Tips and Techniques No. 001 – The Subject is the Subject

[Editor’s Note – Hey everyone. James here. We’re launching a new feature on CP. Every week, with the help of some really talented pro photographers, we’ll bring you a brief post highlighting a simple way that you can improve your photography. For some of you, the tips and techniques showcased here will be old news. But for others, they’ll provide some quick inspiration and a pleasant homework assignment. Our first Tips and Techniques comes from Hong Kong based photog Jeremy H. Greenberg, who suggests some ways that we can create images with strong subjects. Enjoy.]


The easiest method for ensuring that you’re making good images is to have an easily identifiable subject. All good photographs, whether they be abstract or objective, in color or black-and-white, on film or digital, need to have a clear subject. The viewer shouldn’t have to hunt through the composition for the subject of the image. If they do, their attention will be lost. However it’s also true that simply having an identifiable subject in your image does not, in itself, make an image work. Your subject should be unique, or different, or possessive of some quality that stands to make the photograph interesting.

In today’s Tips and Techniques, I will describe and illustrate seven ways that you can draw attention to the subject in your images. If you apply to your shooting the ideas outlined in this article, your images will improve – and you won’t even need to buy any new gear! You may not instantly become the next Cartier-Bresson, but then again, maybe you will.

Subject Isolation via Bokeh

The term bokeh (bō’kā) is Japanese for out-of-focus, and has made its way into our modern photographic vernacular. This shouldn’t be a surprise given the multitude of camera companies and excellent models that have been produced in Japan. The technique is achieved by using a wide open lens aperture to blur the background and isolate the subject. The resulting effect renders the subject of an image in sharp focus so that our eyes naturally rest on this part of the image. You can use this technique to great effect when shooting portraits, street photography, and macro work. Simply open that aperture as wide as it goes, focus diligently on your subject, and fire away.

Lighting (Figure to Ground)

Just as our eyes are drawn to the part of the image that is in focus, so too are our eyes drawn to the part of the image that is visually lighter than the other elements. Picture a white circle on a black square compared to a dark grey circle on a black square. Got it? By shooting a subject that is highlighted, you can present the subject more prominently than the other elements in the image. Contrasting your subject against the background helps, too. This is formally known as the “figure to ground” relationship. The figure to ground relationship essentially suggests that your subject should be presented as separate from the background. Whether shooting a light subject on dark background or visa versa, use the relationship between light and dark to clearly mark and visually separate your subject (figure) from the back(ground).

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Leading lines

Leading lines are compositional elements that function like an arrow that points the viewer’s eyes toward your subject. Placing a subject at one end of a street or wall, for example, leads the eye of the viewer toward a specific point in the photo. You may also intentionally place your subject between or at the intersection of lines within your frame in order to more quickly draw the eye to your subject. You can use a street, a fence, a line of trees, power lines, or any other relatively straight lines within your image to achieve this effect.

Size and Place

Another technique that’s helpful when trying to emphasize your subject within an image, is to use the subject’s size. If your subject is significantly larger than everything else within the frame, the viewer will be able to easily identify the subject. This also works when trying to emphasisze a single object in images that have lots of objects within the frame. The subject can also be made very small, but this is more difficult to pull off effectively. The size element can be used anywhere in the composition. You do not need to place the subject directly in the middle of the frame to emphasize the subject. In fact, this is generally something that you want to avoid.

Frames Within Frames

A picture has four sides. There’s no getting around that. However, there exists flexibility within this space to move the subject around like a decoration within a room. Frame the subject within a frame to place emphasis on the subject and help the viewer to identify what you are presenting to them.

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Color

Color versus black-and-white is one of the oldest arguments in photography. Of course, people see the world in color, yes, but it was only until relatively recent times that we possessed the technology to make images in color. This slow adoption of color has meant that many serious photographers find color in an image to be a distraction. But color can also be helpful in creating a focal point, or subject, in an image. Contrasting colors can work in unison with the previously mentioned techniques to help draw attention to your subject. Contrasting colors, such as red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple, can help create images that really pop. Strong colors, such as red, can single-handedly function to emphasize the subject within an image. Don’t be afraid to play with color, and remember the previous tips.

Motion Blur

In a similar way to selective focus and lighting, our eyes tend to notice objects that are moving. Motion blur is an effect that is achieved when the shutter speed of your camera is slightly slower than that of a moving object. The resulting effect is that the subject, or part of the subject, may appear blurred, as if it is moving within your frame. When other elements within your frame are still and in perfect focus, you create a contrast between the subject and the rest of the image. This movement will effectively draw the viewer’s eye directly to the subject. To achieve this look, set your shutter speed somewhere between 1/30 and 1/60 of a second and move the camera along with the moving subject. The result should be a subject that’s in sharp focus and a background that is blurry.


You may find that some of these seven techniques are easier to use than others, and you may find that you love some and hate others. To discover which works best for you, here’s an assignment:  throw your camera over your shoulder and set out to make five images using each of the seven techniques mentioned above. One you’ve done that, go home and sort out the images that most effectively contain a strong subject. Now determine which techniques you used to create those images. This will point you to the techniques that work best with your style of photography. Of course you might be using more than one of the above-mentioned techniques, and that’s likely the best possible scenario.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    the6millionpman
    November 29, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Some good tips here, I think most people will find that without even trying they’ll be doing most of these subconsciously as soon as they’re looking through the viewfinder. It can’t just be me that see’s the world through the rule of thirds is it?

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