Camera Position 49 : Know Thy Subject

In order to make photographs that are meaningful, it really helps to know your subject in intimate detail. In this episode, I talk about subject research, and about how knowing your subject can be one of the best paths to good photographs.

Gubbio, Umbria

Gubbio, Umbria – Photograph by Jeff Curto

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8 thoughts on “Camera Position 49 : Know Thy Subject”

  1. Keep meaning to write something to let you know how great this stuff is. I have found your podcasts a great help to my own personal photography and wish to thank you for the time and effort you put into this.
    I have also listend to your history of photography podcasts, wow!! i never knew i would enjoy history so much.

    Thx Derren.

  2. Thanks, Derren, for your comments! I’m glad that you’re listening and glad that you’re finding the podcasts useful. I get that “didn’t know I’d like history that much” comment all the time. I think it’s because for most people, it’s the first time they’ve seen history through the filter of something they are already interested in. I’m glad you’re listening to that content, as well!



  3. Jeff,

    I began listening to your podcasts after I you guest-hosted Tips from the Top Floor and haven’t missed an episode since. I appreciate your approach and content. I love your work, and am envious of the number of trips you have taken to Italy – one of my favorite places.

    I am interested in your choices for the cropping, tonality and camera positioning for the images you used in this podcast. I wonder if you could discuss them a little bit?

    For instance, in “Montepulciano, Toscana,” the tones are all very bright except for the shadow in the lower right corner. Why did you decide to leave the image so bright, rather than decrease the gamma so that the surface textures of the wall and column would be more apparent?

    How did you arrive at the framing or cropping for “Gubbio, Umbria?” I see that you used the rule of thirds to place the vertical elements of the structure, but I’m wondering how you decided how much of the first step elminate from the frame?

    How did you decide on the framing/cropping for “Perugia, Umbria?” How did you decide how far above center to place the architectural detail at the top to balance the shadow on the left?

    I am often flummoxed by such decisions, and would be most interested to hear what went through your head in making these decisions.

    A suggestion for a future podcast: High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging. I’ve been playing with it recently. It is a cool technique for the right subjects, but certainly presents the opportunity for ridiculous overuse. I’m wondering what your thought on it are.


  4. David;

    Thanks for your comment and thanks (I think) for all your questions.


    They are all good ones, but I’m not sure if I have good answers for them. The composition questions are often the toughest ones to answer because it’s something that I think happens intuitively rather than by any sort of conscious design or thought process.

    In our curriculum at the college where I teach, we used to have a course called “Compositional Structure” (now subsumed into other courses) which purported to teach compositional principles and ideas for photography. It was a class that I taught quite frequently. At the outset, we’d spend time looking at the “rules of composition” and look at ways that photographers employed those rules.

    As the course went on, we’d spend more time talking about poetry and listening to music and reading about photography and… by the way… looking at photographs. Most were student photographs and we’d look at them and crop them and try to improve them in some way. The idea, of course, was not only to teach seeing, but also to teach how seeing comes in many different ways. Tuning yourself up visually and emotionally is about 9/10 of the battle.

    What was always interesting in the course is that, at the end of the course, at least one student would pipe up and say “I wish we’d learned more about composition!” This, of course, would always frustrate me, because he or she had not learned that it’s not about knowing the “right” or “wrong” way to do something, but rather it was about knowing how something should “feel.”

    All of that is a long way round to saying that I made the choices you’ve asked about because it “felt right.”

    The images that David has mentioned can be seen on this web page:

    The Montepulciano column image is light in value because a print of it that light looks, to my eye, like it felt to stand in that place. There is texture in the wall and I could put more of it into the image, but would it enhance the way the image conveys the sense of place and the quality of those objects? On a technical level, this “look” is called “high key” (meaning that most of the values are above middle gray) but for me, the lightness of the image is an emotional response to the subject’s overall feeling. In other words, I wanted you to see the overall design and feeling of the space more than the texture of the walls.

