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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 its 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!
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!
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 are 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.
- Pick a simple background – If 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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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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