Isolating Your Subject

David duChemin

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  

Craft & Technique David duChemin

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment

  1. In Conversation: Marcin Sobas
  2. Is Composition Overrated?
  3. The Power of Becoming a Beginner Again
  4. Five Ways to Make Mouth-Watering Food Photographs
  5. Forget Lens Stereotypes
  6. Using Low Dynamic Range to Improve Your Photography
  7. Isolating Your Subject
  8. Choosing Lighting Patterns
  9. Understanding The Stages
  10. Conceptually Speaking: A Word With Claire Rosen
  11. Best Places
  12. Thinking Less Literally
  13. Vision Is Better, Ep. 63
  14. An Iconic Photograph, or a Photographed Icon?
  15. Thinking in Monochrome
  16. Vision Is Better, Ep.62
  17. Vision Is Better, Ep.61
  18. Making the Image: Kathleen Clemons
  19. Night Ranger: A Word With David Kingham
  20. Understanding the Night Sky
  21. Vision Is Better, Ep.60
  22. The Value of Critique
  23. Capturing the Moment
  24. Vision Is Better, Ep.59
  25. Five Key Elements of Food Photography
  26. Using Flash That Doesn't Look Lit
  27. Vision Is Better, Ep.58
  28. Using Flash To Improve Your Photographs
  29. Five Tips for Using Off-Camera Flash
  30. Vision Is Better, Ep.57
  31. Finding Critics
  32. Street Life: A Word With Libby Holmsen
  33. Using the Frame
  34. The Photographer's Tools
  35. Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes
  36. Vision Is Better, Ep.56
  37. Understanding Perspective
  38. Vision Is Better, Ep.55
  39. In Conversation: Sharon Covert
  40. Create Projects + Collaborate
  41. Mirrors or Windows?
  42. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Varanasi, India
  43. F/ The Rules
  44. Drawing the Eye With Selective Focus
  45. In Conversation: Willem Wernsen
  46. Exposing for Highlights
  47. Using Fill Light to Create Dramatic Portraits
  48. Cameras Don't Make Photographs
  49. Shooting with Your Final Image in Mind
  50. 10 Ways to Make Better Black and White Photographs
  51. 2018 Maasai Mara Photographic Safari
  52. 2018 Mentor Series Workshop: Lalibela, Ethiopia
  53. Start With the Corners
  54. Creating Painterly Images with Movement and Multiple Exposures
  55. Using the Guided Upright Tool in Lightroom
  56. The Power of Photographing Icons
  57. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part II)
  58. In Conversation: Susan Burnstine (Part I)
  59. Controlling Your Edit with Lightroom's Tone Curve
  60. Making the Image: David duChemin
  61. 3 Ways to Make More Honest Portraits
  62. The Adjective-Driven Approach to Photography
  63. In Conversation: Oded Wagenstein
  64. Making the Zone System Work for You
  65. Ten (More) Ways to Improve Your Craft
  66. Reference View: A New Way to See in the Lightroom Develop Module
  67. In Conversation: Laurent Breillat
  68. The Best 3 Filters for Landscape Photography
  69. Creating Classical Portraits with Simple Lighting
  70. Photographic Processing and Believability
  71. Visual Storytelling: An Introduction
  72. Making the Image: Piet Van den Eynde
  73. In Conversation: Satoki Nagata
  74. Use Repeating Elements for Stronger Images
  75. In Conversation: Kate Densmore
  76. One (More) Reason To Use Adobe's Creative Cloud
  77. Three Ways to Use Backlight
  78. 2017 Rome Mentor Series Workshop
  79. 2017 Venice Mentor Series Workshops
  80. Controlling Foreground to Background Presence
  81. Making the Image: David Adam Edelstein
  82. In Conversation: David Adam Edelstein
  83. Using Contrast for Stronger Images
  84. Three Ways to Make Better Portraits
  85. How to Direct the Eye in Your Photographs
  86. How to Improve Your Street Photography
  87. In Conversation: Piet Van den Eynde
  88. Starting Your Next Personal Project
  89. Five (More) Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  90. Five Creative Exercises to Improve Your Photography
  91. Three (More) Ways To Discover Your Vision
  92. Four Ways to Discover Your Vision (Part I)
