How to Make Better Photographs? Know Your Subject

How to Make Better Photographs? Know Your Subject

I’ve written before about the elements of a good image for the sake of the image, and just recently about how pouring yourself into your own development will result in stronger photography. There’s one element that both of these fail to touch on. There is one element that strongly separates those who produce lasting images that their clients love and those who produce a one-off hit that gets forgotten days hence. That element is a deeper connection to the subject, a knowledge of it, an ability to express it that nobody else has. This is a connection between yourself and that subject, a mutual understanding that results in unique and beautiful images.

My mate Greg Samborski and I were taking a moment to reflect on our respective years and have a quick drone race over a local stream a few days back when we stumbled on the conversation of sometimes not being able to capture the essence of something. We waxed poetic about the various reasons we felt might be the cause and made excuses for why it wasn’t our fault that the images didn’t quite represent what we felt at a certain location or in a certain situation at times. It got me thinking, and I spent the rest of the day ignoring my duties and pondering this existential question. Just why is it that we fall short sometimes?

During my musings, I ran myself through several times I’d pulled off exactly what I wanted and pleased the heck out of my clients, and several times where I’d fallen short and disappointed my clients. The first thing I discovered was that these usually go hand in hand. If I am in the flow and blow expectations out of the water, usually my clients are right there with me. If I’m not quite reaching that stage, then my clients usually aren’t either.

I’m Not Feeling It

This is a big one. You can blame your mood, your surroundings, the weather, the fool who knocked your coffee out of your hand on the subway, the universe, whatever you want to. The reality is, you are the only one who can control this and, as a professional, you’re expected to. You’re expected to leave your carefully placed expletive at the door and get on with the job.

What I mean here is that, unless your mood has a direct benefit to the session at hand, leave it behind for a time and concentrate on the task at hand. The easiest way you can achieve this is to have knowledge of and, thus, empathy for the subject at hand. Once you have that, you’re able to shut out the extraneous and see only what’s needed to make beautiful images of the subject. A great example of this is the autumn season we’ve been having in Korea this year. Usually it’s the most beautiful time of the year in Seoul. We have gorgeous light and all the trees coincide in an explosion of colour. This has happened outside of the city, but Seoul has been very patchy this year. I booked a lot of sessions for a time that hasn’t really panned out for me this year and my promises were falling short. This left me in a funk. That was until I embraced the autumn that was and learned to love it. At that point, my images turned around and I made some of my favorite shots of the year.

What changed? I accepted the autumn of this year for what it was. I learned what it was. I loved what it was. I photographed that. Once I’d gone through those steps, I managed to make the images I was after.

Knowledge Is Power

Knowledge can really only do one thing. It can give you more with which to draw from when the time comes to execute a task. In the case of photography, it can help you to have a deeper understanding of your subject. When you understand something better, you are able to represent it better. You can put yourself in a place where you are no longer a spectator of that subject, but part of the game with it. 

A lack of knowledge is an inability to control a situation for me. It can make me anxious or fearful of the situation at hand. When it comes to a photoshoot, it gets to me when I haven’t done my homework. This is a great indicator for me, because if I go in fearful, I know there’s something I’m missing and will likely not perform well at. If I’m feeling this a few days beforehand, I know I’m not ready and need to get my business in order. It gives me a kick to let me know that I need to prepare myself further for the task at hand.

Even if you don’t feel this, I guarantee you that a little further research into who or what your subject is will only serve to support you come shoot time. I count myself lucky to have a certain level of anxiety that makes me work hard to know who or what I’ll be with on my shoot. It has helped me to identify where I lack knowledge time and time again. By knowing your subject well, you can prepare for possible scenarios and ensure that you’re ready to make good images. On the other hand, if things go pear-shaped, you’ll have some knowledge to fall back on. I'm not suggesting you go out to find a way to develop anxiety, I'm suggesting that you be in touch with what you do and don't know. This will help you immensely in knowing when it's time to invest your effort in extra preparation.

Moments

By knowing your subject, you’ll know which moments to pick. Remember back when I talked about the three elements of every photograph and the moment being the one that puts the other two to bed? Well, this is what I was talking about. Only the person who knows the subject can create or choose the right moment. Let me explain.

I was a kindergarten teacher for seven years. I know the little ones. I can read their moods, put them at ease, and pick the moments that represent them best. A secondary college teacher I was not. I have no clue what makes these almost-full-grown humans tick. I don’t know how to be around them. I don’t know what is important to them. I don't know what makes them who they are. When it comes a time for me to photograph them, you better believe I’ll be giving myself a crash course. That is the only way I can truly make photographs of them.

In Conclusion

Prepare yourself to know your subject. Knowing your craft is only the first step. Knowing your subject will allow you to perform your craft. It will allow you to understand what technical mumbo jumbo is required to make a competent image and what emotional knowledge is required to make a great one. Love leaves? Learn everything there is to know about them and make beautiful images of them. Love cars? Do the same. Love advertising? Do the same. Whatever it is you want to shoot, get to know it. That’s the best thing you can possibly do for your work.

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3 Comments

Kenneth Jordan's picture

Thank you. This gives me a much needed new perspective on a level that makes it well worth the time and patience it will take.

Peter Mabli's picture

Wonderful post. I equally enjoy the technical conversations on the site, but those factors don't mean a thing if you can't connect with your subject.

Your section on getting to know who you are photographing really rang true to me. I was photographing veterans today at a parade, and about an hour in realized that they were standoffish to me and it showed in my images. I asked one if my photographing him bothered him, and he told me, "I don't like having your face hidden behind that big hunk of metal." I hadn't factored in their perception of me shooting images of them with the camera.

I remembered a quote from Robert Doisneau about how using a Rolleiflex showed humility, as you are forced to bow to your subject to compose the image. No big hunk of metal in front of my face. So I ran home and switched to my TLR, and their attitudes completely changed. I think I got much more out of them and my images because of it. Plus, you can't beat those gorgeous 6x6 negatives!

thank you- what a great article!