Guest Post: “Subject Matters” by Kevin Burns

Today’s post comes from Kevin Burns, a photographer and trumpeter here in Washington, D.C. I asked Kevin if he’d be willing to share some of his thoughts with us here on DC Jazz Photog. I’ve admired his work for a while now, and it just keeps getting better. He has a wonderful eye and always seems to know just where to place a subject in the frame. He expands on the topic of subjects and backgrounds in his post today. Enjoy!



First of all, thank you Jon for inviting me to be a guest blogger on your page. Aside from us both being military big band trumpeters, we share a passion for photography. I’m excited to actually write some thoughts about the topic. Although I’ve had many discussions with friends who share the same interest in photography, this will be the first time I’ve written about it.

As a musician I’ve come to decide that, when talking about music, it’s best to keep to one topic or it can quickly become forgettable to the listener. It’s such a broad creative field. The same goes for photography. There are so many things I could talk about, so I’m going to try to keep this blog to one concept—that being how to handle the subject of a good photograph.

I believe most of my favorite photos have 3 carefully thought out components…the primary subject, the background, and a secondary subject (can be multiple secondary subjects). The management and balance of these components is what I will explore here.


Your primary subject is of course the main focus of the photo. It’s very important that you clearly identify this component, and that its placement is maximized for greatest interest/impact. It may be a person or a thing of course. I generally frame the primary subject fairly tight in my shots. If I don’t it’s usually because my primary subject is actually secondary to the space that it or he/she is in, or shares the space equally as a point of interest.

Mistakes that I commonly see with primary subjects: 1. They are too far away. 2. They are placed poorly in the frame.

The rule of thirds is a great concept to start from. Google “rule of thirds in photography”—this is a fantastic place to begin when placing your subject in the frame. Having said that, rules in photography are like rules of music theory—they can (and should) be broken to great effect.

For examples of my thoughts, I’ll demonstrate mostly using my favorite model…my wife! My first example actually ignores the rule of thirds, and it completely works.

Lena-Winter Coat
85mm, ISO 100, f/1.4, 1/250 sec.

The primary subject of this picture of Lena’ in a winter coat is clearly her gorgeous face. The secondary subject is the fur hood surrounding her face—it becomes its own interesting frame. It also adds wonderful texture. The relative symmetry of the image is what makes framing her in the center of the photo make sense. Otherwise I mostly place my primary subject into the imaginary rule of thirds grid.

125mm, ISO 1600, f/2.8, 1/80 sec.

This photo from inside Notre Dame Cathedral has several wonderful things going on. First my primary subject Lena’ has an amazing genuine look of thoughtfulness and reverence that is captivating. The secondary subject, the candles, tell the story of what type of area she is in and also give off a very nice warm light. The bonus piece to the background was this bright light I noticed in the distance that backlit her hair like a halo when I framed it from a particular angle. If I hadn’t paid close attention to the background I could have lost that beautiful effect.

85mm, ISO 100, f/2, 1/800 sec.

This next photo demonstrates two things: the rule of thirds and a fairly strong balance between the primary and secondary subjects. Lena’ is placed along the left ‘rule of thirds’ line. To place her in the center of this frame would lose some impact and interest. The background of this photo is so powerful it becomes an almost equal secondary subject to the primary. This is why I placed Lena’ deeper inside the background. I would really consider Lena’ and the background both primary in general effect. The ‘secondary’ subjects to me are the smaller components that make your eyes dance around the primary: her dress, her shoes, her sun glasses, her pose, the columns, the marble everywhere, the shadows. (side note: notice I placed her in the shadow of the column for even soft lighting. If she had stood a few feet back the lighting would have been very harsh on her.)


This is SO important, and usually my lead consideration when framing my photos. The background will greatly enhance, or quickly kill, the primary subject and overall impact of a photograph. I love to share a classic example of poor background management when talking photography with friends/family. Using Disney World as an actual example: A family or couple walks up to Cinderella’s castle, the iconic image of Disney World. They are so excited to be there, they are feeling the rush of joy and they want to “capture the moment” with a photograph. They whip out their camera or phone, gather everyone together, and “say cheese!” The whole time I’m thinking, they are going to end up with a picture of the family and only the bench or garbage can near Cinderella’s castle. What they did was focus on their primary subject, and completely forgot the background. They were feeling the moment, but they forgot to place themselves IN the moment. If I’ve seen this scenario once, I’ve seen it a hundred times—in tourist destinations including here in Washington, DC where I live (with all the monuments and famous buildings).

This idea, of background management, applies to EVERY photo you take…no matter what! Be hyperaware of your surroundings when framing a shot. Don’t let the background be dull or a distraction, but allow it to enhance the primary subject. My family and friends know that I am constantly judging my surroundings for photo potential. If I have a camera with me (or even my phone) and I say “hey, come here…stand right here” they know it means I’ve probably scoped out a nice backdrop and they will end up with their next Facebook profile picture. LOL!

85mm, ISO 100, f/1.4, 1/320 sec.

This photo was taken during a casual walk in Old Town Alexandria with Lena’. We came upon this brick fence. I said “hey, come here…stand right here.” I LOVE this type of background, which trails off at an angle behind the primary subject. The secondary subject, which also inspired me to want to capture the photo, is her awesome hat.

