#1162. Basics: Does understanding your subject make your photographs better?

By pascaljappy | How-To

Jan 05

The hallmark of a great photograph is its ability to maintain the viewer’s attention and interest long after the initial wow effect, even after multiple viewings. Does understanding the subject matter help create photographs that achieve this ?


Welcome to the first episode of Basics. As previously mentioned, the series is destined to create insights on what makes photographs good, by circling certain topics and questions that often get neglected in typical online photographic “education”.

And, as also previously mentioned, my expertise does not reach far enough into this field for me to provide definitive solutions. And I wouldn’t do so, even if I could. Instead, what seems more interesting is to highlight certain interesting ideas with photographs, hand out whatever knowledge I may have about them, and hope for contributions of the rest of the experts in this community via comments. Whatever coalesces into apparently firm ground will be saved into dedicated pages 🙂 So, if those topics interest you, get reading and provide your insights below 🙂

This first topic (having a deep understanding of your topic to make better photographs) seems obvious at first. It creates a sort of bridge between scientific and documentary photography, on one side, and artistic photography, on the other. To spoil the conclusion, I’ll just say that, to my eyes, the most fascinating photographs are very often those that do bridge that gap, showing evident knowledge and great personal creativity. Here are some examples from my recent shots, tell me what you think :

This, above, is a purely creative photograph of a tulip at a stage of life where it would usually be on a compost heap.

That, below, is a more documentary photograph of interesting looking bark in my garden.

Of course, the divide isn’t as clear as I make it to be in those sentences. There is some documentary information in the first and I did try to make the second pretty and interesting.


But, to my eyes, the very first image on this page (in b&w) is more interesting than either of the following two, just discussed (although the tulip does appeal to me a lot 😉 ) Of the first of these, it retains the artistic approach. Of the second, it keeps the focus on interesting details of the life of the tree. I mainly noticed the scene because of a lot of recent reading about trees and forestry. And I feel that focusing on the interesting botanical details while maintaining a personal approach (the depth of field, composition, face-like features, b&w processing) is what makes this work, for me. There was nothing in the photo above that I could latch onto intellectually, to make the image other than pictorial. Whereas in the first, I had just been reading about how chopped down stumps continue to live and evolve up to 20 years, so the cut line caught my eye.

What about you? Which of the 3 do you prefer and why? Please let me know, let’s get this topic covered :o)

Let’s examine a second example related to Christian religion.


Above is a documentary photograph of a religious artefact covering a baptismal font. I left the photograph in coulour to highlight the metal, and focused on the embossing rather than the cross as that felt more interesting. Still, it is a factual photograph.

Below is a slightly more traditional church “pretty picture”.

Both feel good enough to be presented to you. But the first will mainly be of interest to those with a pre-existing interest for religion or metal working. The second is well crafted and OK but will probably retain your attention for a few seconds only before you move on.


The following two photographs, however, feel better than either of the two above.

What links the two below are teachings of The Bible. A topic about which my education is sorely lacking but which discussions with friends have enlightened me about slightly.

As I understand it, if you were to resume The Bible’s teachings to one word, that word would be Christ. And yet, in Provence among other places, Mary has a very strong following. And, in Provence in particular, so does Mary Magdelene (both picture below). This is a source of theological ‘friction’ between currents of Christianism.

The second photograph takes the opposite approach to the first. But, by making the crucified figure small and at the convergent point of the building, highlights its fragility (and yet visual strength) compared to its surroundings.

My point here isn’t to take a religious stand, but merely to show that photographs that are based on a strong topic are more likely to interest viewers than those which are merely documentary or merely pretty.

But this flies in the face of the views of many experts.


For instance, some highly-regarded academic teachers of photography are lamenting the fact that most of the images produced by their students need pages of text to support them. They – the teachers – say that a good photograph should always be able to stand alone. And I agree entirely.

While text can help contextualise and explain, it should never be a cruch. And while series can help the photographer make their meaning more clear and tackle multiple facets of a topic of interest, each photograph in the series should be interesting in isolation.

