They provide important context, enabling the viewer to understand that the man in the foreground is part of something musical and must be singing passionately (rather than, say, preaching the gospel or howling in pain). I’m pleased with the composition because everything that needs to begin the image is there, but there is nothing to pull attention away from what interested me about the scene.

 
 In this example, the shirt is the main element of the photo but the subject is the way the light shines through it and turns it into a kind of ghostly figure, floating in a dark room. The composition is simple. Aside from the shirt, it shows the source of light (the window) and enough of the wall to show that’s hanging in a dimly-lit interior room. Nothing else is needed to make sense of the scene since there’s no real story to tell. I just wanted to show how pretty it is that the shirt was illuminated like that. I wasn’t too happy with the object creeping into the frame on the very left hand side as I think it’s a little distracting in such a simple composition but to crop in any closer would mean losing too much of the wall and I felt that the wall was a part of the subject.

In this example, the shirt is the main element of the photo but the subject is the way the light shines through it and turns it into a kind of ghostly figure, floating in a dark room. The composition is simple. Aside from the shirt, it shows the source of light (the window) and enough of the wall to show that’s hanging in a dimly-lit interior room. Nothing else is needed to make sense of the scene since there’s no real story to tell. I just wanted to show how pretty it is that the shirt was illuminated like that. I wasn’t too happy with the object creeping into the frame on the very left hand side as I think it’s a little distracting in such a simple composition but to crop in any closer would mean losing too much of the wall and I felt that the wall was a part of the subject.

 
 In this example, the most prominent element in the frame is the man in a suit but he isn’t the subject on his own. The subject is the solitude and simplicity of a single black silhouette, dwarfed by a vast white backdrop. Unlike the first example (with the singer), I was interested not just in the man, but in the way he was positioned in his environment. As a result, I allowed his surroundings to fill much of the frame, dramatising the contrast between the size of the man and the size of the wall. The man’s entire figure (rather than just his face) is part of the subject so I left space around him rather than moving in close and having the bottom of the frame cut through his body.

In this example, the most prominent element in the frame is the man in a suit but he isn’t the subject on his own. The subject is the solitude and simplicity of a single black silhouette, dwarfed by a vast white backdrop. Unlike the first example (with the singer), I was interested not just in the man, but in the way he was positioned in his environment. As a result, I allowed his surroundings to fill much of the frame, dramatising the contrast between the size of the man and the size of the wall. The man’s entire figure (rather than just his face) is part of the subject so I left space around him rather than moving in close and having the bottom of the frame cut through his body.

 
 In this example, the subject isn’t a particular person or object. I simply enjoyed the colours together and the way they all fall in vertical strips. So I just filled the frame with those colours.

In this example, the subject isn’t a particular person or object. I simply enjoyed the colours together and the way they all fall in vertical strips. So I just filled the frame with those colours.

 
 In this example, I’m not sure what the subject is and I didn’t know while I was taking it either. I thought the scene had a bit of something but couldn’t put my finger on what it was so I just took the shot. As a result, it’s a boring image. If I’d been clear on what it was that attracted me to the scene, I would probably have composed it differently and may have ended up with something interesting. Arranged like this with so many different elements in the frame, I don’t know which ones I’m supposed to be looking at, which ones are of any significance, how they relate to one another or what the photograph is trying to show. 

In this example, I’m not sure what the subject is and I didn’t know while I was taking it either. I thought the scene had a bit of something but couldn’t put my finger on what it was so I just took the shot. As a result, it’s a boring image. If I’d been clear on what it was that attracted me to the scene, I would probably have composed it differently and may have ended up with something interesting. Arranged like this with so many different elements in the frame, I don’t know which ones I’m supposed to be looking at, which ones are of any significance, how they relate to one another or what the photograph is trying to show. 

 

In summary.


The most important thing to have a true and complete understanding of when deciding how to compose a photograph is what your subject is. The thing that attracted you to the scene in the first place. That’s usually somewhat more complex than ‘a church’ or ‘a family’ or ‘a train’ so identifying the subject means being aware of the qualities of the scene that attracted you to it. Without knowing why and what you’re shooting, it’s very difficult to know how you should be shooting it. The decisions you make when composing your image are entirely dependent on what you feel the subject of that image is.

Generally speaking, the subject of the image should be free from distractions and be given ‘room to breathe’ so that the viewer's eyes are drawn towards it and not distracted while they are there.

When it comes to framing the shot, this is as simple as ensuring that the most important parts of the scene are not interrupted or pushed up too close against any of the four borders of the image. While the subject doesn’t need to be placed directly in the centre of the action, it usually needs at a least a little distance from the very edges in order to feel like a notable part of the photograph and to make for comfortable viewing.

Similarly, the subject needs to be somewhat free from the distractions provided by all the other elements in the scene. At least free enough that it isn’t competing for attention and leaving the viewer confused about where they are meant to be looking. That means positioning yourself so that anything in the scene that’s particularly eye-catching isn’t going to crowd your subject or peek out from behind it to steal the limelight. In more dynamic environments, this also means keeping an eye on how the subject’s surroundings and background are changing, timing the shot so that you avoid capturing anything you don’t want in there.

Again, this doesn’t need to be taken to the extreme - most forms of photography benefit from capturing at least some level of visual interest aside from the subject (or we’d all be trying to shoot everything against a plain white background and things would get boring pretty quickly). In fact, many images rely on the inclusion of supporting elements aside from the main subject in order to make sense of the scene. Being fully aware of what your subject is makes it much easier to understand the importance of each component part of a scene and will enable you to assemble a composition that shows whatever it is you wanted it to show, in the way you wanted to show it.

With all of that said (and at the risk of labouring the point), none of anything I’ve explained above is a golden rule that must be followed, nor does any of it guarantee a great photograph. All of the images I’ve shot and enjoyed have probably been technically poor on some level. And, as with any art, much of the most important work that exists today exists only because conventions were broken. At the same time, having an awareness of framing and composition and making informed decisions about how you want to shoot will, ultimately, help you to create images that do what you want them to do.