The phony subject
The phony subject
Today's topic is the Phony Subject: making pictures more
interesting by adding an eye-catcher which might not be interesting
in itself. This trick works especially well for street scenes and
The Phony Subject falls under the more general concept of the
"Center of Interest." Being a historian by training, I like to go
from the specific to the general, though, so you can consider this
lesson to be about the Center of Interest, although approached from
a slightly eccentric point of view.
Consider the classic tourist picture. It's got an impressive
building, usually in the center of the frame (those of you who read
through Lesson 1 know better by now!). The lucky or enterprising
tourists will rush to the sight at the crack of dawn, to catch it
before the crowd.
While such pictures can be used to show the folks back home what,
say, the Notre Dame of Paris looked like, they're usually pretty
uninteresting photographically. They're pictures of impressive
things, not impressive pictures of things. The viewer is likely to
say, "Wow, that's an impressive church!" but not so likely to say
"Wow, what a nice picture!"
Remember that list of eye-catchers from the Simplification lesson?
Some of the things near the top of the list were:
The idea behind the Phony Subject is that you put an eye-catcher
into the picture and compose the picture as if you're taking a
picture of the eye-catcher, while actually your intention is to
make a picture about the surroundings -- the background, the
framing element, and so on.
The eye-catcher doesn't necessarily have to be something
intrinsically interesting. However, composing the picture around it
can cause the rest of the picture to fall into place.
Here's a picture of an impressive structure with the phony subject
edited out, and next to it, as it was actually shot:
(Of course, if you happen to know the people in question, the
picture has additional interest, but even if you don't, the picture
works better with them in it. I think.)
This is a bit like what J.R.R. Tolkien does literarily. The real
point of the Lord of the Rings is Middle-Earth. Frodo is actually a
pretty bland character, but focusing in on him puts the whole rest
of the world into perspective. If there had been no Frodo, there
would have been no point to the book... and if Frodo had been a
spectacular, super-human, heroic character, he might've drawn the
reader's interest away from what the book was actually about.
In other words, when taking pictures of interesting things, my
advice is: don't try to exclude people, animals, or such.
Instead, try to make use of them. Compose the pictures around them.
Much of the time, the pictures will be a lot better: you'll have
injected humor, life, scale, movement, or context, or a combination
The Phony Subject and street photography
This, in my opinion, is the crux of many very good street scenes.
The people in the scene can be very ordinary, doing ordinary
things. The main point is the setting. The picture is the
background, and the "subject" is incidental... but without it, the
picture just wouldn't work.
Here's a street scene without the "phony subject":
And here as it was actually taken:
Of course, it doesn't hurt that in this case the phony subject
happened to be very photogenic. (Incidentally, the shot was
serendipitous: she just happened to come out of the bakery as I was
taking the picture. And no, my wife wasn't thrilled at being
cropped out, but she forgave me.)
Some things to consider when using the Phony Subject trick:
- Any attention-catcher can work as a phony subject, but people,
animals, and flowers work especially well.
- If your phony subject is in itself photogenic, so much the
better... as long as it doesn't grab all the attention. What was
that "Three K's" rule again, Chuck?
- However, a picture of someone mugging for the camera rarely
works well. It usually makes the Phony Subject seem tacked-on,
artificial, and not part of the scene and it steals too much
In other words, ideally the Phony Subject picture looks like a
candid: the subject doesn't seem aware of the camera.
We've already seen some Phony Subject pictures in these Lessons.
Ruan's Amphitheater picture is, IMO, a splendid example. Shoo off
the dog and wait for the guide to leave, and you have a forgettable
if competently captured picture of a monument. With them, you have
life, motion, tension, and humor -- a good candidate for a
Here's another one... without the subject:
And with it:
1. Do the reverse of what I just did: take an uninteresting picture
of an interesting scene, and make the picture interesting by
pasting in an eye-catcher, sampled from another picture. Don't
worry about technical quality -- this sort of thing is actually
quite hard to pull off. Instead, consider it an exercise, teaching
you to watch for such elements the next time you're "at the scene".
2. Get out of your house and onto the street, and shoot some street
scenes using the Phony Subject Principle. Present and discuss.