The simple secrets of the single subject shot

Cabbage - the single subject photo allows an in-depth study of the subject

Cabbage – the single subject photo allows an in-depth study of the subject. Getting the shot to work is a matter of how you present it.

Working with one item in a picture helps you get deep into the concept.

Using almost any perspective, you should be looking to bring out the character of your subject and explore its nature. To portray your subject well you should think of these simple ideas.

A while ago I asked members of the 365Project what I should consider when doing a single subject photograph. The ideas below are developed from that discussion.

Background

Many simple subject shots have no background. Put the subject into the centre of the viewers vision and fill the frame. My cabbage (above) is an example. However, if you have got a background make it simple. This is a great way to use a high-key shot. A bright featureless background throws the subject right into the foreground. The bright background highlights the subject and focuses the viewers attention. Alternatively, dark backgrounds can be good too. Remember that they also need a bright subject to carry them off if you are exploring the nature of your subject, and not just portraying its moodiness.

Focus, Lighting, colour and Texture

In a single subject photograph you explore your subject. The character of something is shown by its shape and form. Lighting and colour bring out the shape and form by exploring the shadows and textures. Lighting is key to the success of the shot particularly by creating texture. Remember, as you take a low angle of light across the surface of something you create more texture. The light and shadows are longer and darker with a small angle. Pay attention to the lighting and colours that make that texture stand out. Really accentuate the contrast of light and dark as well as colour variation.

Perspective or the angle of viewing

Perspective is particularly important in single subject shots. It is easy to make a single item look flat – especially if it has little surface texture. Consider what angle you photograph your subject. Try to show its perspective – the diminishing size with distance from the eye. If that is not possible show the form by exaggerating curves or by capturing angles.

Normally many of the objects we look at are seen from above. It’s natural really since we hold things in our hands and look down. To bring out the character of your piece viewing it from a different perspective helps to highlight its character. You are forcing the viewer to look at it in a new way. Show it from below. Or take a shot from the side – any angle showing shape and form which is different to a normal view. Try to show how the subject varies its shape with distance from your eye. Exaggerate it if necessary. I find using a wide-angle lens in close up often brings out the shape and perspective fully. You will need to experiment.

Composition

Filling the frame is not essential. The rule of thirds is a great way to display simple shots with one subject…

Composition is important to draw the viewer into the image.

'Rule of Thirds'
A powerful compositional tool.

Other placements work too. Normally central placement in a scene is boring. In single item shot a central placement with a square crop is quite fashionable at the moment. Try anything to increase the interest value and draw the eye.

Don’t show it all

A feeling of mystery is a great way to pull the eye to a subject. Consider cropping your subject hard so that some of the shape, form and texture of the subject is left to the viewers imagination. You don’t need to show the whole subject for it to become alive in the viewers mind. Unless you intend it, be careful not to create an abstract when cropping hard. A single subject photo is about your subject. An abstract is about the attributes of the subject. Often the eye cannot see the whole subject in an abstract and people may not know what they are viewing. This would not be showing the character of the object. It is a fine line. What you are intending to show should be clear. That is the key to success.

My thanks to the members of 365Project who contributed to this discussion and to my thinking on this subject. The discussion on this, including some excellent example pictures is still available. Please do visit: Single subject photographs External link - opens new tab/page.

5 responses to “The simple secrets of the single subject shot

  1. A most interesting article. I had never really considered the background very much when doing a single subject shot, just used what was available! I do use the rule of thirds quite a lot but have not really done a close crop either. Will be doing some experimenting over the next few days!

  2. This is wonderful! Love the single subject photos … one has to observe the textures, lighting and depth of subject! @karenann

    • Damon (Editor)

      Hi! Great to hear from you. Thanks for commenting. Lets see some of yours now… go for it!
      Damon

  3. I was just telling a fellow 365er about the rule of thirds yesterday. I think it’s a great tool for single subject shots. Our natural tendency is to put everything smack in the middle. But it’s so much more interesting to move the subject around the rule of thirds grid and give it some dimension. Centered subjects are static unless they have lots of detail- like the center of a flower. Great article!