The Best Photos Have a Subject — and a Verb

I recently took a part-time job teaching photography to high school students. Teaching has taught me a lot.

Yes, I was confident in my knowledge of photography — but I didn’t know exactly what I knew until I began to teach others.

Some claim that photography is a subjective art. I’ve heard my own editors say things like, “I know good photography when I see it.” But when you teach students, that answer isn’t good enough. You need a measuring stick.

You can start with things like the Rule of Thirds for basic composition, but the fact is, a lot of images that are perfectly composed are not good photographs. And some of the greatest photographs break all the rules of composition.

Point of View

More than anything else, I want my students to have a point of view when they take pictures. Focus, the Rule of Thirds, exposure, and lens selection are some of the tools a photographer can use to help develop a point of view.

To me, a picture with a point of view is like a story. And stories need both subjects and verbs.

I sometimes see images and wonder what the photographer was trying to show. Early in my career, I would cover a news event and would come back to the office, only to hear the photo editor say, “Well, it looks like you went to a fire.”

The sarcasm was the editor’s way of telling me that I needed a more defined point of view.

Peak action or emotion are great verbs for our stories (such as in my photo of a man being arrested, below). And yet sometimes, the verb can be as simple as the word “is.” Even a photograph of an inanimate object can have a verb.


Simplify Your Story

Make your subject obvious. Whether with a wide or telephoto lens, guide the viewer’s eye to the subject. Telephoto lenses are great tools, as you can often use a wide aperture to soften a background and isolate your subject.

But since you can’t blur a background as effectively with a wide angle lens, you’ll need to place your subject in the right spot, so the viewer can distinguish between the subject and a supporting element.

By focusing on a subject and a verb, you can simplify your story. The photo should tell your tale and nothing more. Eliminate everything that doesn’t need to be there.

One Response to “The Best Photos Have a Subject — and a Verb”

  1. Excellent advice!

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