  93. Three Ways to Make Stronger Black & White Images in Lightroom
  94. In Conversation: Cristina Mittermeier
  95. How to Add Mood to Infrared (and other) Photographs
  96. In Conversation: Paul Nicklen
  97. Four Ways to Tell Stronger Stories
  98. In Conversation: John Paul Caponigro
  99. Master the Art of Seeing and Improve Your Photography
  100. Adding Light with the Radial Filter in Lightroom
  101. The Power of Abstraction
  102. In Conversation: Anja Büehrer
  103. Five Ways to Add More Depth to Your Portraits
  104. Four Ways to Make Stronger Travel Photographs
  105. In Conversation: Martin Bailey
  106. Learn to Isolate
  107. Gear Is Good
  108. In Conversation: Dave Brosha
  109. For the Love of Your Photographs
  110. Working with Target Collections in Lightroom
  111. Review: Epson P800
  112. Seeing: Receptive & Observant
  113. Better Questions
  114. Siri? Ask Lightroom!
  115. Wake Up.
  116. In Conversation: David Jackson
  117. Photographic Skills: Patience
  118. In Conversation: David duChemin
  119. 2017 Jodhpur Mentoring Workshop
  120. 2017 Maasai Mara Safari
  121. Rome 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  122. Florence 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  123. Venice 2016 Mentoring Workshop
  124. Vision Is Better, Ep.54
  125. Vision Is Better, Ep.53
  126. Vision Is Better, Ep.52
  127. Vision Is Better, Ep.51
  128. Vision Is Better, Ep.50
  129. Vision Is Better, Ep.49
  130. Vision Is Better, Ep.48
  131. Vision Is Better, Ep.47
  132. Vision Is Better, Ep.46
  133. Vision Is Better, Ep.45
  134. Vision Is Better, Ep.44
  135. Vision Is Better, Ep.43
  136. Vision Is Better, Ep.42
  137. Vision Is Better, Ep.41
  138. Vision Is Better, Ep.40
  139. Vision Is Better, Ep.39
  140. Vision Is Better, Ep.38
  141. Vision Is Better, Ep.37
  142. Vision Is Better, Ep.36
  143. Vision Is Better, Ep.35
  144. Vision Is Better, Ep.34
  145. Vision Is Better, Ep.33
  146. Vision Is Better, Ep.32
  147. Vision Is Better, Ep.31
  148. Vision Is Better, Ep.30
  149. Vision Is Better, Ep.29
  150. Vision Is Better, Ep.28
  151. Vision Is Better, Ep.27
  152. Vision Is Better, Ep.26
  153. Vision Is Better, Ep.25
  154. Vision Is Better, Ep.24
  155. Vision Is Better, Ep.23
  156. Vision is Better, Ep.22
  157. Vision is Better, Ep.21
  158. Vision is Better, Ep.20
  159. Vision is Better, Ep.19
  160. Vision is Better, Ep.18
  161. Vision is Better, Ep.17
  162. Vision is Better, Ep.16
  163. Vision is Better, Ep.15
  164. Vision Is Better, Ep.11
  165. Vision Is Better, Ep.10
  166. Vision Is Better, Ep.09
  167. Vision Is Better, Ep.08
  168. Vision Is Better, Ep.07
  169. Vision Is Better, Ep.06
  170. Vision Is Better, Ep.05
  171. Vision Is Better, Ep.04
  172. Vision Is Better, Ep.03
  173. Vision Is Better, Ep.02
  174. Vision Is Better, Ep.01

Related Articles

Backlight: The Art of Silhouettes

Back, indirect, and rim: learn how to use these lights to create the art of the silhouette. 
Read more →

Using the Frame

The key to successful compositions? Learning to become more conscious of the frame and how to use the forces...
Read more →

Related Resources

Adam Blasberg Adobe Alexandre Buisse Andrew S. Gibson Andy Biggs Anja Büehrer Bret Edge Bruce Percy Chris Orwig Claire Rosen Composition Craft & Technique Creative Cloud Creativity Cristina Mittermeier Dave Brosha David Adam Edelstein David duChemin David Kingham Duncan Fawkes Guy Tal Henry Fernando Interview Jason Bradley John Paul Caponigro Kate Densmore Kathleen Clemons Kevin Clark Landscapes Laurent Breillat Libby Holmsen Lightroom & Photoshop Making the Image Marcin Sobas Martin Bailey Michael Frye Nathan Wirth Natural Light Oded Wagenstein Paul Nicklen Piet Van den Eynde Podcast Project Nimbus Rafael Rojas Satoki Nagata Sean McCormack Sharon Covert Sherri Koop Simi Jois Street Photography Susan Burnstine Vision is Better Show visual storytelling Willem Wernsen Workshop Younes Bounhar Zone System