How To Photograph Unconventional Subject Matter

Unconventional subject matter discovered by photographing through the shape of a Christian cross towards a stained glass window at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France.

Great subject matter makes for great photos. Here’s how I go about exploring both conventional and unconventional subject matter to make more emotive and visually dynamic photos.

Of course it’s not just the subject matter that’s conventional or unconventional in nature, but also the way we approach it that determines the success of our photos.

To this end my own approach to photography can often be described as making something out of nothing.

By this I mean that we are not always in the position to be photographing amazing subject matter under fantastic light. More often than not we have to deal, the best we can, with less than optimal light and, on occasions, banal subject matter.

But I’d argue that the test of a really good photographer is to make an interesting and visually compelling image when dealing with, shall we say, uncommon beauty.

Sometimes an unconventional approach is what’s needed to make a great photo when the subject matter or light you’re dealing with are less than ideal.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery | Resting Place Of Luminaries

Pere Lachaise is the most famous cemetery in Paris. As well as being the resting place of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison it’s a marvelous place to wander around and explore the often grand tombs and gravesites within which the deceased have been laid to rest.

While a little tricky to navigate your way around the Pere Lachaise Cemetery it's worth putting aside a good half day to do so.

The cobblestone pathways and hilly terrain just add to the atmosphere as you traverse the row upon row of gravesites throughout the cemetery.

Pere Lachaise Tombs, Paris

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Photographing Both Sides Of The Crypt At Pere Lachaise

I made the image at the very top of this post in a way that included both the outside and inside walls of a tomb at Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

Basically, I photographed looking through the cutout shape of a Christian cross towards a stained glass window on the inside back wall of the tomb.

A Canon 5D Mark II camera and a Canon 70-200mm f/4 IS USM L series lens, at 89 mm, was utilized at a shutter speed of 1/30 second and an aperture of f/11 at ISO 400.

I chose to focus upon the stained glass window and used the aperture to extend the depth of field so that it brought the foreground (almost) into focus.

This is important as, while the rose and the cross shape are important, I didn't want them competing for attention with the stained glass window, which I wanted to dominate the composition.

Frankly, I'm thrilled with the result. It's one of my favorite photographs.

A view down a long corridor at St. Sebastian's Cemetery in Salzburg, Austria.

How to Approach Subject Matter in Your Photos

I find gravesites compelling. They possess an emotive and, often, melancholic beauty and I believe them worthy of our attention and contemplation.

There’s a number of reasons why you might want to photograph a gravesite.

  • Document it for historical reasons

  • Make a visual record for posterity

  • Make a comment about a decayed or untended grave

  • Produce visually interesting and thought provoking images

Subject Matter Meaning

In our quest to understand how best to explore subject matter in our own photography the obvious question we need to ask is what is subject matter?

Basically, subject matter means the primary topic explored or the subject represented in the photos we make.

It follows then that the subject of the above photo is the corridor of gravestones that’s been depicted from St. Sebastian’s Cemetery in Salzburg, Austria.

Actually, I rarely photograph gravestones for strictly documentary purposes (e.g., herein rests John Doe, died 86 years of age), preferring to concentrate on the abstract qualities inherent within the structures.

To this end emotion, mood and elements of composition such as light, color, texture and shape guide my way.

To me the most important aspect of the image from St. Sebastian's Cemetery in Salzburg, Austria is the mood that's been created by the soft, gentle light. It was raining at the time I made the photo.

I was careful to process the image in a way that was sympathetic to the light. You can see the final result is an image with a wide tonal range that’s based, largely, around mid tone separation.

I feel the warm tone, black and white rendering I decided upon is very sympathetic to the mood I felt emanating from the site.

Topic Based Photos

To further our understanding of the definition of subject matter we should look to the notion of topic in our photos.

A topic can be considered akin to a title in that it provides a context beyond that which would normally be explored through photos based entirely on a specific subject.

To help make sense of this think of an individual daisy as a subject and a group of daisies poking up through an overgrown nature strip as a topic titled Lawn Mowing.

Examples of topics you could explore in your own photography could include the following:

  • How to Photograph a Cemetery

  • Winter in America

  • Drought in the Horn of Africa

  • The Changing Landscape

  • Homelessness

  • Youth Suicide

  • Under 12 Football Team

  • School Dance

  • Young Girls Bat Mitzvah

A topic that is based around an individual or group of people might also include a place visited or an event or situation in which they’re participating.

Be Aware Of Unconscious Bias

Notice how none of the topics listed above have been written using emotive or manipulative language. That means your own response to those titles is based upon your own opinions, beliefs and life experience.

Is that a reasonable thing for me to say?

The topics themselves are simply topics of interest. Your own response to those topics, without seeing any images or associated text, is your own business and, ultimately, it’s up to you if you read the topics I’ve listed with any positive or negative bias.

In the case of the topic Homelessness the title is actually written without bias. It’s your own view, largely influenced by your own experience and political world view, that has likely determined your response to that topic.

However, I also understand that, given the negative nature of our unrelenting news cycle, together with problems in our own lives, such topics can also be difficult to deal with on a regular basis.

Nonetheless, unconscious bias exists and is something we should all be aware of and try to control by checking our thoughts whenever we see such bias creeping in.

A calm and friendly dog pokes its head through a car window to greet passers by in the seaside town of Húsavik in North Iceland.