So, how can a photograph based on deeper-than-average understanding of a topic be revelant and attractive to a large number of people, without requiring supporting text and series?


I can only venture two answers to this:

Firstly, the reason I feel this works is because the photographer chooses a broad topic (almost universal, in the case of nature or religion) and applies a personal treatment to it. The deeper-than-average knowledge you have of a topic is something you selected to learn about. There’s nothing absolute about it. It’s something that stuck with you. And your focus on it will attract like-minded people. So you carve out a section of that universal topic for yourself, through the deeper knowledge you acquire about it and the way it affects your work. The broad topic will attract the attention of many and the specific facet will keep it, for the few who are drawn to the same subjects.

Secondly, you shouldn’t try to appeal to a vast number of people but to be vastly interesting to a smaller number. This is what successful artists do, even though those that fetch 7 figure auctions do strive a global appeal. Good for them, I’d probably do the same in their position. But, in mine, I’m happy if a minority really enjoys what I photograph. It’s certainly far better than being dull to everyone, which often happens with generic work.

So there you have it. I feel a combination of personal treatment and obvious focus on a specific topic (above : cars in nature, the environment, exploring with motor vehicles, good or bad? …) makes for more powerful and lasting images. See how the presence of this white pickup adds a lot to the suggestion made by the photograph.

Now, what do you think of that idea? Do you have any supporting arguments or, on the contrary, counter examples? Let me know, it just takes a few seconds and gets the discussion going for the benefit of all 🙂

Again, a Happy New Year to all!


​Never miss a post

​Like what you are reading? Subscribe below and receive all posts in your inbox as they are published. Join the conversation with thousands of other creative photographers.

  • Robert Sessions says:

    I greatly appreciate your new approach, Pascal. Your “about photography” theme should elicit some interesting and helpful comments. While I agree that photos should stand alone and not need comments, I think that applies to the aesthetics of the photo (does it catch your eye and keep your attention) but not the other half of your topic today. If I have deep knowledge of a subject, no photo is going to convey my knowledge and all that I was trying to convey in a photo. That requires commentary for all except the few who are also deeply knowledgeable about the subject.
    I’m not sure I share your enthusiasm for your final image. To me, the fire hydrant and the truck detract from the photo, they confuse me: what is this image about, trucks and hydrants, or nature? If it’s meant to comment on the intersection of nature and society, I don’t think it is a strong image that way.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Thank you so much, Robert.

      Very interesting note. All the photographs in a series should be aesthetically strong and their content should describe your interestand understanding of a topic, as a whole, rather than individually. That’s still compatible with the idea that your understanding of a subject makes each individual frame better, but it does clarify the role of series (which is the topic of the next Basics episode).

      Thanks for the feedback on the final image. I find the truck to be a visual intrusion. You can’t not notice it, in what would otherwise be a nice but fairly bland photo of a tree in the fog. What I’ll do is submit this photograph to the first “Critique” session so we can go deeper in what could be better.


  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Why am I so often the first to comment? Notoriously, I don’t even get out of bed earlier than most people – quite the opposite, in fact.

    “Basics” should be fun – and productive – sucking years of experience and accumulated knowledge out of the skulls of a highly sophisticated and experienced group of photographers, who contribute to or (at least) follow DS.

    And so- to work! “This first topic (having a deep understanding of your topic to make better photographs) seems obvious at first.” Phrased as a statement – but I think it’s a question. Either way, the best I could come up with is “yes, and then again, perhaps, no!”

    The sting is in the tail. “. . . seems obvious at first . . . ” Yes to all of that. And because of that, there’s a deathly silence after “first”. But IS it “obvious”? – and/or does its validity extend beyond “at first”? – what happens next (AFTER “first”)?

    Maybe after we discard “at first” and start to explore further – to go beyond the obvious – we get into far deeper water – far more artistic images – more creativity. I remember only too painfully well, the day I upended the apple cart, by watching what “everyone else” did, and then doing the precise opposite. Because I was finding all their photos ended up looking “the same” – and as my poor mother would have told you, being “the same as everyone else” was a place I’ve always refused to go.

