What Makes a Photograph Interesting? 5 Ideas on How to Choose a Photographic Subject

I was once exploring photos from other photographers while browsing a photography forum when I came across a rather interesting post. Someone had posted a photograph and requested a critique of the shot. The post was interesting not merely because of the image but because of the conversation taking place.

While I think the photographer created a decent shot, there was one who commented that the photographer shouldn't have taken the shot in the first place since the subject wasn't interesting. This sparked a discussion of whether or not subjects have to be interesting before you photograph them. The opposing side argued that it’s all about how the photographer presented the photo and not if the subject was interesting to begin with. This made me curious allowing me to think of my own thought process when it comes to shooting different subjects. It also made me wonder – why do we shoot what we shoot?

Spring ball
Photo by photophilde

Subject Interests and Standards

So what makes us choose subjects? What makes us shoot what we shoot? Some like landscapes, wildlife, or nature, while others are interested more in people, street scenes, and architecture. There are quite a lot of genres out there but most of us don’t get to shoot them all.

Our personal preference as photographers defines the images we take. What interests us may not interest others and vice versa. The mere fact that we don't take photos of absolutely everything we see only means we are picky with our subjects. We only like to capture things we like to see – subjects that are interesting to us. But while one wildlife photographer may see one bird interesting, another might see it as a useless effort. This can be a result of many things.

Here's one example. A new photographer on his first visit to Hawaii will find Pacific sunsets very fascinating compared to a local Hawaiian photographer living right across the beach who might find it nice but quite usual and common. The interest may be there for both photographers, but the level of excitement will differ and will determine whether or not the photographer will take the shot.

solitude
Photo by rich_f28

With my story, the one who commented may argue that uninteresting subjects should be avoided, but I would like to believe the photographer who shared his image for critique found something interesting in the subject and and that's why he captured it. The only problem is that it didn't look interesting to some or he wasn't effective in making it stand out. This leads to another question – How do I find or shoot subjects that are interesting to others too? Let's quickly look at five considerations:

1. Is the subject common or usual?

Part of the objective of the photographer is to get as much people to appreciate what they capture. Yes, we can't please everyone but it's a good goal to look at the standard of the majority, or specific people you wish to target. Ask yourself the question – Even if this looks interesting to me, does it look interesting to the people I want to show this to? Like the Hawaiian sunset example, if your target audience sees something they normally see, they would more likely think it’s uninteresting.

Here’s an experiment you can do. Find some travel photographs featuring your own town.  Afterwards, find and compare some travel photographs of a foreign place with a totally different culture from yours. Without looking at how well the photographer took the shot, which subjects interested you more? I bet it's the foreign place. The more uncommon and unusual it is to people, the more interesting it is.

Meet Mike
Photo by Fred Mancosu

2. Is the light interesting or is it poor and flat?

Even the most fascinating of subjects can be considered a waste with poor and flat lighting. Imagine being able to spot a beautiful rare bird but it’s hidden under the dark shade of a barn. While taking the shot would probably earn you points for spotting it, being able to showcase it for exhibit is out of the question.

Beautiful light results in beautiful photos. Serious landscape photographers understand this concept and this is one of the keys to their success. They know that there is a big difference when it comes to time of day because of the light. One can take the same scene but with different lighting conditions and one can stand out while the other can get lost in the rubble.

Bird and surfers
Photo by Melissa Wiese

3. Does the subject’s form make it obvious?

What’s the difference between taking a photo of a car from the front and taking a photo of it from the side? A subject’s form can make it interesting or uninteresting. A box is just a square when taken directly from the front. It will only look like a box with a 3-dimensional form when you choose to capture it at a certain angle. Perspectives make a difference.

Here’s a challenge. Get the most uninteresting yet accessible object you can find. Without moving the subject, take 50 shots of the same subject and find a perspective that will make it more interesting. No two angles should be alike. I bet that you’ll make that subject look interesting in one or two of the 50 images just because of the difference in form and even in lighting.

4. Is the story or the message clear?

Clarity of story is important. When you see something in a subject like a pretty smile, some texture in the bark of a tree, or a raging storm across the horizon, it doesn't mean that it would immediately translate into viewers being able to see what you saw. This is where the understanding and use of effective composition takes place. In other cases, post processing for enhancement (not for added effects) is necessary. The more you are knowledgeable about composition and the elements of design, the more you are able to make your message clear.

Jemaa el Fna night markets
Photo by Scott Presly

5. Is it presented in an interesting way with the right background?

Choosing subjects isn’t just about main elements. Subjects will look more interesting with the right presentation. Although it seems we’re talking about composition, sometimes we have to look into the character of a subject and if the background compliments it to create a stunning presentation. Does the subject create a certain contrast with its surroundings? Or does it blend in? Subjects will either stand out or shrink back depending on the environment they are in. A photo may work compositionally but the right background elements can even heighten the interest of a viewer. Looking out for those background elements can help make photos more interesting.

Have you been shooting uninteresting subjects? I believe you haven't. It is a photographer's instinct to shoot only interesting subjects. Either that or they look into making uninteresting subjects look interesting. The decision is up to the photographer. The photographer creates that result.

Further Resources on Choosing Subjects

About the author

Karlo de Leon

Karlo de Leon is a travel and lifestyle photographer. He has a knack for understanding how and why things work, taking particular interest in lighting, composition, and visual storytelling. Connect with him on Twitter where he shares his insights, ideas, and concepts on photography, travel, and life in general.

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