I have a photo of a parking lot in overcast, rainy conditions. I personally consider my subject or theme to be the state of the weather and the condition of the quality of the humid air. A friend observed that he thought it was not a good photo because of the cars. I let him know that I did not consider them to be the subject of the photo.

Aren't there some good examples of principals in the photo whom are not the subject? I would think there would be one or a few that have people, but they don't always need to be the subject. Or do they?

Per request, here is the photo in question:

EDIT: in response to many of you here, I do agree that the cars have the sharpest focus. I like to think of them almost as a horizon. My eyes are drawn there, but I then allow my eyes to dull a little to see the difference of what's above and what's below. In this regard, wouldn't the cars be effective as the point of focus?

enter image description here

EDIT: same parking lot, days later, different sky

I have to disagree with the consensus here. Please see the two photos below. Given the advice of many here, it seems the goal of a good photo would be to remove the distractions.

The above photo is the original; below is the crop, less the buildings, cars, and walkway. I would argue, however, that each of them frames the sky, and each shows the effect of the surrounding light. Particularly the walkway immediately in the forefront to the observer. The light is bright here, unusually so for the weather that's closing in.

I still contend that the original image above works as a composite condition of the day, and cropping it in any way will detract from the effect (well, mayyybe I would remove the handicap sign - but I like a little natural framing).

Is there anyone out there that agrees with me? Doesn't anyone think either of these original captures hold merit in expressing the theme of the climate, rather than seemingly presenting subjects that are really irrelevant?

enter image description here enter image description here

  • 1
    I think a photo can have more than one subject. The "theme" or "primary subject" is potentially a matter of opinion.
    – Era
    May 27, 2016 at 14:56
  • 4
    Another way to think about this might be: I have a certain theme or concept I intend to convey; feedback indicates that viewers are getting something else. How can I compose my photos to better communicate that the important aspect of the photograph is something other than the obvious?
    – mattdm
    May 27, 2016 at 15:27
  • 1
    Don't confuse subject of an image with composition of an image
    – osullic
    May 27, 2016 at 19:12
  • 1
    What do you mean @osullic? May 27, 2016 at 21:10
  • 2
    @JasonPSallinger: it would have been about the climate if you just shoot the hill behind the cars. People thend to search for a subject (and a theme) in the foreground object. Right now, in this one there are too many things. The leftmost pole distract a lot, as do the car on the left. The cars are exactly in the center of the photo and are mostly in focus, so they catch what remains of the viewer attention. If the subject of your photo is the weather, try to put the less elements in focus in the picture and maybe include a bit more of the sky.
    – motoDrizzt
    May 28, 2016 at 8:44

6 Answers 6


What they are trying to tell you, even if they don't realise it or quite know the right language, is that the vehicles/people are a major distraction in the image. If what the viewer perceives as the subject of the image is not what you intended then as the artist you probably need to do some reworking or start over.

The objects that viewers see as the subject are leading the viewers' attention away from the thing you wanted them to be interested in. Usually things which have high contrast, colours and sharp edges are most likely to lead us and you can take steps to remove them or lessen their impact on the image. Humans are just tuned to automatically seek out recognisable shapes and see them when they may not even be present (in patterns of random noise, or clouds for example); so you need to remove or lessen their prominence in the image.

There may be some things you can do in-camera for example controlling depth of field to try to make foreground objects more diffuse. You could also look at different viewpoints (high/low positions), angles of view (both tilt and zoom) and your location. With landscapes/skies it's always worth having a polariser in the bag too, they can really make a big difference.

In post-processing you can adopt a reverse-cropping method, where you start with a crop at the absolute tightest fit to the most important item in the image and then expand the area to include areas of interest. Also in post-production you can look at using effects like blur, desaturation and adjusting curves/levels with a mask.

In the sample image the cars are in sharp focus, which immediately draws the eye and aesthetically they have no place being in the image at all. They stand between the viewer and the landscape behind when all you had to do was walk past them and shoot from there to give you the recession, or... for another view, go right up close to the puddle and get a really close-up of raindrops splashing, you're not losing any interest from the sky as it's overcast.

The cars would never make a good horizon or be useful as a point of focus unless they were the main subject. Their shape makes them naturally distracting, arguably they are designed to be seen to help prevent road accidents. They provide particularly contrasty bright and dark spots in the image which can only ever serve to be a distraction if your intent is to present some other aspect of the scene as the subject of interest.

Spend some time thinking about the different angles and distances available to you and how you might represent your subject at those distances. Have a play around and see what you come up with.

  • 1
    While I mostly agree, I would also add that a single person's impression of the photo should be taken with a grain of salt (unless you have a particular reason for trusting that person's aesthetic judgment).
    – Era
    May 27, 2016 at 17:24

I think i can see the point your friend was making. The brightness of the cars and glare from the pavement make the fog and the overcast conditions much less visible. the overcast condition is accentuated in the background much more than in the foreground. Often times the viewer will perceive whatever is in the foreground as the subject. Additionally, they will notice what is most in focus, in this case the cars.


Notice in this photo that the building colors are very bland and dark. The sky here encompasses the entire image and is the largest part of the photo, and it also the brightest part of the image.

Here is a great example of these principles in motion.

  • 3
    Building? Which bui...oh. I didn't noticed them.
    – motoDrizzt
    May 27, 2016 at 16:32

When are people or cars in photos not the subject?

When your composition of the scene draws the viewer's eyes to your intended target, rather than to the people or cars.

If your intent is to draw attention to the wet pavement, then the wet pavement needs to dominate the composition. If you want to lead the viewer's eyes to a specific element in the scene then you have to eliminate as many other possible distractions as you can, The more options you give the viewer to focus on, the more likely it will be that they focus on something other than what you wish to emphasize.

