FINDING SUBJECT: THE CHALLENGE OF THREE

Subject is everything. Without subject, there can be no photography.

Finding subject can be frustrating. The serious student of street photography knows that subject is everywhere. Subject is lying around outside and it is also inside the photographer’s mind. Everything we have witnessed in life or have learned is tucked away in our subconscious. We use all this accumulated information and emotion, combined with the situation, to build subject from these bits and pieces of life that make up our daily world.

Instead of walking around looking for subject, why not try to build subject from all the various elements, factors and details that are found anywhere? The brain and imagination must be trained and conditioned to notice these elements and details and how to put them together in some logical manner so that the viewer of the photograph is emotionally affected or moved by the image.

In my workshops, we play a Challenge of Three that I designed for photographers to keep in shape. In this challenge, photographers exercise their ability to use my Five F’s System (finding, figuring, framing, focusing and firing) to find and photograph a subject very quickly and quietly. The photographer must include at least three things when building subject. These three things must be either visible in the photograph or must be something that the photographer was thinking when the photo was made. The back ground, the foreground and their relation to the center of interest, must be established visually.

Instead of looking for a whole subject, the photographer can now look for bits and pieces of a subject. A small detail can lead to a powerful photograph when it is combined in the frame with other relevant details and factors. The challenge is to find simple subjects quickly, quietly and effectively, using only the details in the subject area and the photographer’s vivid imagination to arrive at simplicity of expression.

I made these photographs during my recent New York and Chicago workshops that were held in April and May to demonstrate to the students how to build subject and then how I can get in close to photograph the subject without disturbing it with my presence. These photos demonstrate how I used Challenge of Three during the workshops. The Challenge keeps us warmed up, conditioned and sharp, so that when the big event or moment comes along, the photographer will be ready to react instantaneously to the opportunity.

1. The three things in this photograph that I wished to combine are the portrait on the wall, the man and his glasses. The glasses are relevant because it shows that he took them off in order to better see the portrait. All three things go together to create this subject. One of the important parts of this photograph is not visible, the fact that the man has removed his glasses for a better look. All of the factors in a good photograph do not have to be visible in the image

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. The comical nature of the man’s white feet combined with the child walking through the water in the background are included to create an entertaining photograph. I placed the focus on the center of interest, the legs and feet. I included the child in the background  but kept it out of focus so our eye would go to the man’s legs first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. I had noticed the boy doing handstands and waited for this instant, when the boy’s spread legs framed the girl in the background. The timing and framing of this shot were important, as was the placement of the focus on the boy’s legs. I wanted the viewer to see the boy doing a handstand first, then his sister in the background. When photographing strangers at close range, it is important to be careful about not disturbing the subject. A big smile on the photographer’s face always helps smooth the waters of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Two frames are visible in this photo. The window on the right has a man looking forward into life or backwards at life, while the child jumps through another door, or frame, without caring about the past or the future. The third element does not have to be visible; in this case it is the relationship between the child and the man. Darkness, light, black and white and square or rectangular frames were combined to form a visual mood.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. The back of a junkman’s truck can be a special place to build subject from the junk. Diagonal lines, forms balance and light and placing the camera in the most effective spot, turn junk into abstract images that captivate the viewer’s imagination. This is a subject that requires a vivid imagination and a skill in quickly perceiving the details and forms that give the photograph meaning. We can find beauty anywhere, even in the back of a junkman’s truck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6. The mother and child, the boats and the arm gesture of the mother, all add up to a special moment caught by the brain and camera to evoke a warm feeling. I moved in closer to eliminate some distracting elements (other people) in the foreground. Using a vertical formal also eliminated distracting elements. The question is always, what are we selling? What do we need in the frame to sell it and what must we eliminate from the frame that which is distracting to the image.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Jim Sparks May 30, 2013 at 6:09 pm #

    John,
    I discovered your youtube videos while looking for something else. I am 75 and returning to photography after a few years absence. My first pictures was an Argus C3 in Lebanon in 1957. I liked your train yard pictures and it reminded me of when I ran away from home when I was about 12 to Los Angeles, this was in 1950. I stayed in a hotel near the Greyhound bus station, skid row back in that time. A cupola years later I ran away to Chicago and lived on N. Clark street, another skid row. I think this acclimated me to the people and the environment that made me grow up with an attitude of being more comfortable in a whore house than in a church.
    I’ve heard that one of the keys to street photography is being invisible. To me that means nothing more than liking and being comfortable around the people you shoot. Certainly if there was any animosity on your part people would pick up that vibe and make you stand out. Be like everyone else.
    I wish I could take one of your classes but finances (SS) and distance preclude that. I would love to hang out in whatever skid row LA has now. Not interested in taking movie star pictures. I’m more comfortable on the wrong side of the tracks.
    Thanks for the great videos, I will keep watching.
    Jim

    • John Free May 31, 2013 at 3:58 am #

      Thanks Jim. I like your style. Yes, being part of the crowd is best for me. A good smile and attitude really help me get close. I wish we could meet and talk. John