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.
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.
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.
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.
Then I took another photo of the rear of the car.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
If you’d like to learn more about composition then please check out my ebook Mastering Composition: A Photographer’s Guide to Seeing.