Which is more important: The Subject or the Photograph?
This may seem like something of an obtuse question at first, but bear with me and let me explain what I mean. When you take a photograph of something, what is the most important thing to you about that photograph? Is it the subject of the photo - the person, place or object that you captured? Our is it the photograph itself - the art of the image, the style of the photo, or the creative way that you captured it?
To put it another way, when someone looks at that image, if the subject is the most important thing, they should look at that photo and just see the subject. The fact that it’s a photograph should be beside the point. On the other hand, if the photo itself is the most important thing, then a person looking at it, even a non-photographer, should immediately see the artistry involved. Instead of looking at just an object, or a person or a place, they will see an artistic image created by an artist.
Both of these approaches to photography are equally valid, but both are highly dependent on the genre of photography. Understanding the difference between the two may seem like a fairly abstract exercise, but it can be very important in certain fields of photography, and the creative industry in general.
In photojournalism for example, the subject is everything. It is the single most important part of the photograph. For a photojournalist, capturing the truth of what they see through the lens is the absolute goal, and it must be without distraction or superfluous effect. That’s why you don’t see news stories treated with stylised filters or HDR effects. In fact news agencies often strictly limit what can be down to a photograph. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a degree of art in photojournalism, of course there is, but it takes second place to capturing the story and the moment.
Fine art photography on the other hand is the complete opposite. In this genre, the subject alone isn’t necessarily the point of the image. Art by its nature is free flowing, and so it can be whatever the artist wants. In art photography, this can be wide ranging, from stylistic use of lighting, to post production, to abstract composition and so on. That’s not to say that the subject isn’t important in fine art photography either, of course it is. But it can take second place to the artistry of the photo (but not all the time). This style of photography has been popularised by social media, and for the longest time, the stylised heavily treated image was the defining characteristic of certain social media platforms.
In other fields the lines are a little more blurred, and most of the time there are elements of both approaches. Commercial and fashion photography can often call for elaborate and artistic photoshoots. These themselves are often the expression of the photographer’s artistic creativity, but at the end of the day, presenting and defining the subject is still the most important outcome. While images in these areas may often use numerous techniques, such as creative post production, intricate light setups and so on, it’s not really about the artistry of the photograph. No matter how impressive the setup is, at the end of the day, it’s primary purpose is still to emphasise (and in the case of commercial shoots, sell) the subject, whatever that may be.
I should make it clear, I’m not trying to say that photography has to be either artistic or functionary, because of course it’s a blend of both. The point I’m making is that sometimes, one or the other takes priority, depending on the field of photography.
When I was thinking about this distinction, it got me thinking of how much this parallels the design world. For those who are new readers and may not know, before doing photography and writing (almost) full time, I have worked for many years in the area of design and visual effects in the TV and Film industry. One of the things that I often saw with newcomers in the industry, and it’s something I had to learn myself, is distinguishing between art and design. So what is the difference? Put simply, design is art with a purpose. In art, the result is whatever the artist wants, and he or she can get there using whatever techniques that they choose to. In design, and in some fields of photography too, the outcome is determined by the client, and the the methods and techniques that you can use to get there, are often limited by constraints of time and budget.
When working on visual effects projects, the hardest and most challenging effects are often the ones that nobody sees. In fact, if they do notice them, you haven’t done your job right. The same is often true in certain fields of photography. Most people (who aren’t photographers) don’t look at a photo in a newspaper and think “I wonder who took that photo, and how they took it”. They just see whatever story is being told. If the act of taking the photograph becomes apparent, then something has gone wrong.
One of the possible exceptions to this distinction is the field of wedding photography. In some cases in wedding photography, the subject and the artistry can be of equal importance. occasionally, some couples looking for a photographer may also want photos of a certain style, and in this case, the artistry of the photography is very much an important element, obviously not as important as the subject (the couple and their guests) but it can be an important factor for some when deciding on a wedding photographer.
Which brings me back to the original point: which is more important? It depends on the type of photography that you are doing, and in some cases it will be a combination of both.
If you want to be an artist, then a lot about the photos that you take may be as much about the art as it will be about the subject of the photo. This may seem like an easier path, but it isn’t always. The pressure to constantly create something from nothing, can sometimes be overwhelming, especially if it is your full time job. A tightly defined brief from a client may sound constraining, but I always find that the clearer a client is about their needs, and expected outcome, the easier the job is for the creative. On the other hand, as an artist the sky is the limit on what you can create, as no one will limit you but yourself.
If you are an amateur or beginner and you want to get into certain fields of professional photography, then understanding the importance of putting the subject and the client first, is probably one of the most important things that you will have to learn and accept. Some genres of photography will place more emphasis on accurately capturing a subject, and others will be more creative and flexible. All of these approaches are rewarding and challenging in their own right.
Certain photographers on social media who have become internet famous, paint this picture of photographers being superstars, high flying and celebrities in their own right, but this is the exception, and is probably a bit misleading. In many areas of photography, if a photographer is doing their job properly, the average person won’t think about the fact that someone photographed whatever it is that they’re looking at. This isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a sign of a job well done. In other fields the artistry of the photograph will be the artists signature.
The one thing that its important to note, is that this isn’t a zero sum game either. You can do both. You can be a fine art photographer when you need to be and a journalist when you need to be. The important thing is to know what is important in each of these fields. Being able to navigate this distinction, and mastering these disciplines will help you grow as both an artist and a photographer.
One final point. Some of you may be saying to yourself, “wow, that’s thinking about this way too much!”. You may well be right. What I’ve been talking about mostly refers to professional photography. For enthusiasts and amateurs, sometimes, just enjoying the experience of taking photos is enough, and that’s perfectly valid too. A good photo can be whatever you enjoy taking. Whether it’s the places you visited on holiday, or your family, or just a nice scene you saw walking down the street. Shoot what you enjoy shooting. Someone said recently on a video that I was watching, that the key to success is enjoying what you do, so if nothing else, then let that be your starting point.
Right, what was this post all about again?