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Lesson 1: Know Your Subject

All pro photographers already know this, so we thought we’d let you in on the secret, too: The most successful photographers know their subjects inside and out…always! What separates a merely good photo from a spectacular one is a subject that instantly attracts the eye of the viewer. You can make all of your subjects great, too, if you only get to know your subject right from the start.

Sometimes, the subject of your photos will be very obvious. Examples are a highly expressive face staring straight into the camera, a really photogenic model who strikes a memorable pose, a wonderful fall landscape or even a very dramatic news event.

However, sometimes your subject won’t always be so obvious. If you want to be a good photographer, you’ll challenge yourself by choosing subtler subjects as the stars of your pictures. Examples of subtle subjects could be a person’s furtive glance, a pensive mood emanating from a scene or even the feeling that’s evoked when a viewer looks over your shot.

Am I angry or really happy?? Photo by Markus Krammer

Am I angry or really happy?? Photo by Markus Krammer

Asking yourself if you’re just going after a memorable shot or actually conveying a mood makes all the difference in knowing your subject. In this first lesson, we’ll show you how to get to intimately know your subject to boost the effectiveness of your photographs. Some of the commonest types of subjects fall into the people, food and landscape categories.

Shooting People Remarkably Well

Taking pictures where people are your subjects is one of the most common photographic endeavors. Master this subject, and the doors to mastering other subjects will open.

It’s All in the Eyes

If your subject is a person, then the key to knowing your subject lies in his eyes. Not just the so-called windows to the soul, the eyes are what the viewer will naturally glance at first. Therefore, concentrate on your subject’s eyes when shooting a face. Doing so will help your viewer to appreciate your subject’s eyes as crisply and sharply as he would in real life.

So much expression and emotion is found in the eyes. Photo by Maja Topčagić

So much expression and emotion is found in the eyes. Photo by Maja Topčagić

Rely on a Shallow Depth of Field

A shallow depth of field is extremely complementary to a person who’s your subject. Using a shallow depth of field creates a brilliant effect where your subject almost looks separate from the background. Portrait photography especially is where such an effect can really help you get the most out of your subjects! A wide aperture—say, F2.8—is ideal in creating such a wonderfully effective shallow depth of field.

Don’t Be Shy About Getting Close!

Photography can be quite intimate, so you should never be afraid of getting right up close and personal to your people subjects. This will help you skillfully evade a serious-but-common error of too many photographers: They fail to be physically close enough to their subjects. Knowing this is what separates the pros from the amateurs!

Getting up close and personal to people is the key to getting great shots from your subjects. Photo by osscstuttgart

Getting up close and personal to people is the key to getting great shots from your subjects. Photo by osscstuttgart

Getting cooperation from your subjects shouldn’t be a problem—if you approach them properly. People love being the center of attention, so chances are good that most will gladly comply to be the subject in your photo. Explain to them why you want to take their picture…joke around with them, if you must. Break the ice, and you’ll get cooperation. You may want to practice with people you’re familiar with before approaching total strangers. You don’t want, after all, to let your would-be subjects get the impression that you’re uncomfortable doing this!

Shooting Food Remarkably Well

Shots where food is the subject are a different beast than those where you’re just dealing with regular people. You’ll have to learn a new bunch of rules to know your food subjects.

Shop for the Freshest Food

Getting the best food shots starts way before the start of taking pictures; it begins at your local grocery store. If you’re working with anything like produce or eggs, you’ll want the freshest you can find because they appear the most vibrant in pictures. In the case of eggs, for instance, the freshest ones feature the most stable yolks. If you’re taking a dramatic shot of a raw egg being dropped into a frying pan from its shell, a fresh egg’s yolk won’t break, thereby providing a much better shot than a stale egg with a runny yolk!

