Emphasizing the Subject

A picture must be "about something". And it must be about something specific. But how do you decide? How do you make a picture "about" something?

Here is a picture that really seems to be very nice in all respects.

picture by Meadow Lark

Beisdes being slightly out of level, it is very well done. It has good composition. It has bright colors for interest. And it is well exposed. There really isn't anything to "complain about."

But yet the picture doesn't seem very "strong." Why? 

It's because the picture is about "everything" and a strong picture "can't" be about everything; there has to be a specific subject. In this scene there are a couple of options for a subject. Is it going to be about the brightly colored beach houses against an interesting sky, or is it going to be about the child? And how could we take this picture differently to define it?


I've done a couple of edits (with permission) in order to illistrate.

If the subject is to be the houses, then it should be pretty obvious that the child in the bright clothes is drawing attention away. The solution here is to wait until the child and "stuff" is no longer in the scene, or move them out of the scene if that is within our control... That is part of "why" scenic/landscape photography is hard. It might take many visits to this location before the scene came together as we would want it without any interferance on our part. But let's assume that this is our one chance to take this picture. What can we do? Well, we have two options. One is to take the image as it is knowing that we will have to remove the distractions in post so we do our best to place the distractions where they will be most easily editable/removed. Here the sand is relatively uniform and "undefined" so it shouldn't be too hard to edit.

The other option is to move closer to the buildings and use a wider focal length to place the distractions behind us. 

Because there isn't any real foreground interest we only want to include what is necessary for "context" and composition. If we did not include any of the sand they would cease to be "beach houses." Either approach we take, the image will turn out very similar.

So now we have a picture that is "aout" the houses. But let's say that's not what we want. We want the picture to be about the child. The answer here is simple, compose the image without the background distractions. But that does seem to be a bit of a shame to loose the scene, and maybe we want the picture to be about the child *at* the location.

Now it gets more difficult. How do we make a small child more prominent than the bright houses? How do we make this picture about the child while including such strong elements in the image? Now we have to prioritize. If the image is to be about the child on the beach with these houses, then how important is the sky really? It's not very important so we can compose with less sky. Doing this allows us to place the buildings in the upper portion of the frame which makes it "less important" because it is "further away." Good, de-emphasize the building, that's what we want. But this is also going to give us a lot of sand in the foreground which is boring and the child will still be "close" to the buildings which increases the competition for attention... so what do we do with that?

In this case we will probably need to back up a little and use a wider lens. The use of a wide angle lens will emphasize the distance between objects which allows us to move the child away from the buildings and into a compositionally stronger position. The resulting image would look something like this.

Now the child has much more "weight" compositionaly than she did before and becasue she is dead center of such a large area of no interest (the sand/negative space) your eye is drawn to her. The fact that she is wearing bright clothes helps with this. Now the picture is more "about" the child. If the picture had actually been taken like this the child would be larger in the scene as well. If you were to overlay the rule of thirds grid on this image the child is dead center on the lower 1/3 line and the top edge of the sand is on the upper 1/3 line (lucky coincidence).

The use of a wide angle lens or a zoom lens with a wider minimum focal length would allow us to take both of these images in this situation. How wide you would need will vary based upon each situation and the crop factor of your camera. That's part of why the Nikon 28-300 is my current choice for "all purpose use" on full frame. Yes, the 28-300 and the super zoom kit lens you got when you bought your camera are not the sharpest lenses out there and they have their limitations. But they are veratile, and gettiing the image "right" is much more important than having tack sharp IQ at 100% magnification.

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