    The Perugia, Umbria photograph is really organized the way it is because I liked that diagonal shadow. I needed something to play it off against, because the shadow wasn’t really going to do anything unless I had another visual element for the eye to rest on. I scanned the surface of the building until I found a place to stand and a field of view that gave me shadow and a bit of detail.

    For the “Gubbio, Umbria” photograph (which is at the top of this page), this was one of those days where photographs were literally just falling out of the sky for me. I must have made 6 or 7 images in an hour in that space…. it’s a very elegant, open place; lots of air between structures. I don’t know if I consciously did this, but I would guess that the close crop on the stairs was to tighten that sense of space up a bit and force the photograph to tell the story of the stairs’ flow upward. I don’t know if I thought of the rule of thirds at all, but I do remember being really interested in the fleur-de-lis at the top of the newel post and thinking that it would look really neat against that cloudy sky. I do remember thinking that it couldn’t be in the center of the image or it would look like a target. I’ll be in Gubbio in 2 days time from when I’m writing this, so I’m hoping for more good things. The weatherman says it’s going to be sunny.

    I might be able to touch on HDR stuff at some point. I’ve had limited success with it, as it does tend to look pretty silly if handled poorly… “look, ma… a really *bright* shadow!”

    Thanks for your comments…


  5. Thanks for a great pod cast. I have been an avid listener for a while now. Keep it up, the more the merrier.

    In pod cast 49 ‘Know They Subject,’ you talked about contemporary photographer Alec Soth. I find his work incredible, especially his landscapes which I am interested in. But the funny thing is, that I don’t know why. Maybe it is the blandness of some of his images. Maybe it is because we can sometimes be subjected to traditional landscapes where ‘the hero shot’ can sometimes take centre stage. You know, beautiful sunrises/ sunset, mountains etc.

    Is there a name for this type of photography. Maybe contemporary landscapes/ documentary landscapes?

    Another person I like is a guy called Derek Henderson. He produced a book called the Terrible Boredom of Paradise.

    Is this the same kind of photography?

  6. Terry;

    Shamefully, I’m just getting ’round to responding to your really interesting post. Pardon my tardiness.

    Frankly, I’m in the same camp on Soth’s work. I love it, but have a tough time figuring out what it is that I love so much. I think in a lot of ways, you’ve hit the nail on the head by saying that it’s the blandness that is what makes it fascinating. here we are, looking at something that we see (or think we see) *all* the time… the sort of “ordinary” stuff of life that isn’t generally considered “picturesque.” And that’s really it; it’s stuff that isn’t beautiful in the traditional sense, but because Soth looks at it in a particularly loving and tender way, it *becomes* beautiful in its own quirky fashion.

    I think a lot of it is tied into the whole “New Topographics” idea; that great 1975 exhibition of photographs at the George Eastman House that highlighted work by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, and Henry Wessel, Jr. All of these folks were involved in a sort of landscape photography that wasn’t really like anything that had come before it, in that it was more involved with manmade stuff than “just” the natural world. The pictures were, largely, not “pretty” in the traditional sense of photographs of the landscape, but conveyed a remarkable amount of information. They also seemed to be not very concerned with being “important” in any way… as if the subject and the picture of it were both not inherently interesting; an oddity in the fine art photo world.

    I think Henderson’s work is in the same camp… oddly “neutral” images of the world that place the idea of photographic importance in the back seat.


  7. Mr. Jeff Curto
    Prof of Photography

    Dear Jeff

    For your students, and with respect to future thinking on
    exposure blending (Photomatix, Lightroom Plug In , etc) to
    see, in the history of fine photographs, examples of HDR beyond the Look Ma, A really *bright* shadow. . .

    For the Love of Light: Vision from 9 Photographers
    Fire in the Cave, Why High Dynamic Range
    in Apogee Magazine

    Warm Regards.
    James W Austin M.A.
    Univ. of Denver

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