It is perfectly fine for you to insist on including the sky, and the field, and the cars, as well as the parking lot. If you are happy with the image with all of the various elements vying for attention and that's what matters to you the most then the image is fine as it is. Just don't be surprised (or frustrated, or upset) if others see something different in the scene as the main point than what you intended it to be. If it is more important to you that others see the same thing as you want them to when they view the photo, then you're going to have to eliminate the distractions.

Your original composition gives 1/3 of the field of view to a uniformly white sky, 1/3 of the view to the trees/field/cars and only 1/3 of the view to the asphalt. Further, placing the point of sharpest focus on the line of cars at the 1/3 line between the bottom and top draws the viewer's eyes to them as does placing the line of bright cars between the dark foreground and dark field/trees.

You don't need the bright (overexposed) sky. It is a detriment to drawing attention to the wet pavement. You don't need the dark field and trees. They tend to provide balance to the dark pavement on the other side of the bright, in-focus cars. And you don't need to place the point of sharpest focus on the cars, you need to place it in a nearer part of the wet pavement.

In addition to composing much more tightly, as shown below, base your level horizon on the elements in the parking lot (which are tilted due to your shooting position) rather than the line of cars or the distant horizon. What part of an image we see as "level" will also draw our eyes.

You could step just a bit to your left, so that the stripe between the two empty spaces is vertical with no tilt either to left or right. Move the camera position higher and aim the camera lower so that more of the light colored sidewalk in the foreground balances the light colored line of cars in the background. by moving the camera higher you also stretch the distance from foreground to background without changing the distance from left to right. This will show the same area as in the crop below in a more "square" aspect ratio. Use a wider aperture and focus in the mid-point of the vertical stripe so that both the sidewalk and cars are not as focused as the wet surface of the dark parking lot.

enter image description here

  • 1
    I do not like the crop here. I wanted to also capture the effect of the weather on the field and treeline beyond the cars. Please reference my edit in the OP. May 28, 2016 at 15:59
  • If you want to lead the viewer's eyes to a specific element in the scene then you have to eliminate as many other possible distractions as you can, The more options you give the viewer to focus on, the more likely it will be that they focus on something other than what you wish to emphasize.
    – Michael C
    May 29, 2016 at 3:28
  • If it is more important to you that others see the same thing as you want them to when they view the photo, then you're going to have to eliminate the distractions.
    – Michael C
    May 29, 2016 at 3:28
  • I don't like the crop here either. Because the shooting position was wrong to do what you originally stated you wished to do with the photograph. But it serves to illustrate how you can emphasize the wet parking lot by eliminating some of the other distractions in the scene and by using the remaining elements to frame that which you originally stated you wished to emphasize.
    – Michael C
    May 29, 2016 at 3:31
  • 1
    @JasonPSallinger You are confused and trying to argue your way against overwhelming numbers of individuals who don't have a stake in the answer. Your first sentence gives the problem: I have a photo of a parking lot in overcast, rainy conditions. It's not a photo of the rainy conditions. Visually, isolate the subject you wish to emphasize with selective framing called composing the image.
    – Stan
    Jul 24, 2016 at 21:47

In a picture with a theme all of the compositional elements in the frame should visually speak to & support that theme. When you get that right just about everyone who looks at your picture will intuitively understand what that theme is. Additionally, if one finds its necessary to ask such questions in defense of one's theme, one needs to step back & reassess how the visual story might be better captured then try again.


Look at the first sentence of your question and think about why you mention the parking lot before any other subject in the image. Then consider why you mention it at all.

  • Understood. But what holds more interest, the cars, or the lot itself? (the reflective blacktop) May 28, 2016 at 0:34
  • 2
    The cars do. They have the strongest shapes and you placed them in sharp focus to bring them to our attention. If the tarmac is your main focal point then you need to do something to make that show in your image. May 28, 2016 at 0:42
  • 1
    Agreed. The reflective blacktop might provide context or counterpoint to the cars (much like reflections in a lake scene), but unless you specifically emphasize the reflections or the reflective surface, it is just a supporting cast member. The difficulty in your shot is that the parking lot doesn't reflect very interestingly (i.e., doesn't look like there are many good puddles), and even if it did, there doesn't seem to be interesting cloud shapes to reflect. It's just dark grey reflecting light grey.
    – scottbb
    May 28, 2016 at 3:28
  • 1
    @JasonPSallinger: careful, you are probably fooling yourself with words: it's not a matter of interest, is a matter of focusing. The cars are not interesting per se, they are just distracting.
    – motoDrizzt
    May 28, 2016 at 8:48
  • Thank you. I understand the point about the cars being distracting. Please see the response aimed at the group in the OP about my thought on this. May 28, 2016 at 16:00

While the question as asked seems to be aimed at style and composition, there may also be a legal aspect: In some jurisdictions, taking (and publishing) pictures of persons (or even their cars with license plates) may be violating the personality rights of those persons unless they are only "bystanders" and not the subject of the photo.

So let's say you take a picture of some friends waving onto the camera (they are subject of the image) in front of the Gizeh pyramids (they are also the subject of the image) while a number of tourists and locals cross the background (these are not subject of the image even though they contribute to its atmosphere and demonstrate that it's a busy place).

Whether or not one could call the ten cars on your parking lot "bystanders" - I am not sure. They certainly contribute to the atmosphere (like tourists and local at the pyramids) and define the location as parking lot in the first place. But they also constitute a lot of the overall composition (you are shooting between the two cars in front, the other cars are aligned straight across the middle, their reflections are important for the image, ...)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.