Unlike other aspects of composition, subtlety cannot be summed up in one simple and memorable sentence. Where leading lines provide direction and depth, or negative space balances the subject with an empty expanse, subtlety is more… well, subtle. There are many tones of subtlety. It can imply the definition of the subject, or even the masked presence thereof within an image; it can relate to the way other compositional principles and techniques are handled. Or anywhere in between. And, because it is a convoluted concept in itself, most things that count as subtle would qualify for my normal twist at the end…

Subtlety creates a sense of the dynamic, as it entices the viewer to be active in investigating the image: uncovering its secrets.

Subtlety of form (soft focus)

It is easy to dismiss an image that is out of focus as simply being poorly shot. But sometimes, this can be intentional. There may be one detail that is the technical in-focus subject, but the scene is dominated by less-focused elements that give it context. And in fact, it is those outliers that are the real subject, surrounding the focal point.

Morning Glory hours by ben.pearson.007

Morning Glory hours
While the focus in this image is on the cluster of stamens – and when viewed large, there is sufficient detail there to hold interest – this is in reality an image of an entire flower. And therein, the whole is subtle, as it is predominantly out of focus, its edges indistinct, the texture of its form present in hints: lines of differing luminosity extending from the focused heart.

Subtlety of definition (minimalism)

One of the more obvious forms of subtlety is the low dynamic range: minimalism as a result of indistinct elements that need to be investigated and discovered within the image (as opposed to minimalism by isolation).

Nuance by cormend

This image uses barely a third of the available dynamic range, with 80% of the image being within half of that. There is very little scope within the palette to convey detail, and then much of the image is gradient, rather than hard edges between tones at opposing ends of the used spectrum. At first glance, it might appear to be a rather flat grey scene, but there is a great amount of detail to be found within, by those who take the time to investigate.

Subtlety of colour

Minimalism if not just a function of dynamic range. It can also be achieved through a limited use of palette: only a single family of colours. This form of subtlety gives a completely different feel to that described above.

Eggs à la Nabocoque celadon style by NYC.andre

Eggs à la Nabocoque celadon style
While this image may not appear to many people to be subtle in the first analysis, it is. It uses only three tones: grey-white, browns, and orange; the latter being an outlier in the brown family. It is the way the use of these tones are grouped and balanced that provides the image with its strong definition: the orange surrounded by whites, in turn surrounded by the range of softer browns. While there is very limited use of colour, the create stark relief and emphasise the subject.

Subtlety of subject

Subtlety, when applied to the subject itself, comes in several forms. One is the identification of the subject itself; another the hiding of the actual subject within an otherwise blatant scene. These forms of subtlety could be called meta-subtle: the images themselves can be viewed, and appreciated, without the subtlety being investigated. But when they are, there is further depth to be found.


By showing a subject in a way that makes it non-obvious as to what is being viewed – fundamental abstraction, either by it being out of context, or incomplete, forces the viewer to think about it, if they are to gain a complete understanding.

I still got the blues for you by Art Rock (Hennie)

I still got the blues for you

As an abstraction – a harsh contrast of blue and white, an intriguing form – this works extremely well. The offset placement gives it dynamic balance. But the deeper beauty comes in attempting (successfully or not) to discern what it actually is; in studying the implications of the window reflected in its form that tell us it is inverted, and from there trying to imaging the completeness of its shape – what purpose this object might serve: is it just an ornament, or something more?

The hidden subject

This form of subtlety only reveals itself as a result of deeper investigation of the image: where there is some element that stands out, and proclaims itself to be the dominant feature. And yet, it is simply drawing attention away from another element – a hidden one – that once seen, steals the show, and will thereafter always remain the true subject.

sunset 1 by dalinean

sunset 1
One cannot avoid but being captivated by the spread of banded texture in the sunlit sky here. And in itself, it would make for a beautiful image. But it is the direction those streaks lead us that holds the true gem: two silhouetted trees in the corner, anchoring the image: the true stars.

The second subject

In effect, another version of the hidden subject, the second subject is not as absolute: it is about a sharing of subject limelight. The image contains two subjects that balance each other, but where one is not as prominent.

L.O.S.T. by VikasAher

A lost tomb, harshly lit to pick out the two forms lain atop the slab. It is an image that is intensely powerful. And then there is the second subject: the mesh of cobweb that stands between the dead and the light. It adds a further dynamic to the scene, to the point almost, of itself being the defining characteristic: it is the subject which gives meaning – timelessness – to the rest of the scene. A few strands of gossamer…

Subtlety of detail (delicate)

If we combine the subtlety of form that comes from soft focus with a multiplicity of subjects, we can achieve an alternate focus to an image, where the containing scene is no longer the primary subject, but the delicate pattern created by the elements in focus takes precedence. The interplay can become quite dynamic.

Pearls by Pavel M

Pearls, Edwards Gardens, Toronto, October 2011 DSC7166
Within a scene of otherwise soft-focused abstraction, we find here the musical softness of dewdrops hanging on leaves. While the whole is soft, the details of the subjects – the pearls of wetness – stand out in sharp detail… but they populate the scene only sparsely: a subtle presence.

Subtlety of form (implication)

Bringing together subtleties of definition, subject (abstraction) and detail, we have another form of subtlety: implication.

