It’s been said that photography is the art of exclusion. In making a compelling photograph, it’s as important to exclude what you don't want within the frame of your image as it is to include what you do want. Without careful exclusion, you introduce too much to the image and dilute the impact of the elements you were hoping would make the photograph what it is. Honing this art of exclusion is a significant step forward on the photographic journey, and learning to isolate your subject is an important part of that. Here are four significant ways you can begin to isolate your subject and give it greater power within the frame, undiluted by the noise of elements that do nothing to help you tell the story.
Point of View
By lying on my belly in the snow, I isolated these swans from the pond they were sitting in and pushed them up against a gentler background. If I stood or laid anywhere else, this scene was much busier.
The first and most obvious way to isolate elements with the frame is the intentional use of point of view (POV). What does and doesn't appear in front of, around, and behind your subject has everything to do with where you stand and put your camera. While there are plenty of situations where moving around will do nothing to get rid of background chaos or unwanted elements, often a simple change of position can move that unwanted element in relation to your subject. A little shift to the left or right, standing on a ladder, or lying on your belly can push those elements from the frame. Just playing with your point of view can improve an image with no other changes. Next time you’re photographing something, take some extra time to be aware of what's in and out of the frame, and try moving (do a complete circle around your subject if you have to) and see if you can’t strengthen your image that way.
This Red-Crowned Crane was surrounded by a hundred others. I isolated this particular bird from its chaotic background using a 600mm lens.
Photographing this Japanese Macaque up close with a 19mm lens makes him much larger in the frame, and consequently, the other monkeys appear much smaller. This allowed me to isolate (or exaggerate) him while keeping the context.
Of course, there are plenty of times that moving in relation to the subject isn’t preferable. Moving changes the perspective, and with it, the lines. Moving changes what the light is doing and if you’ve got your heart set on a backlit photograph, then moving 180 degrees will change the photograph completely. When that happens, it’s time to explore other options. The first one I try is a change of angle of view. Where a change of POV means a change of position of the photographer relative to the subject, a change of angle of view is all about which lens you choose. A wide-angle lens, as the name implies, has an angle of view that is extremely inclusive; it pulls a lot into the frame. A telephoto, by definition, is a much tighter angle of view. The most obvious move in pursuing a more isolated subject is to use the longer telephoto lens, and that often leads to beautifully simple images which are free from extraneous elements. Next time you’re trying to really isolate something, try backing up and using a longer lens. But that’s not the only choice.
A wide-angle lens can also be used to isolate, though it’ll involve both a change of optics (put that wide-angle lens on!) and a change in position (get as close as you dare!). A wide-angle lens pushed in close will still be a wide-angle lens and will still include more elements than a tighter, longer lens. So how can that be used to isolate? Isolating an element is about making it more prominent than others, giving it greater visual mass, and diminishing distractions. When you push a wider lens much closer to your subject, in the right circumstances it does two things simultaneously: it enlarges the subject and diminishes the rest. When a longer lens doesn’t give you the look you’re hoping for, or excludes too much of the context, try going much wider and much closer.
Depth of Field
This crane was standing in front of a forest of trees. My widest possible aperture of f/5.6 gave me a limited depth of field, blurring the otherwise busy background.
The third means of isolation is depth of field. Assuming your subject and the elements from which you want to isolate it are not on the same plane of focus (if they are, try using a shallow depth of field and the focus plane-shifting effects of a tilt-shift lens), a wide aperture of f/1.2, 1.4, 1.8, or 2.8 provides a much shallower plane of focus and allows your background to go soft—even completely indiscernible—and isolate your subject. At the beginning, using your camera’s depth of field preview button will help give you a sense of what will be in (and out) of focus at different distances and apertures.
Panning with this swan at 1/30 of a second allowed the entire scene to go soft, which gives the most amount of visual mass to the face of the swan and much less to the background.
Sometimes depth of field doesn’t help, and sometimes it just doesn’t give you the aesthetic you’re looking for. Motion can be a great isolator; when the subject is moving, you can use a slower shutter speed and pan the camera to create a sharp subject against a blurred background. When the subject is stationary but its surroundings are in motion, you can use the reverse technique to keep the subject sharp while the moving surroundings blur around them. Both techniques require practice and a slow shutter speed. When allowing the surroundings to blur around a sharp subject, you’ll also need a means to stabilize the camera, like a tripod. A friend of mine uses her handbag; others use bean bags, ledges, walls, or parts of buildings. However you do it, longer shutter speeds create blur to simplify the once distinct and distracting elements, allowing you to isolate—or more clearly point to—your desired subject.
These aren’t the only techniques. For example, consider the role of light and the ability to blow out a background or plunge areas into shadow. However you do it, the most important part of this article may be the awareness that intentionally-isolated elements can dramatically strengthen a photograph, giving the main subject greater visual mass by allowing other elements to remain outside the frame, gain reduced visual mass, or fade into blur.
David duChemin is the founder and Chief Executive Nomad of Craft & Vision. A world and humanitarian photographer, best-selling author, speaker, and adventurer, David can be found at DavidduChemin.com.