How To Take Great Pictures By Isolating Your Subject

Isolating your subject is a really useful technique to simplify and add impact to your photos. In this article we’re going to look at easy ways you can start taking great pictures using subject isolation. Plus, I’m going to show you some examples of it in action! So, why is isolating the subject such a useful technique?

Well, it makes your photograph all about one thing–the subject! By making this the clear focus of the photo using the methods you’ll see below, and getting rid of distractions, all the viewer’s attention is drawn to where you want it. But first, you need to know what your subject is…

Great pictures through isolating the subject
The subject of this photo, the candle, has been isolated by using focus and a low angle – more about this below! Photo by Alan Stock

Err, What Is My Subject?

In order to isolate your subject, you need to know what it is! Easy, right? Sadly, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. If you’re taking a photo of a person, obviously they’re the subject of your image. Or, if it’s of a rose, the subject is the rose. Top marks for you.

But what about when you’re taking a photo of a landscape, or a city scene, or a sports match? When you’re taking a photo, think about what the subject actually is.

For your landscape, is it the panoramic view from the top of the mountain you wanted to catch? Or is it actually the sun reflecting off the lake? Sometimes when taking photos we take a snap of a great view, but subconsciously it’s only one part of the view that really grabbed our attention! 

For your city scene, is your subject the shining skyscrapers, or the mixed crowd hurrying below them? Maybe a combination of both? At a sports match, is it the Broncos celebrating a goal that’s your subject, or did you actually want to focus on the scoring player being congratulated by his teammates?

Question yourself about what the subject of your photo is, then you can look at isolating it.

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Whilst taking photos at Annapurna Base Camp, I realised my attention was always drawn to the pointed summit, making it the subject I wanted to focus on. Photo by Alan Stock
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Once I realised this, I isolated the peak by zooming on it after changing lenses. Out of all my Annapurna photos, this isolated subject shot was one of the most dramatic. Photo by Alan Stock

Isolation Techniques For Great Pictures

Now that you’ve locked in your subject, how can you isolate it? Well, there’s a whole load of ways. The best way to see what works best for you is to try them all out for yourself!

1. Make It Bigger

This is the simplest way to isolate your subject. By making your subject larger in your photograph and filling more of the frame with it, it’s now going to be the center of attention. The easiest way to do this is just to get closer–a popular photographic tip you will hear a lot! If you don’t want to use those legs of yours, or you can’t get closer, you could try zooming. By using your camera’s built-in zoom or swapping to a different lens which allows it.

Although it can seem weird at first, especially when photographing people, take a shot from very close to your subject, then further away. Then review them–which of the two has more impact?

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These two photos are a classic example of how getting closer to my subject produced a better shot. This tame shag sitting on the pier had striking feathers and colors, but on this dull day a regular photo wasn’t very interesting. The busy, high contrast background made for a lot of distractions. Photo: Alan Stock
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By getting as close as possible to the shag without disturbing him, then zooming a little, I isolated his upper body completely. I cut out the other distractions to focus on the feathers and colors that attracted me. The poor light wasn’t such an issue up close, and as a bonus, he decided to nod off allowing me to catch his head nestled into his glorious wings! Photo by Alan Stock

If your subject is still too small in your photo, and the image resolution is high enough, you can crop the photo afterwards during editing.

Some cameras and phones offer a digital zoom (i.e. the lens doesn’t move), but give it a try before you rely on it–sometimes the results are pretty awful. It’s usually better to take a regular photo and crop afterwards than using the digital zoom.

Remember that simply turning your camera 90 degrees from portrait orientation to landscape (or vice versa) may fit more of your subject in the frame. If you use landscape orientation for photographing people, you’ll often have wasted space on either side of them in the frame. Instead, turn your camera to portrait orientation and fill that space with the person.

 

This discreet photo of a Buddhist monk studying was taken at a distance so as not to alert him and spoil the moment. He is small in the frame and there are distracting elements. However, I took this photo with cropping in mind. Photo by Alan Stock.
This discreet photo of a Buddhist monk studying was taken at a distance so as not to alert him and spoil the moment. He is small in the frame and there are distracting elements. However, I took this photo with cropping in mind. Photo by Alan Stock
However, I took this photo with cropping in mind. By cropping afterwards now the image just shows the subject and gets rid of the messy areas surrounding the doorway, making for a much cleaner, and more powerful image. The monk was really happy with the photo when I caught his attention afterwards! Photo by Alan Stock.
By cropping afterwards now the image just shows the subject and gets rid of the messy areas surrounding the doorway, making for a much cleaner, and more powerful image. The monk was really happy with the photo when I caught his attention afterwards! Photo by Alan Stock

However, when filling the frame with your subject, there is a drawback. Because all you can see is the subject, you might lose context about where the subject is, or its backstory. Take other photos to give some context.

