Most of my Friday Foto Talk posts treat fairly standard photography topics. This week I’d like to say something about subject interpretation. This is the first of two parts. This week we’ll look at basic ideas plus tips, then next week dive into real-world examples and ways to shoot. Check out the images here for examples as well. Click on them to go to the relevant gallery page.
So how do you approach your subject? Do you approach it in a literal or objective way? Or is your take more subjective, even abstract? I’m not only talking about literal vs. abstract interpretations. Those two approaches are far out on the extreme ends of the continuum. Instead I’m speaking more generally. It boils down to choice:
- You can either (A) decide how you feel about a subject (or what you think it represents) and shoot that; or (B) try to exclude your own feelings or biases from your photos, being as objective as possible.
- If you decide on option (A) you have more choices. How much subjective bias will you allow into the photos? And for subjects that you’re of two (or more) minds about, which one will inform the images? Do you want your biases to be just barely recognizable? Or will the subject represent your ideas while being clearly defined on its own? Do you want the subject to be nearly or completely subsumed in an abstract?
- You may ask “isn’t bias and subjectivity inevitable, no matter how much we try to avoid it?” We all know the answer to that is yes. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be aware of it and do something to either limit it or give it free rein.
- Whether you approach things in a subjective or objective way is the same as deciding whether to shoot at f/22 or f/2.8, or which lens to use. It’s an artistic choice, your choice. There is no right or wrong. You can even shift approaches in the middle, later deciding on the image that resonates best with how you want viewers to see the subject.
- If you’re photographing a person, she may have some ideas on how you should interpret your subject. Okay let’s be real: she probably has strong and definite ideas, and may not your attempts at getting all “artsy fartsy”, using her as a guinea pig.
This is admittedly a subtle photography topic. But I think it’s an important one. In thinking about it, it’s worth keeping a few things in mind regarding a common theme in this blog; ignore the noise.
- Word-noise: Let’s face it; there’s a lot of opinion in photography today (just read my blog!). So-called experts constantly admonish you to shoot what a subject feels like, not what it looks like. Or they urge you to find quasi-abstract lines and patterns in the scene and turn them into leading lines and other devices to capture and maintain the viewer’s attention. There is nothing wrong with that advice, that is until it becomes prescriptive; always do this.
- Image-noise: In popular photography today there seems to be a bias toward processing techniques and gear. Even the photographers themselves often take center stage. Or at least that’s the impression you get from reading the (often long) captions. Images sometimes seem to be designed not around the subject but as a way to showcase the skills and adventurous spirit of the person with the camera. I wouldn’t mind any of this so much if it didn’t force the subject to take a back seat.
- Remember that the subjects you choose and how you photograph them is completely up to you. The nature of your subject, how the light is hitting it, even how you feel at the time, all of that is more important than any recipe for taking great photos you may read about or see beautiful examples of. Also remember you can always take good advice without feeling compelled to always do it that way.
- I implied above that a focus on post-processing is just ‘noise’. That’s not completely fair or accurate. Post-processing is part of the..er, process of subject interpretation. But I don’t think it’s as important as the capture stage, especially with respect to your choices regarding the subject. Also, I think what you do on the computer should flow naturally from your approach during capture. If you’re doing one thing during capture and the complete opposite during editing, it becomes much more difficult to create a good image.Tune in next time for specific examples of this at work. Happy weekend all!