    And then another cloud blots out the sunshine – our work starts to become too rehearsed, too mechanical. Too many “rules”. Too analytical. Creativity has somehow disappeared through a crack in the floorboards.

    Fortune favours the brave. So we find ourselves staring at “someone else’s” work. And we’re confronted by images from so many different people, with so many different styles, and so many different subjects.

    As Jean-Baptist’s Alphonse Karr wrote, in the January 1849 issue of his journal (“The Wasps”), “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”!. The more thins change, the more they stay the same. And yet – we are all striving NOT to be “the same”. We all (most of us anyway) learned “rues of composition”, in order to be better – and then (most of us!) we decided to discard them, or tell ourselves they weren’t “rules”, but merely guidelines. Because we wanted to be “different”, and “rules’ made us all “the same”.

    “Bon chance, mon ami”. You’ve rung the starting bell. Let the games begin!

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, well, you have the Aussie advantage of being in the East, so up earlier than most of DS readership. But you also have a lot of experience and knowledge to contribute 🙂 The two factors combine probably explain how you beat everyone to the punch so regularly.

      Keep on being different from “everyone else” 😉 I sure try my best to.

      I like your idea of losing one’s personality when we try to copy the work of others or follow too many rules. To me, that would suggestion that using deep understanding of a specific topic to determine what to focus on in an image would make our shots different from those created by a layman. Hence, more interesting? Would you agree with that?

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Most certainly! I absolutely refuse to be told I can’t take a photo of something like the Eiffel Tower, just because 10 million morons with iPhones have already been there and done it! And hopefully mine won’t look a bit like theirs anyway.

  • tri fin says:

    Awesome topic.

    Simple answer. It doesn’t matter.

    More in depth answer it matters hugely!

    Take simple street photography, the photog generally doesn’t know the people they shoot…

    But you could say that the truly gifted street photographers are able to see something they recognise from their own lives and are able show it to the viewer.

    Empathetic photography needs personal insight. I imagine Oscar Wilde was a sensitive man and so is his writing. As a photographer of feelings I would say you need feelings to capture them….

    • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

      Gret comment, tri – trouble is, empathetic people are likely to be sensitive as well – and we can easily bruise their feelings, in making any observations about their images.

      But of course, I’m pushing the view that our comments should be constructive and helpful – not unpleasant or negative or unkind. Words have more power than cannons – use them wisely!

      • pascaljappy says:

        The interesting point about empathy is recognising something of one’s personality or situation in others. Since we have a deep knowledge (though not always understanding) of ourselves, this helps us focus on what we recognise in others, whether we understand it or not.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ahah, well done Tri. Street is indeed a very big thorn in my theory. Maybe street photographers know more about sociology (societal psychology) and trends, than about individuals?

      Unless they recognise something of themselves in others, as you suggest. In particular, feelings or attitudes.


  • OK, Pascal, I’m willing to give this question a working over. So, here’s my take: the question comes down to the objective of the photographer. Speaking just for myself, I don’t give a fig for what the subject is about. My subject is pretty much light and contrast. Photojournalism doesn’t interest me (I’m not especially good at it anyway.) When I travel in photo safari mode, I remain deliberately ignorant about context and history. If anything, I believe knowing about those things would interfere with my objective. In this way, I couldn’t be more different from the photographer I most revere: Sebastião Salgado. And yet . . .

    For example, my favorite photo of Death Valley is not even clearly a sand dune, though there is nothing else in the frame except sand. I make several trips a year to the USS Hornet museum in Alameda. I’ve never been on the tour, and it was years before I read anything on the background of this naval vessel. My photos consider the aircraft carrier-ness, if I may, of this mammoth ship at rest and of how it and the planes on her decks relate to the sky, the harbor and the San Francisco skyline behind it. If someone looking at my photos (before I read up on its history) sees ghosts of the Doolittle raid, that’s entirely on them.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Leonard, thanks for this. I think your comment highlights the various types of photographers.
      Your words “My subject is pretty much light and contrast.” are typical of most fine art photographers, and describe much of my photography as well. As of Weston’s and of other in his style.

