How to Create Stronger Photos by Working the Subject


One way to create better compositions, and thus stronger images, is to do something called working the subject. Generally speaking, there are two ways to approach taking photos. Let’s take a look at both, and how you can learn to work the subject to improve your photography.

The first is to take as many photos as you can, in the hope that some of them turn out well. This is called machine-gunning, or spray and pray. It’s easier to do with digital cameras than it ever was with film cameras, as you are no longer limited by the number of frames on a roll of film.

Working the subject

Incidentally, this is one of the reasons often cited as a benefit of using film cameras. Knowing that every time you press the shutter button it adds to the cost of the shoot (processing plus film) is a good incentive to be more intentional and think carefully before you take a photo.

The second way is to take plenty of photos, but in a way that is more purposeful. The idea is to think about what you are doing and spend your time exploring the possibilities and potential of the subject. This is called working the subject.

Try new photography techniques

The dividing line between the two methods is sometimes a thin one. An example of this may be when you are trying a new technique, such as panning. Panning is a bit of a hit and miss technique. If you’ve chosen a good subject you should create some interesting photos, but you’re also going to get a lot of misses along the way.

The difference in this situation is that the photographer who is working the subject looks at the photos they have taken already, evaluates what works and what doesn’t, and adjusts their techniques and camera settings accordingly.

Another way of looking at it is that they are using the earlier photos as stepping stones to get to the more interesting images. A photographer who is machine-gunning, on the other hand, doesn’t think a lot about what they are doing and relies on serendipity rather than their own skill.

This is where the instant feedback of digital cameras is a useful tool for learning and improving.

Panning in Spain

Let me illustrate the point with some photos I made in Spain. I stood in the sea at sunset and panned with my camera as the waves came by. I took a lot of photos, and these are some of my favorites.


Working the subject

Working the subject

These images were created by working the subject. Doing so helped me figure out where to stand, what angle to use, how slowly to pan the camera, and the best shutter speed to use.

Photographing an old car

Working the subject doesn’t necessarily mean that you take lots of photos. Let me give you an example.

I bought a Fuji X-Pro 1 camera a couple of years ago and took it out one evening at dusk with the intention of shooting at high ISO in low light to see how it performed (the answer – very well). As I was walking around my local neighborhood I noticed an interesting car parked on the street. Intrigued (and wondering how a Lada ended up in New Zealand) I took this photo.

Working the subject

It’s nothing special, but I knew there was a better picture there. I kept looking and realized that what had really caught my eye was the way the light from the street lamp reflected off the roof of the car. So, I moved in closer and created the following images. They all contain the reflection of the street lamp and just part of the car rather than all of it.

Working the subject

Working the subject

Working the subject

Then I took another photo of the rear of the car.

Working the subject

Analysis of the shoot

I only made five photos, but I was still working the subject. When I break it down and think about what happened the process went something like this.

  1. I saw something interesting and took a photo. That was just my first impression. My gut feeling told me that there was a better photo to be had.
  2. I looked closely until I realized that the real subject, the thing that really interested me, was the way the street light was reflected in the car’s paintwork. So, I moved in close and made several photos that showed that.
  3. Lastly, I moved away from the car and took another photo, which was okay but not as good as the others. I understood that I had gotten what I wanted and decided to move on to look for another subject.

The last point is crucial because one of the differences between working the subject and machine-gunning is that the photographer who is working the subject knows when to stop.

Working the subject in China

Here’s another set of images taken in Beijing. We were visiting a historic site called Prince Gong’s Mansion, made up of a series of interconnected buildings, courtyards, and gardens.

One of the courtyards contained some Tibetan style prayer wheels. I noticed that as people walked into the courtyard most of them passed by the prayer wheels, turning them as they went. I stood nearby and took some candid portraits of people doing so.