Subject Based Photos

In the visual arts it might be helpful to think of a subject (e.g., person, tree or building) as an element, primary or otherwise, within the image.

Examples of a subject in your photos might include the following:

  • Portrait of a family member

  • Action photo of a dog running

  • A desert landscape

  • Sydney Opera House

  • Close up of a daisy

Whether the subject is photographed indoors, in a natural landscape or an urban environment may not be relevant when the image is based around the subject.

That’s particularly the case when the subject fills the frame, such as a portrait or a close up of a daisy. But it’s probably equally true with the photo of a dog running.

Action photos usually make use of a very shallow depth of field and a telephoto lens, both of which reduce the significance of the surroundings in which the photo was made.

Of course there are always exceptions and light, weather, time of day and the specific environment or action taking place can certainly influence the way we read the photo and introduce narrative and even theme into the image.

I think that’s the case in this photo of a dog inside a car on a beautiful, sunny day in the north of Iceland.

I see an interesting tension that’s explored by depicting the dog, on such a lovely day, somewhat enclosed inside the car.

It’s the car that seems to surround, even enclose the dog, that moves this image from a straight subject based photo towards more of a thematic image. Wouldn’t you agree?

Nonetheless, a photo that features a close up view of the primary subject with an out of focus background is, more often than not, a straight study of the subject in question.

To make your images more interesting and more thought provoking it’s worth exploring ways by which you can move your photos away from straight visual records towards more emotive, thought provoking images.

The grave of Felix Artuso set amongst the dramatic landscape surrounding the old whaling station at Grytviken on South Georgia Island.

Felix Artuso | Grytviken Cemetery

I took more of a documentary approach to photographing Felix Artuso's grave in sight of the remains of Grytviken Whaling Station on the amazing South Georgia Island.

The setting is so compelling and, given the circumstances surrounding the death of Felix Artuso, I felt it was important to photograph the gravesite in relation to its surroundings.

But I refer here to the harsh and forbidden landscape, rather than the remnants of the whaling industry at Grytviken.

I feel the power of the natural landscape, and the unease with which the old Grytviken Whaling Station sits within it, adds poignancy and meaning to the image.

To me the photo speaks of isolation and hardship, physical and emotional. I’d say that’s the theme of the image.

It’s interesting to learn that all but one gravestone or marker in this cemetery point home to Europe. It’s the explorer Ernest Shackleton whose gravestone points to Antarctic, his spiritual home.

An image of the Madonna shedding tears at La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The image hints at the ever encroaching urban sprawl in the background of this beautiful and historic cemetery.

Theme Based Photos

Of course great photos often utilize the primary subject of the photo in a way that allows the photographer, as artist, to explore larger ideas, concepts or concerns.

This is one key way by which our images move from simply documenting the people, places and events we experience in our life and become art.

The photo a beautiful stained glass window titled Tears for the Lost is a favourite of mine.

Made within the grounds of the wonderful La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina the image depicts Mary shedding tears.

By incorporating reflections of nearby hi-rise buildings in the stained glass window I’ve endeavored to explore the notion of ever encroaching urban sprawl.

As a way of further clarifying what’s been discussed in this post we could say the following:

  • The subject of the photo is an image of Mary painted onto a stained glass window

  • The topic of the photo is, perhaps, an Unconventional Approach to Photography at La Recoleta Cemetery

  • The theme of the photo is Encroaching Urban Sprawl

I encourage you to think of how you can use your own photography to explore a thematic approach to image making.

Examples of themes you might consider include the following:

  • Childhood Adventure

  • Regenerating the Landscape

  • Urban Renewal

  • A Challenging Workplace

  • The effects on society caused by Climate Change

  • How Money Corrupts

  • How Education of Women is often the best way for a developing country to advance socially and economically

How to Assemble a Theme Based Photo Project

Rather than embarking on a long and, potentially, arduous journey it’s often best to look back through the photos you’ve already made so as to reorganize and, where appropriate, reprocess them to fit into the particular theme you’ve decided is worth exploring.

You might actually already have a body of work, amongst all your other photos, just waiting to see the light of day.

Alternatively, going through this exercise could mark the beginning of a way forward when embarking on a new theme based photo adventure.

The midnight sun contrasts the local cemetery against a view of houses and factories in Ilulissat, Greenland.

Should You Only Photograph Subject Matter You Love?

The best way to quickly advance your own photography is to concentrate on photographing subject matter that you love.

Family, friends, activities and holidays offer wonderful opportunities to explore the joy of photography and, in doing so, bring meaning into our lives.

Since my early years I've been drawn to stained glass windows. I don’t photograph them often but, given the chance, I reveal in the opportunity to do so.

In many ways light is the primary subject and basis of photography.

I'd like to think that my own photography, whatever the subject matter or the genre within which I’m photographing, explores the transforming and transcendental nature of light.

In doing so I hope my photos provide a glimpse of the sublime beauty evident in all things.

I think this is an important point because, as it’s light that both illuminates and defines subject matter, it follows that light is the primary subject of our photos.

I strongly recommend, whenever possible, that you explore unconventional subject matter, whether through a straightforward or a more creative approach, as a way of increasing your own powers of observation and photography prowess.

As long as you allow you eye and your inspiration to be guided by the revealing qualities of light, and you approach the subject matter of your photos with good intent, it shouldn’t matter what it is you’re photographing.

If you’d like help to accelerate your own creative journey, through the art of photography, feel free to contact me.  

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru