One of the moments my photography got much stronger—and there have been many over the years, small leaps that together have brought my work a little more in line with my vision—was the moment I learned to start isolating my subjects. Photography is the art of exclusion and it’s as important to carefully leave out what is not part of your story as it is to choose what to leave in. There are several ways to do this and I’ll discuss them in a moment. All of them are easy compared to the more important task of knowing what is and is not part of the story, and that might take a few sketch images to get to before you really get a sense for what the photograph is about. That’s the vision stuff and you can’t skip it. But once you know what you want me to look at and to feel, here are four ways to isolate a subject.
Long lenses get all the glory when it comes to isolating subjects. Put a long lens on, point the glass at your subject and you’re good. The narrow-angle of view excludes a lot from what might otherwise be a messy background, like the image above, shot close to 300mm. The compression and shallow depth of field at wider apertures help too. But don’t forget, it’s not the lens, it’s how you use it. A wide-angle lens can be used to isolate too, while still keeping the context of the background in the image. Pushed in close, a wide-angle lens exaggerates the foreground, making it much larger than the background, giving it more visual mass and effectively isolating that part of the image. If a long lens isn’t the right choice, try going wide and getting in really close.
Depth of Field
The wider your aperture, the shallower the depth of field and the less that’s in focus. As long as you open that lens nice and wide and focus on the subject, the optics do the rest. The image above, made in Kenya, would have been a jumbled mess of vegetation in the background but at 600mm an aperture of f/5.6 cleaned it up nicely. Just be sure to think through the implications of all that out-of-focus stuff. The beautiful thing about apertures is that it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. You can soften the background without obliterating it, still communicating the impact of certain shapes and details without giving all the information. For example, you might choose to open the lens to f/4 and keep the background soft yet recognizable instead of f/1.2, reducing it all to nothing but bokeh, which looks nice but doesn’t always help tell the story you want to tell.
The best techniques are often the easiest. When it comes to isolating a subject it’s often enough just to move around—get low, go right, move left—to get an angle that is clean and allows you to more effectively single out the subject. As you move the lines in the scene move, as does the relationship of foregrounds to backgrounds, and sometimes that’s all you need. But combine this with an appropriate depth of field and lens choice, and you’re getting closer to something really special.
Often it’s enough just to slow the shutter and let time and movement do the rest, allowing the eye to rest on unmoving elements while the moving elements simplify themselves into blur. You can do this on a busy street with moving cars or people, or on the shore with waves, or in a crowd: just find the contrast. If the thing you want to isolate is stationary, use a slow shutter and hold the camera still. If the thing is moving, use a slow shutter speed and pan with the subject. Both have an isolating effect.
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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.