Working the subject

Of course, some of the photos are better than others, and I’m going to show you some of my favorites below. But there were also many times that I looked at the scene through the viewfinder and it wasn’t quite right, so I didn’t press the shutter.

One benefit of this method is that you don’t have as many photos to sort through and edit afterward. But it also shows discipline and an awareness of the subject. A machine-gunning photographer would take photos of everyone, without thinking about it much.

The photographer who is working the subject, and being more purposeful, is thinking about how to make each photo better than the one before. They may also be thinking about how the images are going to work together, or whether they should use a different technique, a different lens, or find a different point of view to add variety to the sequence of photos.

Working the subject


One of the key steps involved in learning to be a better and more creative photographer is knowing when to work the subject rather than machine-gun, and become more purposeful and intentional in your approach to making photos.

Can you think of any other examples of when working the subject can help you to create better images? Please let us know in the comments below.

Mastering Composition

If you’d like to learn more about composition then please check out my ebook Mastering Composition: A Photographer’s Guide to Seeing.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • mary.mollica

    One yr ago I decided to abandon my old work and it was a best decision i made in my life… I started to work online, for a company I discovered over internet, few hours every day, and my income now is much bigger then it was on my last work… My last month paycheck was for 9k dollars… Superb thing about this job is that i have more time to spend with my family…

  • Thijs

    Thats funny, I did do some panning with waves earlier this year as well, I came up with this one:

  • Nice photo! Thanks for sharing.

  • mary_clark_1994

    It’s been one year since I resigned from my last job and i couldn’t be happier now… I started working over internet, for this company I discovered online, few hrs /a day, and I earn much more than i did on my previous work… Pay-check i got for last month was for 9 thousand dollars… Great thing about this work is that now i have more free time with my kids…

  • Bob Bevan Smith

    Andrew, this is very good tip, thankyou. We teach it at the NZ Scouts Photography School. It is important for photographers to think about each image before taking the shot.
    Looking at the last photo of the couple taking a selfie, it took a moment to realise that was actually two photos side by side. The right hand half, of the child at the prayer wheel, makes a superb image in its own right when separated out (and having the child a little left of centre.)

  • CathyAnn

    I find that when I’m purposeful, when I’m contemplating a shot, sometimes I get the thought that it’s not going to work, and move on. Sometimes, instead of moving on, I take a few shots anyway. Then, when I go over them later, I almost always end up deleting those. Purposeful, and listening to myself, really is the way to go for me.

    Thank you for this article. You made me think about the subject – something I needed to do.

  • cole_yvonne

    It’s been one year since I decided to quit my last work and I never felt better in my life… I started doing a job on-line, over a site I discovered online, for several hrs /a day, and I make much more than i did on my last work… My paycheck for last month was for Nine thousand bucks… Amazing thing about it is that i have more free time with my kids…

  • You’re welcome – glad you liked it.

  • Hi Bob, thanks, glad you liked the article. I’m going to put a line between future photo pairs so it’s easy to see that they are two separate photos. Hope it wasn’t too confusing!

  • Sonny Rutherford

    I was out at a car show taking pics and instead of just clicking away decided to be more purposeful. This reflection photo is a result. I take photos at horse events and often shoot lots of photos to ensure i get a good pic, horses legs in the right place etc. however the more i am learning the better my timing and the less machine gunning i am finding.

  • 1861man

    Is there a moderator here that can delete spam posts relating to ‘earning money ‘.

  • Good points and very well written – composed article – that leads the reader. From my experiences this approach works as well on parties or events.

    Years ago I would shoot hundreds of photos from an event or party. Just because there was no cost. Now I try to move around and wait for crucial moments when people are relaxed and entertained.

    Especially at parties or concerts the mood rises with time. Starts are always much worse than in the middle. So if you shoot too much in the beginning you get tired before the real amazing things happen.

    This “working with the subject” approach helped me reduce the final number of photos from a normal party to around 50. Except when there are too many participants and we must have them all recorded. 🙂

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