On the question "Does this sunrise photograph have a problem with white balance?", there is a comment by Rob:

I know this Q is not asking for image critique and although I like the image I think its lacking composition what is the subject? - is it the tree? is it the shack? is it the sky?

How do you decide the subject when you have to photograph a scene containing a house, tree, row of trees, sky — all together. All of these form the scene all together in my opinion.

Is these kind of cases, it is still necessary to segregate a particular item rather then make appear everything equally important?

Can composition be improved somehow here so that one doesn't feel like asking what is the subject?

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Someone doesn't really have guts to justify why he or she downvoted the question. Maybe the way the question has been worded isn't great but provoked awesome answers. Thank you for that. \$\endgroup\$
    – dzieciou
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 21:03

7 Answers 7


I think you're asking the question backwards.

The subject of a photograph already taken is whatever it contains. It might be a single thing, or there might be multiple subjects, or the subject may be an abstract concept represented by the relationship of those things, or simply that relationship itself. Whether the photograph succeeds in communicating some intended subject to the viewer is a complicated matter — as I've been reading a lot of Ansel Adams recently, I'll quote him:

“To the complaint, 'There are no people in these photographs,' I respond, There are always two people: the photographer and the viewer.”

So, there's that — one of the fundamental questions of art, and indeed of human life in general.

I say the question is backwards because from the second-person point of view — that of the viewer — there can never be a general answer, but only a discussion around each specific photograph. For any given image, what do you see in it? What do you think the photographer saw as the subject? What do you know of the history of that image, and the context in which it is presented to you? Do the objects or people represented have semantic or symbolic meaning to you? Might they have meaning to other people, and is that meaning what the photographer intended? In other words, how does one look at photographs?

The unasked question is that from the first-person point of view — that of the photographer. Here, the question is: what do you want to say, and what subject will communicate that? The subject of your photograph, is, after all, what you make it to be. But then, let me return to the Adams quote. Once you've decided on your subject, your task as a photographer is to communicate that to the viewer, and the roads for doing that are as many as there are photographers.

You can chose to be simple and direct (as is usually appreciated in commercial photography for advertisements or illustration) — or you can be coy and mysterious (a luxury more often allowed in artistic contexts). You can choose to directly tell your viewers what you see (either in words or in straightforward visual language), or you can make them work a bit for it. The latter approach is less likely to have mass appeal (many people won't "get it"), but may be more rewarding for those to whom your photograph does speak — and may be more rewarding for you.

  • \$\begingroup\$ You always manage to express exactly what I'm thinking; better. Must be my English as Second Language. :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alen
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 15:09

I hope this answer finds you in time. Please take time and watch Transform by Zack Arias. Please make sure you watch it completely. It starts off as a joke.

EVERY photographer experiences creativity block, artist block or whatever you want to call it. Most artists are lost in a sense.

And that's OKAY!

One way I get out of the funk: I just stop consuming information and start thinking/creating. Whatever is on my mind. Be in love with the process not with the technical stuff. It's about communication. What do you want to communicate?

enter image description here


To set some context, I can’t see the photo you’re asking about. The linked question links to a site that I cannot access due to firewall restrictions. I’ve assumed that you’re the photographer.

What can be identified as a subject in a landscape photograph comprising of things which are equally important?

The photographer determines the subject of the photograph. If all things are equally important, to the photographer, then there is nothing wrong with them being the subject of the photograph. The question seems very similar to asking how to identify the subject of a family portrait. Is it the dad, the mom, the baby? If they’re all equally important, then the subject is the family. However, an individual within the scene could be more important to the photographer and could be emphasised as the subject by changing the composition (framing, lighting, DoF...).

How do you decide the subject when you have to photograph a scene containing a house, tree, row of trees, sky - all together. All of these form the scene all together IMO.


Is these kind of cases, it is still necessary to segregate a particular item rather then make appear everything equally important?

No, if you as the photographer like the scene as is, you don’t have to decide to emphasise a particular object. If the collection is the subject and it works for you, that is what is important.

Can composition be improved somehow

Most photographers are going to have a different view on what makes great composition, each individuals perspective will suggest some change to a photograph that might have made it sit better for them. That doesn’t mean the photograph is wrong, or that they’re right. It just means that people like different things.

here so that one doesn't feel like asking what is the subject?

