How to Use Lightroom to Check if Your Photo Has a Subject

How to Use Lightroom to Check if Your Photo Has a Subject

It’s important to have a subject in your photo. Without a subject, a photo may be less interesting to look at. Sometimes, the subject is easy to spot, but at other times, it might be more difficult. You can get some help from Lightroom to check if your photo has a subject.

I notice how often photographers struggle finding a good subject for their photo. If you’re shooting models, this might be reasonably easy. Unless you try to do something unique, it will be clear what you’re showing with your photo.

You don't have to wonder what the subject is. For portraits and model photography, it's often quite obvious.

It becomes more difficult with something like landscape photos. A good landscape photo will have a subject also. It must be something that catches the eye and prevents the viewer from getting lost in the photo. It is frustrating to browse through a photo without something that stands out. The photo will be forgotten easily. Of course, there are exceptions.

Adding a subject not only attracts the eye, it will grab attention, and the photo will be looked at for an extended amount of time. In the ideal situation, it will be remembered.

Finding a Subject in Your Photo

A subject can be anything. It might be a single tree that stands out or a flower in the foreground. Perhaps a group of objects can form a single subject, as long as these are somehow related to each other or linked in some other way. Light and shadow will help isolating a subject. The subject can also be a human element in a landscape, like I explained in my previous article.

If your photo is missing something that attracts attention, you might try to determine if there is a clear subject in the frame. And if there is, does it stand out enough? This can be a difficult task, but if you determine the problem, it will be very informative. This knowledge may be useful next time you go out shooting.

Use Lightroom to Help You

In 2021, Lightroom got an update to automatically select a subject in a photo. It is used to make a mask for local adjustments or for global adjustments without the subject itself. The software does an amazing job in finding and masking a subject without much need for further fine-tuning of the mask yourself.

Lightroom offers the ability to use Select Subject. The software will try to find the subject in the frame. 

I use the options for finding a subject a lot in Lightroom, mainly for local adjustments. But sometimes, the software struggles when finding the right subject. It might choose the wrong element in the frame, or it finds too many elements. That got me thinking about the photo itself. Does the photo have a subject that stands out or not?

The result of Select Subject shows a clear selection of the element that stands out.

Instead of making local adjustments, it is possible to use Select Subject in Lightroom to help to determine if there is a clear subject in your photo. If it does find a subject, you need to check the result. Did it find the element you want to show in your photo, or did it find something else? Has the software found just one subject or a group of elements spread throughout the photo?

A group of elements is selected. This is the subject, according to Lightroom. You might ask yourself, is this group of elements a subject or not? Is the relative distance enough to stand out as a group, or do these act as unrelated elements in the frame?

If the software has trouble locating a subject, you might want to ask yourself if the photo has a clear point of attention. It might turn out to be that photo where the eye keeps on wandering about. If the software selects the wrong element inside the frame, the photo has a distracting element. If either of these things occur, you might have found the problem with the photo. Perhaps that's the reason why the photo isn’t attractive enough.

Oh my, no subject selected. In this case, two things are possible. There is indeed no clear subject, or the subject is determined by contrast and color. You are the one to decide. The Select Subject tool will force you to take a closer look at this photo.

The Method Is Not Foolproof

Don’t make a mistake. This method is not foolproof. It even might go completely wrong, even when there is a clear subject in the frame. But remember, it’s a way that can help you to look through the photo itself. It can also give you new insights or ideas.

If the software is showing multiple elements, you might ask yourself if these elements have a strong relation to each other. Is the relative distance in the frame correct or do you need to crop the image to increase the relationship? The elements can also struggle for attention, making it difficult to focus.

Both the flowers and cow are asking for attention. Perhaps the shallow depth of field is not enough to focus enough attention on the flower. This is what Lightroom thinks; you don't have to agree, of course.

It’s Just One Method of Many

Using the Select Subject mask option in Lightroom is just one method of many to discover why a photo works or not. Perhaps the subject, or lack of it, isn’t the problem at all. The photo may be less attractive for a completely other reason.

That’s why the method of Select Object in Lightroom is just a tool you can use to your benefit. It might not work, but you can learn a lot if it does.

Lightroom has made the correct choice. The road is definitely the subject in this landscape. The method is a nice way to check if the subject is getting enough attention. 

Another simple tool for examining your photo is the removal of colors. Looking at a desaturated image will show you the overall distribution of luminosity. Another helpful tool is turning your photo upside-down. Don’t mirror the image, but rotate it 180 degrees and look at it from that perspective. And as always, look at the photo after a few days or more. Without the emotional bond, it is much easier to be critical about the result.

Looking critically at your own photos can help to develop yourself as a photographer. Use any help you can get, and I think Select Subject is a nice addition to the tools available.

Try the Select Subject method in Lightroom and see if it’s helpful. It might not work for everyone or every photo, but you can always give it a try. If you have another helpful tip about examining a photo in a critical manner, please share it in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Wait. You took a photograph without knowing what you were taking a photograph of?

And then need software to tell you what you took a photograph of?

And then you believed it?

Exactly what I thought!! Sometimes I think fstoppers is just kidding on us.

ahah, this is a great comment ))

If you need software to tell you what the subject is in your own photo, then you need to re-evaluate your photography.

This is about on par with a recent tweet from Adobe that said something like “photograph light, not feelings.” A photograph without feeling is a just a picture.
If you need feedback from a computer to determine your subject then you don’t have a subject.

this article made me check the date...nope, not April 1st

Well, I'm clearly no longer fstoppers' target demographic.

Okay, I'll be more charitable.

This could be an interesting diagnostic tool for the landscape photographers who realize they're missing the mark with unsatisfying compositions and can't figure out exactly why.