Photographs are all about the subject material, right? That’s the part we focus on, the thing that draws our attention. In a portrait, the subject is a person, and in nature photography, the subject could be a tree, a hill, or an animal. It’s the photograph’s main event. Usually, it’s the reason why you took the photograph, as in, you wanted to take a photograph with a particular subject, so you found that subject and spent time designing compositions around it.
But what happens when you don’t have subject material in mind? We all have those times when creativity runs low. The ideas for new and interesting photographic subjects just aren’t coming, so we end up in something of a photographic lull.
Maybe, during times like this, it’s wiser to focus not on what subject material you might photograph, but instead, the setting in which you can photograph it.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say that your normal process for planning a photographic trip is to choose a city. And in so doing, you look through that city and make a list of all the possible subjects you might want to photograph. Notable buildings, particularly interesting looking streets, things at museums that you would like to visit and so on.
But what happens when you have a location in mind, yet no subject material stands out to you?
The key here, I think, is to switch gears a little bit. Instead of making the trip all about the subject material, make it about the setting. Pick a beautiful, versatile location. A good backdrop, one that lets you easily design compositions. For instance, a simplistic landscape where you can place the horizon, trees or other features on third lines to give photographs a nice feel.
Then, go out there with your camera, set up your gear, and wait. Just watch. Let things happen within the setting you’ve selected.
You’ll find that in most places, something interesting will invariably happen. If you’re in the wilderness, no doubt wildlife will wander by at some point. The breeze will stir the leaves, drawing your attention to plants and flowers that you hadn’t noticed before, but can become your subject. The light will shift, rendering everything in different shades.
If you’re in a city, then you can expect different things to happen. Set upon a park bench somewhere interesting. People will pass you by, some of them perhaps worthy of a photograph. Cars will rush past, shop keepers will come and go as they tend to their businesses. This method is all about letting life happen in front of your lens. It’s like watching TV. You’re simply observing, waiting for something that you can freeze in a single frame. When those moments come and you take that photograph, you might just be surprised by the kinds of images you end up with.