As you can see from my examples, I often take photos of the area around my subject, even if they are quick snaps that aren’t good.  This gives me some context later, and it can help me notice other photo-worthy opportunities I might have missed otherwise.

In this photo I isolated this amazing Vietnamese lady's face by getting very close. However, we are missing context. Photo by Alan Stock.
In this photo I isolated this amazing Vietnamese lady’s face by getting very close. However, we are missing context. Photo by Alan Stock.
When we see a photograph showing her environment, it tells us a lot more - so be aware of this when isolating your subjects. Photo by Alan Stock.
When we see a photograph showing her work environment, it tells us a lot more (this is a bowl boat, which she makes). Be careful not to miss the bigger picture when isolating your subjects. Photo by Alan Stock

2. Remove Clutter

When you’re composing your photo, think about what you actually need in it. Getting rid of excess detail and clutter from your image helps to keep your subject isolated.

Suppose you are taking a landscape photo and your subject is a big mountain over a lake. Do you need to include the trekkers milling around in front of you? Do you want so much of the dull, cloudy sky in your photo? What about the rest of the landscape–could you cut it out, just zooming in on the peak and it’s reflection? Remove the detail if you don’t need it.

Take a few photos of your subject and review them–is there excess detail that doesn’t need to be there? Get rid of it!

This photo is deceptive. I isolated the beach huts to create a paradise impression - but just out of frame is a mess of sun loungers, people, and ugly hotel buildings! Photo by Alan Stock.
This photo is deceptive. I isolated the beach huts to create a paradise impression – but just out of frame is a mess of sun loungers, people, hanging wires, and ugly hotel buildings! Photo by Alan Stock

Along the same lines, get rid of clutter you don’t need–generally, the busier an image is, the harder it is to take in. This detracts from your subject. Try re-composing your photo so clutter isn’t in the frame. Clutter could be anything, from hanging phone wires, a fence jutting into the bottom of your photo, a random person on the edge of your scene, or a tangled branch poking into the frame. Try to remove as much of it as you can.

Another option is to move your subject. Ask your model to move somewhere better, or if your subject is an object, move it to a different position. If you can’t move your subject (trees and houses aren’t very co-operative), move the clutter instead.

Great Pictures Have Tidiness In Common

Indeed, some photographers tidy up scenes by physically moving distractions out of the frame. Whether this is right for you depends on the kind of photo you are taking. Are you bothered about “doctoring” your photo? Also, be respectful of your surroundings, and other people who might not appreciate your tinkering.

When I’m eating out and want to photograph the food or drinks I often tidy up my scene. I just push other objects on my table out of the frame, like my wallet, or the random fork, or the ugly salt and pepper shakers. Now I have a cleaner image and have helped to isolate my subject!

Great picture of a cup of coffee which is isolated in the composition.
I moved all the rubbish off the table when this nice coffee arrived to get a photo free from clutter. Photo by Alan Stock

3. Improve The Background 

Improving the background is a great way to isolate your subject. Simple backgrounds shift the viewers’ attention onto the subject. Busy backgrounds can be distracting, especially if they have many colors or shapes. 

A good tip for checking this is to review your photos straight away–ask yourself if the background could be better. Is it distracting? Could it (and should it) be simpler? If the answer is yes, don’t worry–there’s loads of easy ways to improve your backgrounds!

  • Change your angle – Move around your subject. Look at it from all sides, and above and below, if you can. Check your viewfinder whilst you do this – the background in your frame will probably change. Can you get a better background just by changing the angle of the shot?
  • Shoot low – Whilst we’re on the subject, getting low can be a great way to improve your background. And by low, I mean you may need to get the camera on the floor. At least try it! Getting low helps to remove busy floor surfaces from your photo, and often cuts out other clutter which would be in the shot. Sometimes going low makes the sky into the main background, which is a fantastic natural and simple backdrop for your subject to stand out against.
This gannet colony in New Zealand was difficult to photograph - a mess of shapes and movement. Photo by Alan Stock.
This gannet colony in New Zealand was difficult to photograph–a mess of shapes and movement, with not much going on in the background. Photo by Alan Stock
Another great photo of birds using the subject isolation technique.
But by changing my angle and getting very low to the ground, I was able to isolate a subject and create a much better image, with the sky and gannet heads providing a good background. Photo by Alan Stock
  • Pick a simple backgroundIf you can move your subject, look for a simple background to put them against. Whether that’s a plain wall, a doorway, the sky, or a tabletop–whatever you can find. Try different ones and see if it improves the photo. If you can’t find a background that simple, just try moving your subject to places with less clutter in the background.
  • Remove clutter from the background – Yep, this works for backgrounds too. Is there any clutter in the background you can remove from your frame by moving it yourself or recomposing?
  • Using focus isolation – We’ll talk about this next, focus isolation really helps to make your subject stand out from the background, even busy ones. Read on!