      In that type of work, the knowledge and understanding is of the process, not the subject. It is a bridge between technique and aesthetics.

      Why do you think getting a deeper understanding of your topic would interfere with your work? Is that because you deliberately enjoy abstract work (which is a goal in itself) or do you thinnk there’s something inherently wrong with the approach?

      Salgado is a very good example. One of my implicit questions is “can you make photographs that are both beautifully executed fine art and very descriptive of a complex topic”. And Salgado is one of the rare photographers that come to mind as doing that.

      • Yo Pascal,

        I thought my comment about learning about the “subject” would interfere with my work might get a rise. This really speaks to how I approach the subject — I mean this literally. As I am walking about or driving by some thing, I get a flash of an image conceived as a photograph. I stop and consider how to manifest what I imagined. Oftentimes, it vanishes or I can’t bring what I imagined into a photograph. At other times, I push and shove the mechanics of the camera and lens until it works. My one rule, which I rarely break, is to not mess with the reality. I don’t move things around or remove or add things. I maintain this rule right up through post, though I rather enjoy revealing that which is latent.

        I am fond of saying of myself that when I enter an empty room, I see . . . . an empty room. It is next to impossible for me to imagine something that isn’t there. The journalistic background to whatever my subject is made of is kind of like that: it isn’t there for me. Were I to know about this, I would become a slave to imaginary expectations.

        Curiously, my profession as clinical psychologist permits and directs me to do just that with the patients and students I work with: to see the latent history in as large a context as I can bring to whatever demands my attention. Photography permits and encourages me to narrow my view and interpret it through an art form. It’s a nice balance for me.

        • pascaljappy says:

          You know me too well 😉

          My approach tends to be quite similar. But, in retrospect, it’s often the case that the photographs (of mine) that appel to me the most are those that combine meaning with creative efforts. Hence my questioning and this first topic.

  • Ag says:

    I will hazard a guess, or several guesses, for that is all I am qualified to offer. Perhaps susceptible viewers respond to care and context; we look for patterns, but we also look for stories. A photographer can demonstrate care for a subject by deploying his or her technical skills in the service of aesthetic compositions–first you see the subject/scene in a particular way, and then you try to represent that view to others. The representation of your hopes may be clear to viewers, and may be shared by viewers, or they may be struck by the photograph in private ways that you couldn’t have predicted.

    The tulip photo is out of common context, if we share a belief that flowers are more commonly presented in their prime and most robust bloom and beauty. We can pause before your careful study of a tulip just past its common context…we can wonder if you have a larger view in mind for this image–an observation of transcience, or an elegiac look at the journey-work of the stars. The tree in color has interesting glyphs and faces in the bark, but the image is fixed in a context from which it is difficult to extract, whereas the black-and-white tree has been slightly abstracted from its context, and given new possibilities.

    The images in the religious series may all feature contrasts between the work of hands and the hope of heart (the religious inspiration and the skill of the craftsman/smith/sculptor), but again, the image of the vaulted church interior is fixed in a context (however admirably rendered), while the other three, in different ways, are isolated or shifted or lifted from a strict context.

    I won’t blather on, but perhaps this is where story, or drama, can begin…where the photographer’s care for a subject/scene still leaves a margin in the context for the viewer to fill. Understanding the subject matter may, in many cases, involve recognizing how manifold that subject can be, beyond the context in which we encounter it, and how there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. This doesn’t invalidate our intentions as photographers–it just widens them a bit.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Ag, very cool ideas, thank you.

      “Context and care”. A great parallel to mastery of the craft and focus on a specific topic.

      I also like the idea that you can touch viewers in ways you may not have anticipated. This would be the case in what Pete describes as “empathetic photography”, above. You (the photographer) could relate to a scene in a way and the viewer of the photograph in a different way. I think that the more documentary your photograph becomes, the less this surprise can happen. When you (as a photographer) focus on a topic that’s so narrow and so entirely documented by the photograph that you leave no room for interpretation, you have gone too far and lost the ability to draw in anyone that’s not an exact replica of yourself.

