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Composition: What Do You Do When There is No Subject?

Night-Tree

 

Landscape photographers face a problem that other photographers usually don’t have: deciding on a subject.

For example, when a portrait photographer prepares to take a picture, there is no question what’s the subject will be: the person. Similarly, a wildlife photographer always knows what the subject of their photo will be as well: the animal. That’s not to say those types of photography are easy, and there are a lot of different ways photographers can approach the same subject, but the point is that the general subject matter is always clear. But if you are a landscape photographer you have, no doubt, spent countless hours driving around looking for something – anything – to use as a subject. You’ve probably also walked many miles up and down coastlines or nature trails looking for a subject. In fact, it is often the biggest challenge we face.

Now, sometimes picking a subject is not that difficult. If you have the Portland Head Light or the Golden Gate Bridge in your scene . . . well, it is pretty clear what your subject is going to be. What about a standard scenic view though? Usually there are just some hills and trees in front of you, with the sky as the background. It might be pretty. It might be a nice view. But what is the subject?

Or what about a standard coastal or beach scene? There is often just a bunch of sand, some waves, and the sky. What is the subject there?

Cheeca-Sunrise

Even if you go to a remarkably scenic spot, you might still face the same challenge. You can go to the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley and still come home with nothing more than a bunch of snapshots.

In fact, that reminds me of a time when I was a beginning photographer and had taken a trip to Las Vegas with my wife. One day I went out with a small tour group to Red Rock Canyon. There happened to be a photographer in the group (one who knew what he was doing). On the tour, I was happily snapping pictures of the cliffs and scenery, and this photographer stopped and told me that I should work to get defined subjects in my pictures. He suggested that my shots were really just snapshots and that I needed to get right behind certain trees or rocks to add to the picture. I thought he was crazy. I pretended to agree with him, but waited for him to leave so I could resume what I was doing. Why would I have some lone tree or a rock dominate my picture when I had this majestic scenery in front of me? Surely that beautiful scenery should be the focus of the picture.

I now see that he was right and I was wrong. My pictures were just snapshots. Despite the fact that this is a wonderful location and I was there on a beautiful day, you will see no pictures from that trip on my website.

So what do we do about this problem? Well, we cannot fix it entirely. We often just have to muddle through. The reality is that much of the world is just not that interesting or doesn’t translate well into pictures. That said, there are great pictures to be had even where there is no obvious subject. Further, there are some things you can do to mitigate this problem. Here is how I suggest you approach it:

Step 1: Plan Ahead

I used this analogy in my book, so bear with me if you’ve read this already, but photography is in many ways similar to fishing. You can never guarantee success and some days will be better than others no matter what you do. Still, there are things you can do to improve your chances.

MarinCo

In fishing, if you simply drop your line into a random part of a lake, then yes, you do have some chance of catching a fish. The chances are not that great though. Real fishermen plan ahead with maps. They look for the structures where they know the fish hide. They race out to the best spots based on the intel they received. When they are on the water, they are using fishfinders. They are constantly moving around to find the part of the lake where the fish are. In short, they make every effort to know where the fish are, and then get to those spots.

Similarly, in photography, if you simply walk around with a camera slung over your shoulder, then yes, you do have some chance of running into a beautiful scene that will translate well into a great picture. But the odds are not great. In fact, they are pretty low. Rather, just as in fishing, you should plan ahead and find those structures and other things that might serve as a good subject or center of interest for your photo.

We’ll get into what things to look for to use as subjects in a moment. But for now just make sure you are using the right tools to find these subjects. The best ways are:

  • The 500px World Map: This map will show you pictures taken by location so you can see what other photographers did in the area to plan to visit. If you are not familiar with 500px, you should check it out because there are consistently great photos on there that you can use as inspiration. Further, even if you are familiar with 500px, you might not be familiar with the world map because there is no link to it from the homepage. Use the link above to get to it and then move around to your desired location. The photos will automatically populate.
  • Google Street View: This feature of Google Maps will allow you to virtually walk around and explore the area ahead of time to find useful features. You are probably already familar with Google maps, so I won’t dwell on its use here. But using the “pegman” feature will allow you to look at all sorts of different angles and views. It is the next best thing to being there ahead of time. In fact, photographers have long gone on scouting missions ahead of time, and this comes pretty close to allowing you to do that from your desk.
  • Simple keyword search: If you are going to a distinct place you can also run a simple search on that area. For example if you’re going to Arches National Park, run that as a search firm in Google. You might also run it as a search firm in Flickr and 500px. Once you find a photographer or two that have specialized in that area, check out their websites. You might also get in touch with them to see if they have any additional info for you.

There is a chapter devoted toward this subject in my book, so I don’t want to belabor the point too much here for those who have already read it. The point is to use the tools available to you to plan ahead and find features that might serve as interesting subjects. This will save you a lot of time wandering around later. What kind of features might you look for? Let’s take a look at that now.