4. Use Focus To Isolate

If you have a lens which goes to a wide aperture (low f number), this allows you to have an image where your subject is in focus, but the background’s out of focus. It’s a very common technique that photographers use to easily isolate their subject.

The lower you set your f number, the more extreme the effect is. The distance between you and your subject affects the background blur, as does using a zoom lens. Your subject’s distance from the background also changes the effect. If the background is close it’ll be more in focus, and if the background is far away then it’ll be less in focus. 

Check your camera and see if it has an aperture setting or mode, and experiment. See how it affects your background and helps isolate your subject. Experiment with different f numbers to change how blurry the background is. This is such an easy way to isolate your subject without needing to do anything else.

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This photo was taken using a very shallow focus with an aperture of f1.7. Notice how the busy background has been drastically blurred and the girl’s face is in focus, drawing your attention to it. This was taken using a prime lens, which are known for creating nice background blur (or bokeh). Photo by Alan Stock

If your camera and/or lens doesn’t have a way to change the aperture, try it on Portrait mode, Macro mode, or Object mode–these sometimes use an aperture which will blur your background.

A word of warning: a common mistake is to set your f number so low only some of your subject will be in focus. When using very low f-numbers, review images as you take them to check everything’s in focus. Use zoom when you’re reviewing, as fine focus can be difficult to spot on a tiny LCD screen!

One portrait technique is to use very a low f number and focus on the closest eye of your subject. Here I focused on the kittens' eye and although the rest of the kitten goes out of focus, it doesn't matter. The messy background is also blurred out, stopping it from becoming too distracting. Photo by Alan Stock.
One portrait technique is to use very a low f number and focus on the closest eye of your subject. Here I focused on the kittens’ eye and although the rest of the kitten goes out of focus, it doesn’t matter. The messy background is also blurred out, stopping it from becoming too distracting. Photo by Alan Stock

Panning

Panning is a focus trick that lets you isolate a subject moving past you at speed. This creates an effect where your subject is in focus, but the background has motion blur. It’s a tricky one to pull off.  You need to have a camera which allows you to set a low shutter speed. Then press the shutter button as you pan and follow the passing subject.

Different shutter speeds will change the results, and getting the subject sharp is hard. Practicing on road traffic is a great way to learn, and its a fun and creative way to isolate.

I don't do a lot of panning, but I did use it to catch this skateboarder in motion, notice how he is in focus but everything else is motion-blurred. Photo by Alan Stock.
I don’t do a lot of panning, it’s a skill I need to practice. But I did use it here to catch this skateboarder in motion; notice how he’s in focus, but everything else is motion-blurred. Photo by Alan Stock.

5. Contrast and Lighting

This is more advanced, and something that’s easier to plan for a specific shoot than catch “in the wild”. Your subject can be isolated if it contrasts with its surroundings. This could be through color, such as a subject which is a very different color to everything else around it. Or it could be something unusual in a scene that immediately makes it stand out.

If you spot a contrast like this, it can make for a great picture, and half the isolation work is already done for you. But still try and use the other tips to make it stand out even more. If you’re devising a photo shoot, consider the environment you’re shooting in. How could you use contrast to make your subject stand out from its surroundings?

The subject of this photo is obvious - the umbrella is isolated thanks to its colours compared to its dull surroundings. Amazingly I didn't boost the colours for this shot, this is how it was in real life! Photo by Alan Stock.
The subject of this photo is obvious. The umbrella is isolated thanks to its colors compared to its dull surroundings. Amazingly, I didn’t boost the colors for this shot, this is how it was in real life! Photo by Alan Stock

Lighting can isolate a subject too. Studio photographers use artificial lighting setups to illuminate their subjects. In the outside world, the sun’s glow or beams can isolate subjects. Overhead electric lights like streetlamps or neon signs can act like stage spotlights. Windows can let light fall directly onto a subject. There are so many ways light can highlight a subject and help isolate it the subject. It’s impossible to list them all.

Look for ways you can use natural light, or the light sources around you, to cast light onto your subject and help to isolate it. Photography kit like flashes, handheld LED lights, or reflectors can be useful for this too. Try moving your subject to make use of natural or artificial light to highlight it.  

Patience is a virtue. Waiting for the lighting conditions to change can sometimes turn a good photo into a great photo. Maybe a passing car’s headlights illuminates your model, or a break in the clouds lets the sun shine through just for a second, lighting up your landscape.