70mm, ISO 500, f/2.8, 1/125 sec.

This photo is another example of a random cool background find at a museum in Paris, France during our honeymoon. This back hallway doesn’t say ‘Paris’ at all, but the textures, patterns, natural lighting, and wonderful symmetry (which allowed me to break the rule of thirds), made me instantly say “hey, come here…stand right here!” Lena’ gave an adorable pose, and boom…another favorite photo is born!

50mm, ISO 100, f/5.6, 1/200 sec.

This photo location could have been framed many ways, but there was so much going on I wanted to capture all of the moment possible in one photo. The tradition of attaching a “love lock” on this bridge and throwing the key into the Seine River in Paris was one we looked forward to experiencing. The architecture at the end of the bridge made an extraordinary backdrop, while the locks themselves, the accordion player, and the red beret made for wonderful secondary subjects to Lena’ (who is framed with the rule of thirds).

24mm, ISO 160, f/2.8, 1/320 sec.

Another favorite background we lucked upon was the entry court at the Palace of Versailles in France. Normally this scene would be covered with hundreds of people, but we were some of the last people to leave the palace and somehow managed to own this remarkable space all to ourselves. Obviously not hard to understand why this is an amazing background, but to maximize the impact I dropped the camera down low to the floor and got in the middle of the space and aimed for as much symmetry as possible. Then placed Lena’ in the center while we did various fun jump shots.

50mm, ISO 100, f/2.5, 1/1250 sec.

This was taken from the balcony of the Paris Opera House, looking out onto the square below. Placing Lena’ in the right ‘rule of thirds’ position opens up the background for secondary discovery points like the architecture and activity in the street.


200mm, ISO 125, f/2.8, 1/640 sec.

Obviously it’s not hard to understand how the Eiffel Tower is an easy background for a photo. The point of sharing this image is to show that the more iconic the background subject is, the less you have to show of it. The temptation would be the get the entire tower in the photo…but that would reduce the size and impact of my primary subject. It clearly is the Eiffel Tower, which gives the photo all kinds of added romanticism, but my beautiful primary subject is still the focus.


70mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/320 sec.

This one is for outside-the-box thinking. Get creative! The iconic Arc De Triomphe in Paris is unmistakable, but playing with alternate perspectives through the reflection in my sunglasses (that I put on Lena’) we end up with an image with dual subjects competing with attention inside each other. This image makes me happier than the other standard posed shots we took in front of the Arc.


A good secondary subject, although not always possible or necessary, is like icing on the cake. They are secondary points of discovery in the photo that keep you lingering inside the image. Many times these are unexpected, but are totally worth waiting for. Maybe you’re at an ocean or river, photographing your primary subject, and you see that in about 30 seconds a boat is going to enter your frame. You wait…because it’s worth the secondary subject matter to add bonus interest to the shot. This happened a lot in Paris, because the river is full of boats…so I have several examples. The possibilities are endless, but keep looking for those secondary subjects to spice up your photos.

48mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/640 sec.

This shows exactly my point using the boat reference. I waited for the boat to snap the shot. For me it adds something a little extra to discover beyond the obvious joy of Lena’ making a new doggie friend in Paris.

I happened to take photos of this amazing bridge from the same spot…with and without a boat. You can see the effect above (click to enlarge).

70mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/500 sec.

When I was taking this photo, I was initially annoyed that it was so busy an area that I was never going to get a ‘clean’ shot without the other people. However, I became intrigued by the effect of the secondary subjects, who really do become additional points of interest…they all seem to be posed in a way, but it was just random people in their own worlds.


I think these illustrate the power of a good secondary subject as well. It was lightly raining at the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, and the skies were grey. I tried a few shots of Lena’ with and without her umbrella. I’m so glad I used the umbrella, because as a secondary subject, it became a nice color pop and alternative texture to an otherwise muted color scheme.

70mm, ISO 100, f/2.8, 1/640 sec.

This vantage point of Notre Dame was one I was anticipating after seeing some photos online. I was fortunate to have a bonus secondary subject appear at this spot when a newly married couple was taking a photo shoot. I was able to grab their silhouette in my frame.

50mm, ISO 250, f/1.6, 1/80 sec.

On our very last evening headed home I wanted to capture Lena’ in the Paris metro station. I waited for the train to pass then took this photo.

50mm, ISO 800, f/1.6, 1/80 sec.

Just because it was my last photo taken from Paris and it has a great end of day feel to it, I’ll add this shot of Lena’ coming out of the Paris metro on our dress up date night. What a beautiful un-posed moment from my gorgeous wife.

I’m not discounting the idea that some photography, like some music, doesn’t focus on a subject (or melody), but more of just a feeling. Like I said, all rules are meant to be broken. But at a minimum starting point as a photographer, I think you should clearly identify your primary subject and your background…BEFORE you take the shot. Place your subject with the greatest impact possible. And don’t forget, a good secondary subject, although not always available or necessary, is like icing on the cake. These ideas apply to any camera use, from professional level gear to the camera on your phone.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s