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.

This photo and the short article that accompanies it outlines my thinking on the notion of subject matter in photography.

The photo explores notions of subject and object in photography and how composition should be a key consideration in the photos we make.

The term subject matter deserves consideration. What is it and how does the photographer make use of subject matter to produce a compelling image?

  • How would you define subject matter?

  • What is the actual subject of a photograph?

  • What does the photograph explore and, ultimately, what is it about?

Let's take, as a case in point, this image made near Ushuaia, the Argentinian city on the southern tip of South America.

Col Pearson enjoying the sights in the La Boca district of Buenos Aires, Argentina is the primary subject matter in this photo.

How To Define Subject In Photography?

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

On way level that’s certainly the case with this photo of my friend Col in the La Boca district of Buenos Aires in Argentina.

But I’d argue that the composition has somewhat challenged the notion of subject matter in this photo.

If that makes you stop and explore the image, more closely than you otherwise would, then I’d say that’s a good thing.

Notice how the photo has been divided, roughly, in half. How does this help the composition?

  • The blue wall on the left of the frame is acting a little like negative space, both contrasting and connecting with elements on the right side of the picture.

  • There’s a similarity between the color of the wall and the color of Col’s camera bag strap and his shirt.

  • The yellow part of the wall acts to both divide and connect both sides of the photo.

So, while the picture is a portrait, I think that elements of composition like color, space and pattern are so pronounced in this image that they’ve become subject matter in the own right.

I love it when that happens. The photo has moved beyond mere documentation and become a much richer visual experience.

What about a landscape comprising of, for example, a relatively even mixture of rocks, water, hills and sky? Could they all be considered subject matter in the photograph?

Absolutely?

In this context the word landscape is a very broad term that should really be considered to be a genre.

It follows then that the rocks, water, hills and sky define the subject matter within the picture.

However, depending on the composition, one element might be more of a focal point, or point of interest, than other visual elements within the image.

That would make that particular focal point the primary subject within the photograph.

Subject Matter and Composition

From an artists point of view rocks, water, sky and people can all be considered to be objects within the frame.

However, it’s the elements of composition (e.g., shape, texture and color) inherent to those objects that can actually become the primary focal points or subjects within the photograph.

This was my approach when making the photo of the abandoned hulk at the very top of this post.

I photographed the old ship in the Beagle Channel 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 of Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina.

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 trick.

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.

Sunrise, Ushuaia, Argentina

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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. However, as the ship was a considerable distance off shore, it was going to be tricky to define the subject as the dominant element within the frame.

I decided to incorporate the ship as a complimentary element within the broader landscape. I decided to find ways to explore both harmony and contrast within the scene.

Great Composition Explores Similarities And Differences

The term complimentary means opposite in photography, particularly when it comes to primary colors and the (complimentary) colors that sit directly opposite them on the color wheel.

The relationship between primary and complimentary colors in photography can be described as follows:

Primary and Complimentary Colors

  • Red and Cyan

  • Green and Magenta

  • Blue and Yellow

Just as opposites (e.g., male and female) attract and can form harmonious relationships, so too can seemingly disparate elements within the frame.

In the case of the photo at the very top of this post you can see the warm (i.e., orange) and cool (i.e., blue) colors within the scene and how well those colors compliment each other.

The cool colors seem to make the warm colors even warmer. The same is true for the warm colors, which enhance the cool colors in the image.

We can describe this relationship between warm and cool colors in this particular photo as being high in color contrast.

Color is so important in this image that I think it’s just as much subject matter as the ship, mountains, sky and water.

From a story telling or narrative point of view there's also a range of other contrasts within this image that are worth exploring.

It's these kinds of dualities (i.e., opposites) that give our images an added dynamic and a greater sense of visual potency. For example:

  • The man made ship within the natural landscape

  • The smoothness of the water and sky against the highly textured rock

  • The hardness of stone and ship compared to the smoother areas of water and sky

Spectacular cloud formations are illuminated by a glorious sunset over the Beagle Channel near Ushuaia in Argentina.

When Subject Matter Explores Duality

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 photo at the top of this post 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 helicopter for the flight back to Ushuaia.

We were treated to a wonderful sunset and an amazing afterglow that brought a fitting end to a wonderful adventure.

Going forward I’d ask you to carefully consider the power of duality and composition when exploring interesting subject matter in your own photos.

I hope you’ve found this post worthwhile and that you can see the value of making visually interesting images that challenge how you define subject in the photos you make.

Getting past technique and thinking about how your photos allow you to connect, at a deeper level, with the world around you is at the heart of an artistic practice.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru