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Place your subject in context

An image with a subject and context needs nothing else.


This picture, while attention-getting, is incomplete. The viewer wonders what is causing the apparently-pained expression on the subject's face.
This picture, while attention-getting, is incomplete. The viewer wonders what is causing the apparently-pained expression on the subject's face.

Include your subject’s surroundings and other objects when they contribute to the story that your picture is telling - that is, when they give the picture context.

"Context" refers to anything in a scene, other than your subject, that influences the meaning or effect of the image. Think of objects that provide context as essential elements that your picture cannot do without.


CONTEXT DOES NOT MEAN COMPLEX.

The context need not be cluttered or complex. Simplicity is always best, and deciding what elements of a scene are needed to provide context is often done by process of elimination. Remove any items in the composition that do not contribute to the image’s story, while retaining items that are essential for the viewer to understand the picture.

By including the bear (stuffed, by the way) in the composition to give it context, the subject's theatrical expression is explained.
By including the bear (stuffed, by the way) in the composition to give it context, the subject's theatrical expression is explained.

This photograph has its good points, but it lacks context. You wonder why the can-can dancers are performing in a parking lot. The viewer is missing information and the other elements tend to confuse the viewer.
This photograph has its good points, but it lacks context. You wonder why the can-can dancers are performing in a parking lot. The viewer is missing information and the other elements tend to confuse the viewer.

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY PICTURES HAVE CONTEXT?

If you find yourself having to explain the meaning or circumstances of one of your pictures to its viewers, it is probably missing an essential component that would give it context.

When you have to tell the viewer that the reason the subject looks pained is because his hand is in a bear’s mouth, you know you should have included the bear in the picture.

HOW DO YOU REMOVE UNNECESSARY ELEMENTS?

There are many ways in which you can compose an image so that nonessential objects will not be in the picture.

  • You can move closer to your subject, either by physically doing so, by switching to a longer lens or changing a zoom lens to a longer setting.
  • You can change to a shallower depth of field so that an unwanted element is thrown out of focus.
  • You can select a new camera position so that your angle of view captures only those elements that you want in the composition. This may involve moving sideways or shooting from a lower or higher angle.
  • Sometimes, it may be necessary to physically move an object out of your line of view.
  • Or, your subject can perhaps be moved to a more suitable location.
There are many options. When all else fails, you may be able to place a neutral object in front of the undesired element to block it from the camera’s view.


AN IMAGE WITH A SUBJECT AND CONTEXT NEEDS NOTHING ELSE.

If your image has a subject that is in context, that is all it needs. The addition of other elements will not improve it, and will likely lead to clutter and perhaps even confuse the viewer. Without context, the picture has a subject but no frame of reference, no conceptual structure in which the viewer can appreciate the relationship of objects to each other.

LOOK FOR NECESSARY INTERACTION WHEN COMPOSING

If the scene contains two elements that interact with one another and their interaction is important to the image, then both must be shown to provide the picture with context.

This picture, on the other hand, says it all. There is an audience, and the dancers are now placed in the context of an outdoors performance.
This picture, on the other hand, says it all. There is an audience, and the dancers are now placed in the context of an outdoors performance.

Although the stuffed cougar is the center of interest, the subject is an instructional wildlife class. A tight close-up of the cougar would not tell you any of this, because it would lack the context of the class.
Although the stuffed cougar is the center of interest, the subject is an instructional wildlife class. A tight close-up of the cougar would not tell you any of this, because it would lack the context of the class.

HOW MUCH BACKGROUND IS NEEDED?

You should ask yourself when composing an image whether the background and surroundings will contribute to your picture's message if included in the composition. Oftentimes, they do. Many times, they can overwhelm the subject’s importance if included.

If background and surroundings are not essential, close in on your subject to fill the frame, or recompose so a new view of the background makes a meaningful contribution in terms of understanding the image.


An example of very simple context - where it is obvious that the subject is probably performing in a theater even though you cannot see the theater itself or the audience - can be seen in the picture of the ballerina on the right. The setting, comprised of nothing more than a featureless stage and surrounding darkness, is completely uncomplicated. Yet, these elements provide all the context that is necessary for the viewer to understand the picture and its setting.

The stage lighting, graceful pose and costume are all that is needed to place this ballerina in context. If the audience or stage scenery had been included, the image would lose its simplicity.
The stage lighting, graceful pose and costume are all that is needed to place this ballerina in context. If the audience or stage scenery had been included, the image would lose its simplicity.