Imitation by missnoma

It does not take a lot of deductive reasoning to see that this is a flower: a rose. Yet this is achieved through the use of only the faintest lines in any detail, edges between tones; a very light palette. We know what it is despite the limited information presented.

Subtlety of message

Imagery is an intricate subject. While it is often said that a picture speaks a thousand words, adding a title to an image can have immediate effects on the essay it writes. The power of words – a title – to redirect the mind to find meaning within an image is a very real form of subtlety.

its a love song by aftab.

its a love song
In itself, this is a reasonably well composed image o some kind of lines, with dew drops on them. But with the addition of the title – “its a love song” (sic) – the image becomes so much more. The word “song” implies music. And from music, we have a stringed instrument. As such, this image can be interpreted in two ways: either as the staves of a score with the due being notes, or as the strings themselves, with those in the distance being blurred not so much by depth of field as by the motion of vibration. Can you hear the note that drifts softly from the image?

Subtlety of chaos

It may seem counter-intuitive that chaos could be subtle. Chaos is, after all, complexity beyond our understanding. But it is in such a mess that we may find subtlety: in the form of details, if we choose to look for them.

[untitled] by Dmfphotography

At first glance, this image does not appear to be subtle. There are countless repetitions on a theme, with the lighting reflected of all those bubbles large and small. Therein, though, is the subtlety: we actually have a three-dimensional view of the lamp, for in one scene we see it from countless angels, albeit all similar. This is enough, however, for there to be differentiation between them. There is pattern within the chaos.

Subtlety in composition principles

Of the composition principles covered previously within this series, there are several that lend themselves to subtle implementation.

Subtle leading lines

In most cases, leading lines are pretty obvious: thy are distinct lines that give an impression of depth. But what if those lines are more implied than present?

. by annemmu

While this image could be said to be a leading line as subject, for it is a road that leads only out of the scene, there are more subtle leading lines within it: in the pattern of potholes, we find direction. The various groupings and clusters of these puddles lead us ever onwards through the image, until they become no more than the dark edges of depressions, continuing in the same direction. And then we have further subtlety of on tire track trying to navigate its way through this chaotic obstacle course.

Subtle curves

As is the case with leading lines, curves – both of the S variety, and others – can be subtly implemented, through implication. It does not take more than a few points for the idea to come across.

Heron Rookery by maclobster

Heron Rookery
The presence of curves within this image is not immediately obvious – hence the subtlety. Rather than being S-curves, in this case, they are framing curves, that create a flow through the image, as would the cut-out of an hourglass shape. One curve is created by the line of the treetops, from the top right corner down to the middle of the left side of the image; the other matches it with the right half of the shoreline extending down to the bottom left corner through the reflection of the treetops. The shape left between these two curves of negative space is itself somewhat S-curve shaped…

Subtle diagonals

It might sound counter-intuitive that diagonals can be hidden within composition, but they can, either through implication or serving an alternative purpose (such as an implied diptych).

আমার বাঁশীওয়ালা by -Dhrubo-

আমার বাঁশীওয়ালা
There is no dominant diagonal line in this image, and yet the composition is clearly diagonal in nature: from the anchoring arm in the bottom left, we are drawn up through her body and face, guided into the top corner by the slant of her eyes and the echo of the recorder’s line.


As always, I will fill out the rest of this article with more examples of subtlety.

gaelic by jenny downing

This image achieves subtlety predominantly through the abstraction of subject, which is itself achieved by (a lack of) focus. There are some elements that are obvious: that it involves either glass or a highly reflective surface, and also from this we can imply roundness of shape, but little more. It is the mystery that makes it so compelling.

up and under by Mauritius100

up and under
While the aquatic diptych has been done many times, the use here of a curved wave and a lack of primary subject subtly turns it into an abstract, with the interest being on the division of the scenes.

Seconds by Frogzone1

I covered the idea of a subtlety of subject and subtlety of focus. But there is another axis to which this form of subtlety can be applied: time. The use of a long exposure to convey the uncertainty of time brings out our innate lack of understanding of the subject. It is a subtle message.

When The Going Gets Tough… by andy_57

When The Going Gets Tough...
This is a fabulously composed and executed image – strong lighting and a clearly emotive scene. The subject – Souveche – is powerful in her distractive form. The diagonal and cut-out triangular composition is well managed. But… she is not the subject; she is but a distraction. Once you see the gun, it hold your attention; Souveche’s form becomes ever more deadly.

দুই পাখি.. by dream_maze

দুই পাখি..
The image of two birds – in silhouette – atop poles is not entirely uncommon. But this rendering of it adds a subtle detail that changes the meaning: we are used to the bids being mirrors one of the other, facing across the scene in communication. But here, the idea is inverted. One bird is entirely flipped, still providing the same body angle, but facing downwards and away. It completely flips the scene…

A subtle twist

As has become the norm for these articles, I add new the 19th: the twist. This time it is subtlety of prominence.

Ripe by sannesu

One might not immediately think of this image as subtle, but it is. It has two subjects that fight for dominance, using very different approaches: the one in focus, the other through distinction of colour. That creates a fascinating interplay, with attention moving ever between the two elements. It is thus a subtly dynamic image.

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