Creating Photos Without Obvious Subjects

Normally, we're taught that one of the basic rules of composition is to have a strong subject; in fact, that's almost taken as a given most of the time. However, compositions without a dominant or obvious subject can also make for great images, as this interesting video discusses.

Jackson Pollock has always been my favorite painter, partially because his works refuse easy readings, requiring you to stare at them, taking in both every part and the whole simultaneously. With some thought, I think that concept can transfer to photos as well, as Ben Horne discusses in this interesting video. As he mentions, compositions that capture a certain controlled chaos work particularly well. I also think that one might be able to successfully employ the concept with aerial photos. While drone photos can certainly have prominent subjects, I find that many of my favorite shots simply show off some sort of geometry or interesting symmetry that is afforded by the elevated perspective. While the controlled chaos Horne mentions works, minimalistic compositions also benefit from such an approach. Even if it's not your cup of tea, it's a good exercise to expand your compositional eye. Give it a try!

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3 Comments

Thank you for sharing this info. This is a topic that needs to be addressed among the photography community. In the world of visual art, photography is only an infant, yet we have adopted standards of composition that often ignore ideas found within other areas of visual art.
I teach college music classes in the same building as art classes and after becoming friends with one of the art teachers, I asked to sit in on several of his lectures. I soon found that even in the examples of traditional 17th century Italian painting, one can find a greater degree of compositional freedom. This is also true for a lack of a an obvious subject in painting before Jackson Pollock (see Monet's "Meadows at Giverny" or Suerat's "Alfalfa, St. Denis"). It can be tricky when conflating the genres of photography and painting; however, I believe photographers would benefit from paying a bit more attention to painting and other visual art.

Alex Cooke's picture

What college do you teach at and what do you teach? I teach music as well.

Joseph Elliott's picture

I can't tell you how many photographers I see on instagram with a great sense of mood/composition/texture, but ruin it by sticking a woman's silhouette in every frame.

Sometimes you have to let the eye wander the picture, and forcing a subject feels cheap.