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.

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 other visual elements within the image.

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.

However, it’s the compositional characteristics inherent to those objects (e.g., shape, texture and color) that 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 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.

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. But it was a long way away and the water stopped me getting close enough to make it a dominant element within the frame.

I decided to incorporate the ship as a complimentary element within the broader landscape.

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 image as being high in color contrast.

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.

  • 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

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 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 chopper 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.

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

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru