This is a look I sometimes go for in my images, if for no other reason than to occasionally get away from the extended depth of field, wide-angle landscapes that dominate my shooting. It involves highlighting one or a few particular subjects and allowing other parts of the scene to be less obvious. Although close-up or true macro photographs fall into this category, I’m not really talking about those. They are relatively straightforward images to make. The trick I think is to isolate a subject and yet still leave something of the surroundings for the viewer to identify – even if it’s just a feel for the surroundings.
This type of image works well if the subject contrasts in some way with the rest of the scene. Your subject doesn’t have to be big, or even all that interesting. You will make it more interesting by photographing it in the right way! But it sure helps if the subject you’re trying to isolate is already set off in some way from its surroundings.
Here are some examples of subjects that are suitable for isolation:
- Flowers, either a single bloom or a tight bunch. Their color can really set them off against the background.
- Trees, if they are interesting in some way. Good candidates are trees that show off a different color (say a golden larch against green pines or firs), or a stark, bare tree against a background empty of details. A tree that stands far above the rest of the canopy can make a good subject for isolation too.
- Rocks can be good subjects for isolation, so long as they either contrast in color (difficult to find) or stick out in some other way from their background. So-called hoodoos are a perfect example. These are pillars, often with interesting shapes, that stick up out of the surrounding landscape.
- Animals or people are perhaps the easiest subjects to isolate against a natural background.
How you go about isolating a subject will depend on how strongly the subject already contrasts with its surroundings, plus how much you wish to hit the viewer in the head with isolation. Your approach can be subtle, such as a slight vignette applied in post-processing, or it can have full-on impact, such as a shallow depth of field combined with a mask applied in post-processing that darkens and further blurs everything but the subject.
USING DEPTH OF FIELD
If you use a large aperture (small f number), you can put your subject in clear focus while the rest of the image is blurred. You should be aware that it rarely works to put a lot of the area in front of the subject out of focus. It’s best to limit this effect and go for blurring the background instead. A blurred background looks much more natural than a blurred foreground. This is certainly not a hard and fast rule, however. You should play around with different levels of foreground blurring when the opportunity arises.
I often will spot a composition that just begs for an isolation technique, and it is only because of a subject that intrigues me. It might be shape, it might be texture, but I most often pull the trigger when it is color that sets the subject off. Perhaps this is because of my bias toward color in photography, but it also seems to work better than using a subject’s other characteristics.
USING BRIGHTNESS (NATURAL)
This might be the best way to highlight a subject. Anyone viewing a photo will tend to look at the brighter parts first. You don’t have a lot of control over this sometimes, unless you can move your subject. I should note right here that it’s not okay to damage the natural world in your pursuit for the perfect picture. But if you are photographing a person or pet, moving them into a beam of light is a good option. You can also wait on a cloudy day for light beams to fall on your subject. You will see stunning shots of hill towns in Europe highlighted in this manner. Also think about shooting into the sun in order to highlight your subject in the opposite way – by making it much darker than the background (see top image).
USING BRIGHTNESS (FLASH)
You can use flash, whether it is daytime or not, to isolate a subject with brightness. Even a subtle flash directed at the subject can be used in combination with a darkening mask for the surroundings to create a “spotlight” effect. The spotlight can be obvious or subtle or something in between. When I say subtle flash I am talking about either being near the outer limits of the flash’s working distance or using flash exposure compensation to dial down the power of the flash (or a combination of the two). Check the owner’s manuals for your camera (and for your flash if it is an off-camera unit) to see how to dial down the flash’s power.
If you are closer to the subject, even something small like a flower, it will appear bigger in your frame. I know that is obvious, but it’s amazing how many photographers refuse to simply move their feet and get closer to a subject. If you do this, you might get one more picture out of the scene, one you didn’t see initially. Maybe it will not turn out very well. But maybe it will!
Of course the bigger the subject the easier it is to isolate it from the background. In other words, you won’t have to rely on other means, like depth of field, nearly as much. If you are going wide-angle, for example, and only have f/4 or f/5.6 as a maximum aperture on the lens, you won’t be able to throw the background very much out of focus. In this case you will appreciate characteristics of the subject like color and size; they will play a bigger role in isolation.
USING EMPTY SPACE
This might be the most obvious technique to isolate a subject. Just put a lot of empty space around it. You feel isolated when you are surrounded by empty space, so why shouldn’t a picture give a feel of isolation if a person, animal or tree is surrounded by a lot of empty space. Photographers often call it “negative” space. It’s just portions of the frame lacking in elements. Broad expanses of sky, grass, water, they all count as empty (or negative) space. See the bottom image for an example of this technique. The more compelling your subject, the better.
USING POINT OF VIEW
You’ve probably noticed that the lower you get, the bigger objects closer to you appear, while things further away appear even smaller. This is really using size, as mentioned above. But here you’re taking advantage of apparent size. Does it matter to the viewer whether the size of something in the frame is “real” or “apparent”? Nope. If you’re using a relatively wide angle, this effect is magnified. With fisheye lenses, it reaches the extreme. I should mention the opposite case. If you gain an elevated viewpoint, things that are closer to you will appear to be closer in size to things that are further away.
USING FOCAL LENGTH
As I just mentioned, things closer to you appear even bigger when you get lower. The same thing occurs when you use a wider angle, a shorter focal length. If you use a lens with a focal length of 20 mm., for example, you are going to isolate closer subjects by virtue of their appearing bigger in the frame. If you use a telephoto at 100 mm. or more, you are going to accomplish the opposite. Closer subjects will more easily blend in with the background, again mostly according to apparent size.
USING THE COMPUTER
There are several techniques to use in post-processing that will further isolate your subject. But realize that you will need to use some or all of the methods listed above during capture so that you don’t need to push the post-processing too far. This is a truism in photography. You will only get natural-looking results if you take steps during capture that get you partway (most of the way?) to where you want to be in the end.
Vignettes, masks, selective focus treatments and more are all used to further isolate subjects from their surroundings. Instead of going into detail here, I recommend doing a bit of research. Look into how portrait photographers use post-processing techniques to isolate people from backgrounds (in non-studio surroundings). Nearly any book or video series that shows you how to use Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture and others will go into the techniques used to help isolate people (or animals) from their surroundings. Take a look, and apply those things to flowers, rocks, or any subject you wish to isolate.
Use all of these things together. Use characteristics of the subject like color, brightness and size (or some other feature), use apparent size by varying distance to subject and point of view, use the focal length of your lenses, and maybe even use flash. While editing on the computer use vignettes, masks and other techniques to further isolate your subject.
If you bear these things in mind while shooting, pretty soon it should become second nature to you. It will help keep your mind on the subject. I’m not promising that you’ll get a level of isolation that yields a winner every time. But I can promise you’ll obtain a greater variety of images, even if you only vary depth of field. If more of your images isolate interesting subjects, you will eventually have more images with impact in your portfolio. And that can only be a good thing.