Almost certainly not. Somebody, somewhere, will eventually ask what’s that a photograph of, where is it, why did you take that photo. People have different tastes / likes; this is particularly true on the internet where cultural differences can have significant impact. There are few landscape pictures that are going to touch somebody that doesn’t like landscapes. Whilst it’s an admirable goal, it’s not going to be an easy one to achieve and I would suggest is likely to stem from you doing something that takes them by surprise.

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "asking how to identify the subject of a family portrait" \$\endgroup\$
    – Nir
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 7:50

From the description the photographer left

It was just before sunrise and the atmosphere and the colors were great; I didn't know the area but the tree looked so beautiful with this circular fog-patterns around it.

I would say the subject was indeed the tree, and looking at the image there are other "guides" to emphasize the tree.

If you draw in leading lines and third guidelines you will see the base of trees on the left and right form a triangle with the point of it pointing directly at the tree(leading lines). The wooden shed on the left just fills the frame and adds a bit of atmosphere imo (without it I doubt the image would have looked as good.)

The third guidelines will show that emphasis was given to the sky (it has two thirds of the frame) thus emphasising the dramatic nature of the scene, it also makes the tree stand out more due to the high contrast between the dark leafless tree and the light colourful sky (the contrast adds to the dramatic effect)

The mist underneath the tree also makes the scene more dramatic by making your eyes swirl around the tree.

So in summary. If you cannot figure out the subject there usually are some factors that will draw your eye to certain point in an image which will emphasize the main subject.

ps. I couldn't find the copyright licence so I did not use it.

pps. I am no pro this is my comments and just what I see. Any improvements/corrections/comments are welcome

  • \$\begingroup\$ I realize I had asked a specific question on a subjective matter, but thanks for your description. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 8:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ "the subject was indeed the tree" - Sometime it's not about the visual stimulus but about emotion photographer felt when creating the image. Everyone is too focused on the technical parts of the image. How about: does the image remind you of childhood memory, dream, does is invoke certain feeling, is it pleasing to look at? Etc, Etc, I can go on! It's sometimes hard not to think about technical stuff, as photographers we want to impose our own reasoning for the photograph instead of just accepting it. And most importantly, just, enjoying it! \$\endgroup\$
    – Alen
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 14:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Anisha, I hope it helped, I tried my best to use the photo to show possible "factors" that will help identify the subject. I agree with @Alen that sometimes the emotional aspects of photos or art is more important than rules, guidelines or even realism. It all depends on the message or feeling you as a photographer want to relay. \$\endgroup\$
    – fluf
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 14:52

Why do you think one of the object in picture is the subject?

Come to think about it why do you think a picture has to have a single "subject" to begin with?

It's possible to compose wonderful pictures where the entire point of the picture is the relationship between "equally important" items in the picture, or a picture that is only interesting because something is missing, or maybe the shape of the white space between items makes the picture, or it may be the lighting, or one of a million other things that are not a single item in the frame, or a combination of multiple factors - hope you get the point.

Let's take an example from a different but related art form, if we have a painting of 3 geometric shapes arranged in a pleasing way - what is the subject of the picture? does the picture is in any way less pleasing because one of the shapes is not more important than the others?


I think that @Anisha is reflecting a tendency in photographic discussions to try to unearth rules and principles.

This is very helpful in helping us (beginners and experts) to better understand what we are doing and how we might "improve".

However, I think such discussions often make us sound as though we have fallen into a trap of making these rules our goal. In reality, we ( I! ) only occasionally fall into this trap.

I really think that by understanding what is "wrong" (forgive me, Anisha) with Anisha's questions we should be reminded that our best work is not done when we are trying to follow rules or other people's ideals, but when we create - that is, make an image from our own subconscious drives. ... And that we should thank her for it!

I hope you will forgive me if I'm being overly philosophical


I think I will respond with an answer at the risk of it being wrong - since its my fault that Anisha asked it

I agree with jrista - the rules are not hard and fast - they are just guides to help channel all that creative talent that sometimes needs to be harnessed - this doesn't mean we as photographers need to act like mathematicians

With that said though looking at the original image - and this is my opinion - imagine how different that image could have been if the tree was singled out with that stunning mist and background - personally I think it would be my cup of tea but not anothers.

Anisha - next time your out with the cam take a few landscape shots - then go back to where you started and get lower, single out subjects and generally take time to frame your shot - then get home and compare - see what style you liked.

  • \$\begingroup\$ OK. I think your first paragraph says what I was trying to say better than I did. I should have read all the answers before diving in. \$\endgroup\$
    – AJ Finch
    Commented Apr 11, 2012 at 12:07

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