How Framing Your Subject Is Like Writing a Clear Sentence
A device to help you remember some key elements when taking a picture.
I have such a newfound interest in writing that it’s compelled me to read a lot of books on the topic. I want to learn how to write well and I understand that in itself will take a lot of time to do. So with that, I’ve been expanding my reading with different genres that I generally don’t divulge in. Genres like literature and fiction, and even more proper works like The Constitution of The United States. All this reading and learning brought me back to a time when I started to learn about Photography.
It brought me back to phase 3 of my evolution as a photographer (I wrote an article on this earlier this month.) I’m currently in my third book about writing and a reoccurring topic is how to write clear and concise. The authors say that the easiest way to do that is short and to the point sentences. Sentences that don’t contain a lot of noise. And as I was reading, I had this thought about how similar that concept was to photography. How the basic structure of a sentence is similar to the basic composition of a photograph.
I thought that this comparison could help beginners in photography remember some key elements when framing their subject. Hell, this might even help us seasoned photographers remember key components when snapping away; because we all know that sometimes when we’re trying to capture a specific feeling, or are on a time constraint, that we all forget one key thing that could have made the photograph that much better.
Before I dive in, let me preface by saying this is not a tutorial on how to write a complete sentence. This is, however, a light tutorial on how to take a picture.
Let’s start with what makes a simple clear concise sentence without getting anywhere deep into grammar. If you search on the internet what makes a sentence you’ll find numerous results with all the same components give or take. They all say that a sentence must have a subject, a verb, and an object. A sentence with those components might look like this:
Mark walks his dog.
That sentence is as clear and to the point as it gets.
The subject is “Mark”, the verb is “walks”, and the object is “dog”.
In a photograph, you must have a minimum of three components: Light, subject, and composition. So let’s take that basic sentence and draw the comparison into a photograph
1 — Subject like in a sentence is the same in a photograph
A subject in a sentence is what the sentence is about. The subject in a photograph is what the image focuses on. Without a subject in either, the whole thing is pointless. A sentence without a subject is confusing because you won’t know what the person is talking about. If we take “Mark” out of that simple sentence we end up with, “walks his dog,” and anyone who reads that will ask, who is walking his dog?
A photograph without a subject is misleading because you won’t know where to look. Let’s take that simple sentence and turn it into an image.
Imagine you’re at the park and you notice an interesting looking man walking his dog and you decide that you want to take a picture of that man. So you press the shutter button and the outcome is the man and his dog among other dog walkers. Someone looking at your photograph might say, “oh wow! There were a lot of people walking their dogs at the park that day.” The viewer of your image has no idea what or whom your subject was because you didn’t make it clear enough.
To turn that image you took of the interesting man and his dog into a clear sentence like “Mark walks his dog,” you might’ve had to wait until the man was somewhere in the park clear of anyone else. Somewhere that isolates the man and his dog to make it clear what your subject is.
You’d be surprised how hard of a concept this is for beginners. A lot of the times when you’re in an uncontrolled environment, like the park, you have to be patient and or constantly be moving in order to get your subject in the exact place needed. For beginners, this proves to be difficult because of a multitude of reasons, but I find the main reason is fear. The beginner is either too scared to get too close or scared that they’ll get caught taking a picture of someone they don’t know. It’s a very valid fear, but it’s debilitating to your progression as a photographer.
Once you figure out your subject, figure out how to make it clear in your photograph (there’s a multitude of other techniques. Advance techniques, that require you to get the basics down first in order to evolve to those advanced practices.)
2 — Verb is like Light.
he verb is the action in a sentence. So if we take “walks” out of “Mark walks his dog” we are left with “Mark his dog.” That in itself either makes the sentence really confusing or changes the meaning of the sentence, insinuating that Mark is someone’s dog.
Light acts similarly in a photograph. Lighting acts in several ways but let's focus on two. Lighting is exposure. It allows us to see the subject in a photograph. Lighting is also mood (mood can be achieved with other techniques as well.) So we can say that light is like a verb in a way that it is expressing what is happening in the photograph.
If we take the image of the interesting man and his dog, and we take that picture as the man walks under a tree into the shade and we don’t adjust for that light, we probably won’t see an interesting man walking his dog. We might just see a dark figure or no figure at all. Or maybe what made the man so interesting was that he had a jovial look on his face that grabbed your attention, well then we certainly won’t see that look in poor lighting.
If you think about the sun, the main light source for life itself and the types of scenery the sun can bring or lack thereof and how it changes the whole mood of an image. The sun shining bright on a summer day on the beach can make you feel happy. The sun setting on the same beach may make you feel calm. When the sun is being covered by dark gloomy clouds it may make you feel somber.
Light is everything in photography. Photography literally means drawing with light.
3 — Object is like Composition
Take out “dog” of the sentence and we have “Mark walks his.” Mark walks his what? Composition does the same thing in a photograph. Take the image of the interesting man and his dog and crop out the dog and all you're left with is a man. Or, take the picture cutting out the ground and all you have is a floating man and possibly the top of the dog's head. Object helps bring the sentence together as composition does in a photograph.
Composition helps tell the whole story of what’s happening in your photograph. If you were brave and went straight up to the interesting man and his dog and snapped a picture right in front of them, then all you would have is a portrait of a man and his dog, but if your intention was to get them walking, well then you messed that up with a bad composition.
The more I read on how to write well, the more I understand how to make my sentences more clear. So I encourage you as a budding photographer to shoot more and shoot with purpose. Just because you have unlimited space on your memory card doesn’t mean you should take 100 pictures of single-subject hoping you get one good picture. Instead, take a step back and ask yourself what you want to communicate through your image? What do you want the viewer to see in your photo? Once you figure out the answer to your question, photograph it. Compose and light your subject to answer your question.