      As you remind us, leaving context to explain is *paramount* to creating a great photograph. Thanks again.

      • Ag says:

        Thank you, Pascal…and thank you for the opportunity to participate in small ways.

        Empathetic, yes…but also, perhaps we seek to provide a “thick description” of the subjects we choose. There are many ways of seeing, and stronger images perhaps admit of more ways. I agree that the stark, explicit purpose of documentary or journalistic photography may seem to frustrate this, but there are so many examples–the photographs from Capa, or Lange, or W. Eugene Smith, or Nachtwey, and the aforementioned Salgado–wherein even a singular and specific subject or event is described and depicted beyond its context.

        This is how I am understanding your remarks on “understanding” our subjects. We try always for more and different understanding. The popular quote from Valery–“seeing is to forget the name of the thing one sees”–is a lesson to me, to encourage any attempt to understand a scene or subject in ways beyond the quotidian context, and allow viewers the same chance.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        What I liked about Ag’s comment is that he has reminded us of the value of telling a story. “Snapshots” simply freeze an image in time & space. Photographs take us further. Or, at least, the photographs that I imagine everyone in this group aspires to.

        I do believe that I think my first-ever “photograph” still exist – and I think I know who has it. But it is meaningful only to me – to anyone else, it is just a photo of a tree. A tree which I saw practically every day of my life – majestic – at peace – exemplifying stability – serene – beautiful. In my eyes – my heart – my mind. But that photo doesn’t say that – at least, not to anyone else.

        Story telling takes us beyond technique – it assumes our tech skills are adequate, but it demands that we put our mind, our heart, our imagination, our soul, into the creation of an image that needs no caption. Alternatively, it stimulates the viewer, to imagine what lies within the scene before his eyes. This demands miles more than “shutter, aperture, focus”. Photography can all too easily be just “recording” what we see. Forms – light – shade – contrast colour.

        As, indeed, each of your photos in this article does. So they all draw the viewer into the image.

  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    Hello Leonard – nice to meet you!

    “Speaking just for myself, I don’t give a fig for . . . ” Yes – quite! That’s the entry point, for me, for creativity. And you can insert whatever you like, at the end of that sentence!

    And I think of photography as its ethnic meaning – a “graph” of “photons” – an image of light & shade. Whatever that image is, is entirely up to the photographer. Black & white, colour, whatever.

    It becomes much more apparent than it might be to people whose photography starts & finishes in a cellphone, when you immerse yourself in post processing – which I’ve always loved, from back at the start, over half a century ago – using our cellar, as my darkroom, the bathtub to finish washing all the chemicals out of the paper, and the lounge room floor, to lay all the prints out, to dry. Digital has completed that, by removing the bathtub & the lounge room, and replacing them with the ability to process colour images at home.

    Leonard your description of your “favourite photo” would fit beautifully the dozen or so photos I saw a year or so back, of an ancient lake in the centre of Australia. Taken by two professionals, on a photo safari. There were barely any “defined images” in the frames of any of their images. As I emerged from the room where they were displayed, I realised they had completely overwhelmed me. The memory of their photos lingered on, and haunted me, for months afterwards. If it weren’t for the fact that I’ve run out of wall space, I would have loved to have bought one.

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this, Jean Pierre, especially your history of editing from darkroom to digital. It occurs to me that moving to digital (which I did, kicking and screaming, as they say), along with giving up wedding photography (very contextual), allowed me to “find myself” as a fine art photographer, which has been something of a surprising adventure for me.

  • Jeffrey D. Mathias says:

    Being my first comment on DS I will say that I would not have bothered if not inspired by the other comments here and throughout DS. As a brief introduction I have a long history of Platinum/Palladium Printmaking and now film digitally (yes, motion.)