Artificial neon light isolates my subjects here. Who needs portable lighting kits? Photo by Alan Stock.
Artificial neon light isolates my subjects here. These bike carts redefine portable lighting kits! Photo by Alan Stock

6. Post Processing

Another way to level up good photos to great pictures is through tactful editing. Some of the techniques we’ve talked about can be done through post-processing or film development after the photo’s been taken. For chemical film photos, in the dark room the subject could be isolated by changing exposure and manipulating backgrounds.

For digital photos, software like Lightroom and Photoshop have many tools from tone edits to outright airbrushing which can be used to isolate. Simple tweaks like boosting contrast, clarity, or detail can help your subject to “pop out” of the image. We’ll talk about this more in a future article, so stay tuned.

isolate your subject for great pictures and composition
In this image, I’ve used post processing to boost the contrast a little and increased the strength of black colors. This helps isolate the silhouette, and added a vignette to pull attention towards the subject in the middle. In this case, it also adds atmosphere. Photo by Alan Stock

Summary

Now you have some good ideas how to isolate your subject and take photos with more impact! 

Here’s a summary of the main tips to try:

  • Make it Bigger
    • Move closer, use zoom or cropping in post to make your subject bigger in the frame.
    • Turn your camera to landscape or portrait orientation to fill the frame with the subject as much as possible.
    • Be careful you don’t lose the context of the photo’s “story” by doing so.
  • Remove Clutter
    • Try to recompose your frame to remove excess detail or unimportant things from your photo.
    • You can physically move things out of shot which are cluttering your image and detracting from your subject.
  • Backgrounds
    • Keep the background as simple and uncluttered as possible and see if that helps.
    • Check your shots immediately and pay attention to the background.
    • Change your angle–move around and up and down to try to improve the background. Shoot low and see if this helps.
  • Focus
    • If your camera allows, use aperture to keep your subject in focus, but make the background blurry.
    • Changing your distance to the subject will change the effect, as will zoom.
    • Try out fun techniques like panning!
  • Contrast and Light
    • Look for ways you can use colour or light to isolate your subject from its surroundings.
    • Try moving your subject to make use of natural or artificial light to highlight it. Or wait for the lighting conditions to change.
    • Use your own artificial lighting to isolate a subject.
  • Post Processing
    • Experiment with simple tweaks like contrast, exposure, clarity, and detail to help your subject stand out.

So go ahead and try these techniques for yourself–they will take your good pictures and turn them into great pictures. Meanwhile, I would love to read your comments below about how you get on, see your photo results, and hear about any other good tips you have for isolating your subject! Until next time, folks!

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About the author

Alan Stock

Photographer, traveller and writer hailing from the United Kingdom. I love exploring new places and cultures, I like to learn and teach others. I also enjoy films, videogames and good food!

  • To some, isolating the subject technique comes very naturally but others need a lot of practice. Unfortunately, I am in that latter group. However, if you master this technique, you can greatly improve your photography.

    There are countless times that I was mesmerized by a landscape in front of me but the picture came out very boring. If this happens to you, most likely the reason is that you have not identified and isolated your subject.

    My point above is nicely illustrated by your Annapurna Base camp photo.

    I wanted to share with you a photo that I took in Japan. Contrast and lighting here isolate the subject. It is not something I planned, but your tip # 5 made me relate to this photo.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/55f2ce4916680a43fb9bbe4ac6c39fec4903dd39cfdb040235041318f14d92fe.jpg

    Great tips, Alan!

    • Alan Stock

      Thanks Ram! Landscapes can often be tricky to photograph well – what looks good to our eyes thanks to our panoramic vision often doesn’t translate to a good photo. Aside from general landscape photography tips, its a good idea to see if there is anything in the landscape that stands out that you can use as an “anchor point” to structure your photo around, possibly isolating it if it’s strong enough. Sometimes it’s a good idea to look away and then back again and ask yourself if your eye is being drawn to anything in particular – if it is then it might be worth isolating to give focus to your photo.

      I like this Japanese photo that you posted. Here the dark background helps a lot to isolate the subjects and that’s something that’s always good to look out for. I often re-position myself to try and get a dark background for a subject – and this works even better when strong light is shining on your subject which increases the contrast between the two. A brighter light (like strong sunlight) can also help with dark-ish backgrounds as if you expose for the subject you’ll probably have to reduce the exposure of the whole shot – which in turn will make the dark background even darker and help to make the subject stand out against it – double whammy!

      • Thank you for the thoughtful comment and tips, Alen.

  • Alan Stock

    Thanks John, I think that using examples really helps to illustrate the points, and as a bonus you get something to look at – cheers! I will definitely be continuing to use lots of examples to help show my points in future articles 🙂

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