Fresher foods will show up a lot nicer in pictures. Photo by Natalia Lisovskaya

Fresher foods will show up a lot nicer in pictures. Photo by Natalia Lisovskaya

The food is the star. Therefore, your edible subject must be the main point of the pictures you’re snapping. Sure, garnishes and other props are highly useful, but they’re just the supporting cast in any food shot. Knowing your edible subject means making the dish itself the focal point of your food photographs. By focusing close to the front edge of your dish, you automatically draw the viewer in to the rest of your frame. One tip professional food photographers enjoy offering again and again is picking out the so-called “hero” of your food shot. This is the specific food—a delicious raspberry, a tantalizing trail of melted ice cream, etc.—that appears to be what you’d most want to eat!

Create Height!

Height is your best ally in food photography because flat food fails to look anything close to appetizing. Creating height in foods is especially necessary when you’re working with subjects that are boring foods, such as soups or spreads. These types of foods are boring because they are flat. So how do you make foods like these flat ones look exciting and highly desirable? You create height by adding garnishes to them. For instance, a small amount of sour cream or a deck of fresh herbs can build height on your soup that turns it from a boring subject into something a lot more appetizing.

Stacking up food so that it has added height is a food-photography trick to master. Photo by Natalia Lisovskaya

Stacking up food so that it has added height is a food-photography trick to master. Photo by Natalia Lisovskaya

Shooting Landscapes Remarkably Well

Taking pictures of landscapes means you have to get up close and personal with the environment. Don’t worry–your pictures will turn out better for it!

Differentiate Between Landscapes

When it comes to taking shots of landscapes, opinion and point of view figure heavily into the equation. Too many photographers make the silly mistake of thinking that they have to travel far and wide to get that breathtaking landscape shot. Nothing could be further from the truth because the best landscape shots will actually be found closest to where you live! How’s that?

Landscape shots like this can be found close to your home. No need for extensive travel! Photo by Cuba Gallery

Landscape shots like this can be found close to your home. No need for extensive travel! Photo by Cuba Gallery

You’re intimately familiar with the scenery in your neck of the woods, so chances are that you’ll be able to find the best places to photograph. Further, keep in mind that even areas that seem boring to you will look highly exciting to people who have never seen them before!

If you do want to go out of your way to search for a unique landscape shot, do your research beforehand. You can always use sites like Google Earth for this purpose.

Be Bold!

Don’t be shy about getting your hands dirty or putting yourself right in the path of some inconvenience to get that stunning landscape shot. This doesn’t mean putting yourself in harm’s way, but just pushing the envelope so that you’re out of your comfort zone. You’ll be surprised at how a slightly different angle will alter the entire composition, which is what you want to create a very memorable landscape shot.

To get the best landscape shots, you’ve got to get right into the middle of the action!  Photo by English Tea Store

To get the best landscape shots, you’ve got to get right into the middle of the action! Photo by English Tea Store

Let’s say you want to shoot the water of a fast-moving creek. Don’t be shy about getting your wading boots out and standing right in the middle of the creek to get the most in-your-face shot possible! In another scenario, let’s say that you want to shoot a great rainbow landscape. Well, it might take you lying on the dirty ground in order to see around obstacles and get a clear view of the rainbow.

Change up Your Focal Lengths

Don’t fall into the trap that too many photographers fall into: Limiting your landscape photographs to wide-angle lenses. Instead, be bold by shooting using longer focal lengths. Longer focal lengths will let you get in close to the details like never before. Wide-angle shots will make your landscape’s features—like mountains and trees in the distance—seem small and insignificant. A handy telephoto lens, though, will bring said further objects closer and compress them together more neatly, thereby offering a stronger impact.

Familiarity With Your Subject Is Crucial

The first step to becoming a great photographer is becoming intimately familiar with the subject you’re shooting. If you don’t do anything else, just focus on getting to know the subjects you’re taking pictures of…and watch how quickly the quality of your pictures will improve!

How intimately do you know your subject?  Photo by Valentin Blokh

How intimately do you know your subject? Photo by Valentin Blokh

Some of the commonest subjects are people, food and landscapes, so start with these three subjects to become a great photographer. Note that every subject category is different; you can’t apply the same rules and principles for, say, people photography, to food shots! That would be ludicrous. It’s imperative that you take care to approach every subject with the individual attention and sensibilities that it requires.

Stay tuned for the 2nd lesson in this convenient email course…where we’ll show you all you have to know about focusing tips!

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