    Maybe the first thing that hit me with this article is that the metallic religious orb photograph seems to me far from just a “factual photograph” as you described it. There seems to be a whole world happening within the reflections. Maybe these are what inspired you maybe subconsciously. But they certainly can capture attention as to what they are or mean. Certainly far more provocative than the decorated tree in the church interior (which is the least of interest to me of your selections.)

    Maybe the image of most interest to me is the large stump. The first (B&W) is nice but keep my interest less than trying to figure out the reflection is the orb (Maybe because I have just seen too many peppers.)

    I disagree with Robert a bit. Even though the red of the hydrant is distractedly unbalanced the hydrant itself is not. There are many more human made items throughout this photo besides the truck and hydrant. Door, grate, buildings, tank, pole for some… then carved rock, positioned rocks, road, trash(?) by the road… a substantial portion of what is photographed is not nature. So then, do these things relate to nature. The white truck gives a nice balance to the fog and ambient light. The white of the truck also pulls one away from that hydrant as well as the green grass and that light grey piece of trash(?). But not enough… and yes, there is some confusion as Robert points out.

    I find it difficult to make an image that others might see and think or feel the same things that I had. I think it might be some success if the observer is inspired to feel or think just something from the image presented. But yes, thoughts and feelings can be given through imagery. Understanding the subject mater may or may not help with this. As is with music there are certain image relationships which can cause a pleasing response…a response which will encourage spending time and/or coming back to that image.

    I am certainly interested to find where all this will lead.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Wow Jeffrey, any chance you can tell us how you went from platinum making to film making, one day? 🙂 That’s my dream in one sentence right there. Maybe the over-peppering? 😉 I blame Weston.

      Yes, the orb was really lovely in real life as well. It was obviously hand crafted and vibrant.

      To my eyes, the hydrant is too small and too far away to play a meaningful role in the image. That was me being too lazy to use my feet, but I also wanted to keep the pickup close to the tree. The red dot should probably be cropped out.

      I think it’s impossible to create the same thougts in the mind of the viewer as in yours. Not least because those thoughts are rarely well formed when out shooting. And it’s probably better to get the viewer to tell their own story rather than imposing one. Understanding subject matter can draw us (photographers) to atypical subjects and guiude our framing in ways that others might not have considered. But it’s the creativity of the photographer – not the knowledge of the subject matter expert – that will trigger stories in the viewer’s mind. Or so I believe.


      • Sean says:

        I like these words of yours, Pascal “… thoughts are rarely well formed when out shooting. And it’s probably better to get the viewer to tell their own story rather than imposing one. Understanding subject matter can draw us (photographers) to atypical subjects and guiude our framing in ways that others might not have considered. But it’s the creativity of the photographer – not the knowledge of the subject matter expert – that will trigger stories in the viewer’s mind. Or so I believe…” Just maybe, a precursor to, or part of, what you’re alluding to here, in you points of view, is that the ‘basics’ help us (photographers) gat a better handle on the technical (for want of better words) so that, going forwards, the ‘visual clutter’ (the raw material stimuli that confronts our eyes, emotions and thought processes) can be effectively managed in a more productive way. The final crafted image, is part of the photographers journey, towards achieving and securing that meaningful distillation of all these points of view.

        • pascaljappy says:

          Yes, Sean. I think understanding a topic draws our eye to details that others might not have noticed. And that our technique and interior voice help us craft an image that could trigger inner stories in viewers.

          For example, the large stump mentioned by Jeffrey is a plane tree I’ve photographed below, always in winter, once (in b&w) under the snow with a lady meditating (or just soaking up the sun) sitting on the stone in front of it. It was a very different story to the colourful one here that – to me – evokes life passing on to a younger tree. Stuff I’ve been reading about trees recently made me notice the smaller tree next to the chopped down giant (subbject matter knowledge), the soft light and colours innspired that shot in me (creativity) but someone else might like the photograph and see something else in it.

          I think images become powerful when they have meaning to the author and when the author, in turn, pours some of his personality in the photograph so that it’s not solely documentary. But it’s up to the reader to turn that energy into their own internal story.

  • >