The Power of Shooting Abbreviated Subject Matter

Less is more. We always hear that, don’t we? But how exactly does this concept apply in photography? 

Oftentimes it means composing an image based around simplicity, where minimal subject matter exists in the frame and everything that doesn’t communicate the intended feel or message of the image is eliminated. 

Can we take that even one step further?

Yes. In fact, in order to create even more striking imagery, there are times when you even want to eliminate specific parts of the main subject elements themselves, and instead only show what I like to call "abbreviated subjects."

Showing abbreviated (or partial) subjects can be a great way to add power and mystery to a scene. By showing only part of a subject, you suggest the rest of the scene, and thus you engage the mind of the viewer and start them imagining the parts that are missing. They begin to fill in the details in their own mind, and anytime you invoke a viewer to start using their imagination with your photography, you’ve created a successful image.

There are a few basic guidelines about how to do this effectively. First of all, the abbreviated details that you include need to be compelling on their own. And, they need to break off in a natural way, so that the photo doesn’t just look like your lost subject matter is the result of mediocre photographic skills or a bad crop.

Also, in order to use an abbreviated subject and make it work, your viewer should already know what the rest of the subject looks like. You can’t show part of an exotic animal or location if it’s not a commonly known subject. If your viewers don’t recognize the subject, or if they have no sense of familiarity with it, then they won’t be able to fill in the details in their brains, and the impact of your attempt will be lost.

And the part of the subject that you hide can’t be a critically important part of the photo. The overall impact of the image can’t rely on the part of the subject that you’re hiding. That doesn’t mean that it may not be important subject matter in itself, it just means that the part of the subject that you do show needs to be strong enough to carry the image.

Let’s look at a few examples:

In the first shot, we only see part of the mountain. Much of the rest of the peak is hidden in the clouds. We can see the summit and one ridgeline falling down to the right, and that’s more than enough to give the shot power and a sense of place. 

The photo of the skier is another common example of this type of technique. Sure, we can’t even see his skis, but we don’t need to, we know perfectly well what’s going on. In fact, if we could see the skis, then this shot wouldn’t have near the same level of power and excitement.

In the photo of the flamenco dancer, we can’t see the dancers’s face. In some cases, this could easily make for a failed image. However, we have two elements that draw our attention away from that fact, and give the shot the strength it needs to succeed: the dancer’s feet and lower body, which are captured in fierce motion, and the guitar player’s face, which is intently focused on the dancer. We can only imagine what her expression is, and that’s what gives the shot mystery and power.

Finally, in this shot of the trail runner, her legs are lost in shadow. Again, it’s not aways good to cut people in half and leave half the subject in shadow. However, in this case, we know what legs look like, right? We can clearly see that she’s running, and the swinging of her arms and movement of her upper body clearly illustrate that fact. There is a tremendous amount of room for creativity and personal style when creating photos with abbreviated subject matter. With that in mind, though, be as deliberate as you are with any other type of compositional technique. Remember, the less you show, the more you invoke your viewer’s imagination.


Dan Bailey is a professional adventure, outdoor and travel photographer based in Anchorage, Alaska. He just published his first eBook, How to Become a Pro Photographer, a 27-page guide that answers the common questions about what it takes to earn money with photography. Read his own blog for more photography insight, become a fan of his Facebook Page to see news and new imagery, and follow him on Twitter @Danbaileyphoto.

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I prefer to shoot landscapes with a long lens, not the wide angles I have. I like my images as simplified as possible. I used to shoot wide and ended up not being happy with any of the images because there was too much going on, and ultimately, nothing going on in them. When I started shooting them with my 70-200, I started getting images that interested me.

Nice Article!

Good article.  Thanks.