What Is Subject Matter In Photography?

A ship, now no more than a rusting hulk, lies in a bay near the city of Ushuaia in the far south of Argentina. The orange color of the ship is illuminated by the gentle sunlight and is a striking contrast against the predominantly bluish light resulting from gathering storm clouds.

How would you define subject matter? What is the actual subject of a photograph? What does it explore and, ultimately, what is it about? This photo and the short article that accompanies it outlines my thinking on the matter. It explores notions of subject and object in photography and how composition should be a key consideration for image makers.

The term subject matter deserves consideration. What is it and how does the photographer make use of subject matter to produce a compelling image? Let's take, as a case in point, this image made near Ushuaia, the Argentinian city on the southern tip of South America.

How Do We Define Subject Matter In Our Photos?

Most folks would consider the subject in a portrait to be the person being photographed. Agreed!

Well, what about a landscape comprising of, for example, a relatively even mixture of rocks, water, hills and sky? They could all be considered subject matter in your photograph. However, depending on the composition, one element might be more of a focal point, or point of interest, than the others.

The Relationship Between Composition And Subject Matter

From an artists point of view rocks, water, sky and people can all be considered to be objects within the frame. But the compositional characteristics inherent to those objects (e.g., shape, texture and color) can actually become the primary focal points or subjects within the photograph.

This was my approach when making the above photograph after the conclusion of a photography tour I co-ran with my friend, David Burren, to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island and Antarctica. Several members of the tour group decided to hire a couple of helicopters for a scenic flight over the mountains near the city.

It was a brilliant flight, though I missed my opportunity for a turn in the front seat where photography opportunities were superior.

Towards the end of the flight the pilot landed on a remote beach for the old champagne and nibbles. I gave that a wide birth, having more important things on my mind, and headed off to make pictures. After all, I can drink cheap booze from a plastic cup anytime.

How Weather Effects The Color Of The Light

It was quite a sombre day, evident in the predominantly blue light from the rain filled clouds above. That same light, of course, influences the color of the water.

I noticed the old ship, partly submerged, and wanted to photograph it. The water stopped me getting close enough to make it a dominant element in the frame, so I decided to incorporate the ship as a complimentary element within the broader landscape.

Great Composition Explores Similarities And Opposites

The term complimentary means opposite. And just as opposites (e.g., male and female) attract and can form harmonious relationships, so to can seemingly disparate elements within the frame.

In this case we have the complimentary warm (i.e., orange) and cool (i.e., blue) colors within the scene. From a story telling or narrative point of view there's also the contrast of the man made ship within the natural landscape; the smoothness of the water and sky against the highly textured rock; and the hardness of stone and ship compared to the smoother areas of water and sky. It's these kinds of dualities (i.e., opposites) that give our images an added dynamic and a greater sense of potency.

Duality Is At The Heart Of My Photos

So, while this image certainly contains both natural and man made elements, I'd argue that it's the characteristics (e.g., warm and cool, hard and soft) inherent within those elements that become the most important subjects within the picture.

The above photo is as much about the colors, shapes and surface textures, and their relationship to each other, as it is about a rusty old ship that's been left to rot within an otherwise pristine landscape. The later is the narrative and, arguably, the theme of this image, while the former visually engages the viewer and brings them into the story.

After about a 20-minute stopover, during which time I made a range of photos, we climbed back into our chopper for the flight back to Ushuaia during which time we were treated to a wonderful sunset and an amazing afterglow.

Please consider the power of duality when making your own photographs.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru