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How You Treat Your Subject in Photography Affects Your Photos

A great subject does not necessarily make a great photograph. The way you treat your subject will reflect in your photographs.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Don’t be a travel snapshooter. This is advice I frequently give people during our travel photography workshops in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There’s an abundance of interesting subject material here. As is often the case when you are outside your normal environment, it’s easy to think that grabbing a quick photo will suffice.

Returning home with thousands of impulse photos will be a disappointment. If you don’t pay attention to creating an interesting photograph, the results will be lacking. Temples, monks, tuk-tuks and the likes are all interesting but can make rather boring pictures if you don’t treat them well.

How to treat your subject well

I watched this video about renowned Magnum photographer Elliot Erwitt recently. About halfway through he makes an interesting statement saying, “It’s not the subject, it’s how you treat the subject.” Unfortunately, he does not go on to expand this thought, but he certainly provoked curiosity in me.

This idea is one I believe is very important to the development of your photography. The way you treat your subject influences the potential impact your photos will have.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Grabbing quick snapshots will typically produce lackluster results. Treating your subject with more attention and intent will compel you to make more interesting photographs.

“Treat” is an intriguing word. Particularly in the context, Erwitt uses it in the video. It can be taken to mean the way you chose to artistically represent your subject. It could also mean the manner with which you:

  • Communicate with them
  • Act or behave towards them
  • Consider or regard them
  • Or, if you give them gifts

Any of these will affect different responses from a living subject.

Artistic treatment in photography

Choices you make will influence the way your photos look and how your subject is represented.

Photographing a beach on a sunny day when it’s full of activity, will look significantly different than on a winter’s afternoon with an overcast sky. Your choice of when you take a photograph is part of how you treat your subject.

Timing when you photograph someone speaking can make them look attractive or not. Those open-mouthed, contorted faces we often see politicians with are used by news editors to portray them negatively. This treatment may seem unkind, but it is certainly intentional.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Lighting choice between soft or hard light alters the artistic treatment a subject is given. A wrinkled face will become more exaggerated using hard lighting at certain angles. The choice of a softer, more diffused light will be kinder to your subject.

Composition is without a doubt influential on the way viewers will understand the main subject of any photograph.

You can crop in tight, showing little or no context. This limits any relationship of your subject to its environment.

A looser crop, made with careful intention, can include or exclude elements. This will influence the look and feel of your photographs.

Contrast in color and tone within your photos helps a viewer determine the meaning of a photo. Pastels or soft tones provide a gentleness. High-contrast black and white or color combinations will induce a different look and feel.

Your awareness of these aspects of photography allows you to make intentional use of them.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Relational treatment of your subjects

This has more influence on subjects that can respond to you. The way you talk to a rock or flower will not have so much impact on the photos you make of it. Talking to your pet dog or goldfish will also elicit different responses.

Doggie treats given during pet photo sessions can provide huge assistance to a photographer. Offering more food to your goldfish will not likely arouse a more favorable response from it.

Speak politely to the person you want to photograph you’ll be more likely to receive a positive response. If you approach a stranger with uncertainty their response may not be so conducive to you getting a good portrait of them.

Treating someone with a smile and an air of respect will provide you a more positive opportunity. Most people will respond well. Projecting a positive attitude during a portrait session will enable you to make more attractive photos. Your subjects will be more relaxed and assured.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Even when you’re traveling and may not be able to verbally communicate, a smile often does the trick. Approach someone with an open, happy look on your face with your camera in hand. This usually communicates your intention clearly enough. Add in a few appropriate hand gestures and watch for the person’s response.

Take time to observe your subject

When you’re not sure how to treat your subject, step back and observe for a while if you can. Don’t rush to capture your photo.

Look at the environment and how your subject relates to it. Is it a prominent or a minor part of the location? Does it interact significantly with the surroundings? Can you find an angle that will suit the intention you have for your photo?

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan

The more you understand about your subject, the better photos you will make of it. Understanding can affect the way you relate to any chosen subject.

If you see someone who is shy and reserved, treat them in a similar manner. They’re more likely to appreciate it than if you boldly get in their face with your camera.

A more extroverted person may require a different treatment. Be bolder. Be more effusive in your approach. Mirror back to them how you are experiencing them.

Take some time to research. Engaging in longer-term projects, or even before heading away on holiday to somewhere new. Find out as much as you can about what you want to photograph.

Do you want to photograph monks in Thailand? Is it okay to do so politely? Is this culturally fitting? Can you safely photograph beggars in San Francisco? Is street photography including people welcome in Paris? Knowing the answers to pertinent questions before you set out will enable you to treat your subject appropriately.

Image: © Kevin Landwer-Johan

© Kevin Landwer-Johan


The right treatment of your subject will result in more compelling photographs.

Think about both aspects of treating your subjects. Considering the methods you use with your camera is one aspect. Communicating well with living subjects will influence the response you receive from them.

Take your time to practice. Apply yourself well. You will see an improvement in your photographs.


How You Treat Your Subject in Photography Affects Your Photos

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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