Finding Your Photo “Life Themes”

Learn how to find out what photography subjects and compositions spark your creativity.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

I frequently suggest that you explore your own photographs as well as others in magazines, museums, etc., to discover the kind of compositions, colors and images that seem to attract you the most. And I am frequently asked the reason for doing this. When we look at the photos we make and discover what pulls at us creatively over and over again, it is visual bias that needs to be noted. I like to call these visual biases “Life Themes”. 

I primarily use my life themes as a springboard whenever I am uncertain about what to photograph. For example, have you ever gone to a new location and discovered that you were so overwhelmed that you didn’t feel comfortable making any images? You walked around but just couldn’t settle down. Using a life theme to help you get started is really helpful. I love trees and weeds. They are two of my life themes. Usually I can find trees of some kind in almost any location in the world and weeds are everywhere. Weeds sneak up between cracks in cement or fight for prominence in a garden. I get involved with these themes or one of my others and the next thing I know I am busy creating and observing and having a wonderful time making photographs.

Here is how you can find your life themes and make some interesting discoveries about yourself at the same time.

1. Create a new folder on the computer and title it “Life Themes”.

2. Select at random 50-100 images that you have made and like and make a duplicate copy of the images (always make a duplicate so there is not chance of loosing the original).

3. Save As – Rename Each Photo. This is an important step. Each criterion / photo that you are looking at gets a new name according to what you like about it, such as the subject (flowers, boats, or trees, etc.), a specific color, lines, texture, blur, circles, etc. and place them within the new folder. By naming your images in this manner, they will all group together within the “Life Theme” folder.

4. Most Photographed: Now, once you have your images, tally them so you have an idea of what you really like.

When you view all of your combined images, what else did you observe? What kind of things did you photograph most often? What colors did you photograph – are the images predominantly blues, sunset gold or oranges, spring greens? Do you always photograph vertical compositions with something tall going up the right side or up the left side? Were circles or diagonals more prevalent as composition patterns? Where did you place the subject of the photograph most often? By analyzing and sorting a number of images in a variety of ways you can come up with several life themes with which you will feel very comfortable. 

You may also discover that some bad habits have developed and by seeing how often you fell into the same trap, you will be able to correct some of those habits.

I’m going to show you a few of my images that I sorted out and analyze them for you so that you will see how easy and helpful this exercise can be for yourself.

Discovering your life themes and using that to understand your own personal strengths and weaknesses is a great way of improving your photography and tapping into your finest creative self.


Selecting a life theme involves knowing what subjects really attract you and why. You need to understand the subject and feel confident around that subject. It is believing that when exploring the possibilities of that subject, that exploration alone will trigger your creative imagination.

Trees are one of my personal life themes. I love the majesty of them and how they stand in groups or stand alone. I am always comfortable when beginning to photograph when I start with a tree. Somehow it causes my creative imagination to flow. 

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

I’m not sure why weeds are so interesting to me except perhaps I relate it to one of those meaningless sayings that my mother used and that was “Weeds don’t die!” I love trying to get the light on these so that they begin to look more important and more beautiful. It pleases me when I hear someone say that they never saw it look like that.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Out of the 100 photos you chose as your favorites, what subjects did you repeatedly photograph the most? What made that subject special? You now have now started your “Life Theme Subjects” list.


Where you place your subject in the frame of the photograph can be a life theme.

I like to use more unusual areas for subject placement, like placing the subject in the sides and bottom areas of the image frame. These areas seem to be my bias.

Another life theme of mine seems to be a preference for vertical images. I take a lot of horizontals, but most of my real favorites seem to be verticals.

As I was working on this article, I discovered an interesting bias just now. If you look at the two vertical shots below that are side-by-side, you will see that they are almost identical in their composition. There is a diagonal line running from the lower right corner to the lower left where it meets the horizon. The heaviest part of the image is in the upper right area. I’m going to have to explore this bias a little more. 

When you analyze your images, you too may begin to see repeating patterns that arise from when you made your images.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Copyright © Noella Ballenger


One of my life themes is the exploration of line and I really love diagonals. They seem to add excitement to an image that might not be there if you didn’t find the diagonal line. Whether the lines are vertical or horizontal they just don’t have the same appeal to me as a diagonal.

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Copyright © Noella Ballenger


I love bold and beautiful colors. When I see reds vibrate, they are really exciting. 

Here is a fun exercise for you to try. Work with your favorite color in a location that seems unfamiliar or uncomfortable for you. Photograph as many examples of your color that you can find and you get extra “bonus” points if you can include several examples in the same image. 

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Discovering your life themes and using that to understand your own personal strengths and weaknesses is a great way of improving your photography and tapping into your finest creative self. 

Copyright © Noella Ballenger

Make a list of your “Life Themes” and carry that list in your camera bag. Whenever you have those moments when you say to yourself, “There is nothing here to photograph!”, then you can just pull out your list to help get your creative juices flowing.

Every now and then, repeat this same process. As time goes by, your favorite life themes could be very similar, or there may now be more to add to the list. It’s also fun to compare the new list to past lists. Maybe you’ll find you’ve become very focused on improving on certain subjects, or to the contrary, the list has expanded to include more subjects, topics or techniques.

by Noella Ballenger

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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