Selecting The Subject of a Photo

Photography is a more complicated art than some people think. While one style of photography is to pose people or things for a photo, I am more familiar with the art of capturing things as they naturally appear.  Even this has more to it than simply getting a good camera and pointing it at anything interesting.  There is a lot to be said about how to manage camera settings, but for now, I’d like to talk about how to select what is interesting to take a photo of to begin with.

Sometimes, this is just about being in the right place at the right time.  In some cases, this is true.  However, sometimes you can have two photographers in the same place at the same time and have them end up with radically different photos.  As a case study, let’s look at a scenario where my father and I stood next to each other and pointed our cameras in the same direction, only to end up with photos so different they were almost unrecognizable from each other.

© 2021 Andrew Lacher

This is the photo my father took.  In it, he has chosen some wildflower seed pods as his subject.  He was able to capture an exquisite level of detail on the plants from having his focus so sharp.  The mountains in the background serve to be just the right shape to give some good framing to the scene and a bit of contrast of color to the greener pasture in the near part of the background.  His result is a photo that is aesthetically pleasing enough to be enjoyable by people who know nothing of the technical aspect of the photo or the botany of his subject.

This is my photo.  If you encountered them randomly in a gallery together you might not even notice that they were of the same location, but putting them side by side makes it obvious.  Where he had made the mountains his background, I made it the main subject of my photo.  This is because I was struck by the most obvious rain shadow effect I had ever seen.

You see, most of my experience with how mountains effects rainfall is in Appalachia.  That is a region that is very wet and so the “dry” slopes on a mountain are still wet enough to support a full forest.  In those spots, you can tell the difference if you pay attention to which species of tree are growing where, but if you just glance at it, you won’t see anything.  That isn’t what is happening here.  Because this photo is from a very dry area, the slight increase in moisture on the western slope facing the prevailing winds doesn’t just cause a slight shift in species, it causes a major shift in the class of plant.  So, even from miles away the difference between the dry grasses and the shrubs is obvious.

It’s that shift in plant life and the rain shadow itself that I was taking a photo of.  It makes my photo a less artistic one and more of a technical recording.  I’m not trying to make something that can be hung up on a wall for all to enjoy (like my father did with his photo), I’m trying to document the distinctness of the local nuances to microclimate and how that affects plant life.

Neither photo is necessarily bad, but they are completely different photos even though they technically contain the same thing.  It’s on the photographer to make the choice of what is worth taking a photo of.  The wrong choice can mean missing an opportunity for a great photo because you were trying to capture the wrong thing.  It’s the skilled photographer that can consistently spot something worth taking a photo of and capture the world around them.

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