Step 2: Run Through the Features You Can Use

What features might actually serve as a useful subject for our pictures? Of course, such a list is nearly infinite. Anything from a blade of grass to a tree to a rock can end up being an interesting subject. But saying that doesn’t really help anybody. We all need ideas we can look for when we are out shooting.

I have written about this in other contexts. For example, in the context of coastal or beach photography, here is an article from Digital Photography School that contains a list of features you might use as subjects. As mentioned previously, a coast or a beach can really be a pretty uninteresting picture if you don’t have any features other than sand and water. Here are some of those features:

  • Old piers and docks
  • Lighthouses
  • Rock formations
  • Patterns in the water
  • Animals
  • Powerful waves
  • People (for a sense of scale)
  • Clouds
  • Reflections in the water

I have also made a list of subjects for you to consider in urban photography at night. Here’s another article on Digital Photography School that lists 13 such subjects.

But what about subjects for general landscape photography? Again the list is inexhaustible, but here are some things to look for when searching for a subject:

  • Old barns
  • wind mills
  • cliffs
  • horses
  • cows
  • creeks
  • bridges
  • waterfalls
  • a hill or mountain peak
  • abandoned cars or boats.
  • large rocks or boulders.

At least, these are the things I generally look for. Take whichever of these items you like and start your own list.

Guadalupe

Step 3: There Just Isn’t Anything Here. Now What?

We’ve all faced the situation where there just doesn’t appear to be a subject, no matter how hard we look. In that case, you might have to give up looking for a definite subject and just start looking for something you can use as a center of interest to tie the picture together. Sometimes it might be a cloud. It might just be one stand-out tree. Other times it can be the road.

Road

If you cannot find one thing to be a subject, you’ll need to go in a different direction. Very often that different direction is finding a pattern, shape, or line to serve as the centerpiece of your picture. A row of trees and can sometimes work here. If you are dealing with a desert or barren scene, patterns in the sand can work well. Be careful here though, as you often cannot see these patterns the way your camera does. You will need to look through the camera a lot.

Frankly, anything that you can turn into a line through your picture works as well. The line helps guide the viewers eye, which is ultimately what you are trying to do with a subject or center of interest in the picture. Roads and creeks are good examples. A winding pathway can work really well. You might also set up your shot so that a line or shoreline line runs through the picture. You can do the same with rows created by farmers or by hedges.

Remember that the subject of your photo isn’t necessarily a thing. It can be an idea. As long as the picture is help together visually by a pattern, shape, or line, then the underlying subject can still come through.

Step 4: The Wait

Sometimes, the best pictures are created by setting up an interesting composition – even if there is no real subject – and then waiting for something to happen. Particularly in an urban context, it is often a great idea to set up your composition and then wait. A person may walk through the scene. Any number of things might happen to provide you with a great subject. Henri Cartier-Bresson was famous for this technique.

Does this technique work in a remote location or a landscape context? Sort of. You typically aren’t going to have a lot of people or traffic coming through your scene (and, frankly, that is probably the last thing you would want anyway). You might get lucky with an animal or some birds coming into your scene, but this is not likely.

The best bet is to come back to your location later, if you can. Come back when there is something going on. Come back when there is a storm approaching. Come back when there is dramatic lighting. Anything to create that extra “something” you can use to anchor or complete your picture.

Step 5: When All Else Fails – Using “The Scene”

I should mention that this article stemmed from an email discussion I had with a reader named Gordon Graham, who posed the question “what do you do when there’s no subject?” We talked about a lot of the concepts in this article, and he raised the point that sometimes the subject is just “the scene.”

Grand-Canyon

I am resistant to accept this notion because it sounds a lot like taking a snapshot to me. I have countless pictures on my hard drive that were “a good view” or “the scene” but did not translate into anything more than that.

That said, he has a point. Again, very often the subject is not a thing at all. It is a feeling or an idea. In fact, those are frequently the best subjects. You can still capture that idea in a photograph of “the scene.”

Final Takeaway for Finding a Subject

I am not pretending that I can solve this problem for you. Finding a great subject is something you will struggle with as long as you decide to keep taking pictures. However, I am writing this article for two reasons. First to acknowledge the problem so you won’t think it is peculiar to you, or that you are doing something wrong. For landscape photographers, finding a subject has been a challenge, is a challenge, and always will be a challenge. There is no technological development that I see changing this. If you find this part of photography difficult, you are far from alone.

Secondly, I want to provide at least a few tips for dealing with this constant struggle. Hopefully, planning ahead and running through a checklist of potential features will result in clear subjects for you. If not, then creating a pattern or leading line may help. Finally, don’t overlook just waiting around or coming back later. Whatever you do, remember to work the scene from several different spot and angles so that you can be sure you’ve covered everything.

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