Are You Image Driven or Subject Driven?

by Nikhil Bahl | November 3, 2015

Copyright Nikhil BahlWhen I began shooting RAW files, the processing tools available were somewhat rudimentary. I labored with the early Adobe Camera RAW converter to process my files (Lightroom didn’t exist then), but often felt I could not get the final images to look exactly the way I envisioned them. Part of that can be attributed to my own learning curve. However, the subsequent evolution of Adobe Camera RAW showed me that the software itself was also lacking. Nowadays, I can process most of my RAW files in 2–5 minutes to get them to look the way I want. My proficiency has improved after processing thousands of digital images, but the tools are more sophisticated and the RAW file quality gets better with each generation.

Layered mountains - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

A straightforward image of layered mountains taken with a 300mm focal length. The natural light and color add a lot of interest.

In the film days, processing your own prints required specialized skills in the darkroom. Not everyone wanted to make the investment in mastering those skills, but those who did sometimes created images that went beyond the reality they had seen. Let’s suppose that everyone possessed darkroom skills: I am sure there would have been many people altering the reality of the scene. Whoa. Altering the reality of the scene!

Nowadays, that is exactly what is happening. The software tools are powerful yet relatively easy to learn. Some offer automation or libraries of presets. Where is the boundary between real photographs and computer art? It is impossible for everyone to agree on this because, just like photography, it is subjective. At the one extreme are those who say that as long as you start with a photograph you can do anything you want with it to realize your vision. At the other extreme are those who say if you do any processing to the image, then you have altered reality.

Dew on grass with back-lighting - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

The use of a 300mm focal length, a shallow depth of field, back-lighting, and getting really close to the subject rendered a more interpretive image.

Guess what! We alter the reality in one way or another the moment we take the photograph. Even simple choices such as focal length and aperture affect reality to some extent. Photographers make many such choices to create a representation of reality the way they see it.

Steam on river - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

The image is composed to isolate the geysers and the rising steam by the river; a literal approach.

River with slower shutter speed - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

The same scene is transformed into the surreal by a more interpretive approach of using a much slower shutter speed (20 seconds).

For a long time I was uncomfortable that photography in the digital age doesn’t seem to differentiate between images having little processing and those so processed that the original scene becomes unrecognizable. The question of where photography ends and where computer art begins was ever present in various forums. Photo contests each had their own, different parameters. Even local camera club competitions were inconsistent with the boundaries: some accepted images with any amount of processing while others had detailed restrictions.

Eventually, I concluded that it doesn’t matter whether someone’s image was straight processed or overly processed. I categorized my own photography into two fundamental approaches: subject driven and image driven. My usual approach to photography is subject driven, with the objective being to convey my inspiration by the subject and to portray it in a favorable light. More rarely, I use the image driven approach: enhancing the images with software tools well beyond reality. All photographers can employ a subject driven or image driven approach, but I believe that one approach usually dominates their photography.

Gull eating black skimmer chick - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

Using a 850mm focal length and laying down in the sand, I was able to remove some distractions and isolate the gull trying to eat the black skimmer chick. This may not be a pretty photograph but it does tell the story of predation.

Common terns in flight - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

Using a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second I was able to capture motion in the wings of common terns. The terns are recognizable so the image does not become abstract.

Abstract reflection - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

This image of a reflection has an abstract feel. At ¼th of a second I was able to smooth out any details.

In terms of processing, the subject driven photographer tries to keep their photo within the realm of reality, never altering it to the point where the color, contrast, atmosphere, etc. look unbelievable. The image driven photographer, on the other hand, is less concerned about what the real scene looked like at the moment of capture. Their goal is a final product that portrays their vision. Thus, the processing could involve layering textures and/or other images or taking an animal from one image and placing it into the other. Such alterations might mislead the viewer and be considered unethical if the photographer does not divulge that the image was manipulated and not representative of reality.

Tetons - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

I have deliberately over processed this image of the Tetons to demonstrate an image driven photograph. The image is less about the subject as it draws so much attention to the processing. I realize not everyone will see it this way, but to me the image is over-processed.

Tetons with cloud - Copyright Nikhil Bahl

This is a more subtle image compared to the preceding one. My goal was to capture the rain coming down over the Tetons. In this composition, the focus is more on the cloud and the Tetons are at the very base of the image.

On the subject of ethics, there is also another subset of image driven photographers. For example, some photographers will get too close to a bird’s nest without any care for how their presence is stressing the chick and the parent. Or they will heedlessly trample a bed of wildflowers to get a shot of the one flower that appeals to them. The damage to nature from these sorts of actions is avoidable, but we will leave that discussion for another article.

I have shared these ideas with my recent workshop participants and several other professional photographers, some of whom have even started to use these thoughts in their own instructions and articles. I wanted to offer these thoughts to more photographers and encourage them to think about their own photographic process.

Are you image driven or subject driven? Let me know in the comments below!

About the Author

Nikhil Bahl is a full time professional photographer, author, educator, workshop instructor and environmentalist residing in the Washington D.C. area. Drawing inspiration from nature, Nikhil adopts novel approaches and seeks meaningful interpretations: to create photographs that transcend the commonplace, reflect deeper insights, and convey an enchantment of the subject's beauty.

An offshoot of Nikhil's fine art photography and love of nature is his documentation of wildlife behaviors and habitats. As a volunteer with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, his goal is to portray environmental stories with an artistic appeal, so his photographs educate and motivate about the imperative of conservation.

Each year Nikhil leads several photography tours and instructional workshops in the United States and abroad. His teaching encourages participants to advance beyond ordinary photos and develop their own style and vision. Nikhil is a regular speaker at photography clubs, expos and industry events. He authored the acclaimed eBook, Creative Interpretations and writes articles on the creative and technical aspects of photography.

Nikhil's work has been published in a number of print and electronic media and his fine art prints have been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area, and are part of many private collections.

See more of Nikhil's work at

5 thoughts on “Are You Image Driven or Subject Driven?

  1. I would say that my capture is always subject driven. After all, the picture needs a subject. For rendition, however, I am leaning more and more toward emphasizing the impact of an image as a whole, since it became obvious to me that an image that wants to be memorable needs to convey a feeling and trigger emotions. A clinical rendition of a subject will have a hard time to achieve that.
    When Niépce and Daguerre invented photography it was intended to replace painting for creating images. With plates and film that was not easy to do, though. But that didn’t stop photographers to manipulate images from early on. Today’s technologies only make that a lot easier, and one may say this brings photography to where it always was intended to be. And just as painting evolved to include the abstract and surreal without abandoning it’s “subject driven” roots, so will photography. And that is good.

    • Hi Jens,
      Thanks for your comment! You bring up an interesting point. A photo always needs a subject. That in itself means some part of the photographic process is always subject driven. However, what our audience sees is the final product. A heavily processed image could be considered image driven because it attracts more attention to the processing that the subject itself. Images that are processed “naturally” may convey the true beauty of the subject more effectively. Fact is, there will always be some gray area in the way a photo is perceived. The point of this article was to get people to think about their own photographic process, not to categorize any photos.


      P.S. Lets not forget that an image could still be processed naturally but the photographer may have stressed/harassed the animal to capture a beautiful photo. That is another form of being image driven. Although, the vast majority of photographers seem to be far more ethical in their image capture process.

  2. Hi Nikhil,

    If you want to really go to yet another more advanced level of RAW processing and aren’t afraid of a relatively steep learning curve compared to other RAW processors (although there is tons of free online training available) check out Capture One. You can get a full month trial.

    Nice article!!!

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