Getting your subject to pop includes many factors, but one of the best is isolation. On the podcast today, we are going to talk about four of them in depth.
- Simple Backgrounds
See the whole show notes below to learn everything you can, and listen to the episode today!
Today on the podcast, we are looking at four ways for you to isolate and get your subject to pop in an image. Isolation is a key compositional element. It brings your subject into singular focus, really drawing the eye of your viewer. This technique is powerful when you want to create a simple image or want one specific element in your photo to stand out. But creating isolation isn't always straightforward. We live in a hectic world with many distractions that can draw your viewer's attention away from your main subject. Isolation keeps your viewer's focus on your subject. We most commonly see isolation used in portraiture. These are those shots with creamy backgrounds, lots of bokeh, and the only thing in focus is the portrait subject. And this is powerful. You end up really exploring the person's expression, their eyes, their features; you get to really see them without any distractions. This is done through depth of field, using a wide aperture (think f/2.8 and lower) and separation between subject and background. But this isn't the only way to cause isolation, and in travel and adventure work, it typically isn't the best way. Depth of field is powerful, but it tends to remove the rest of the scene from the equation. And in travel and adventure work, we want that scene around the subject. It gives context to the story and power to the image.
So, I'm going to cover four other ways to isolate your subject, moving beyond depth of field.
One note as we get going, the subject doesn't have to mean a person. A subject can be a mountain, a flower, a building, a crack in a wall, or your crazy kitty. It's whatever the main focal point is in your image.
Tip #1: Use a Simple Background
One of the easiest ways to create subject isolation is by simplifying your background. This means looking for ways to remove distracting objects and colours so that your subject stands out. Think of a mountain standing against a bright blue sky.
Simple backgrounds can be a sky, a blank wall, the floor, a rock wall or anything that doesn't add distractions behind or around your subject. This can take quite a bit of planning and patience while doing travel and adventure photography. You will likely have to move around and keep an eye on your subject until you see the cleanest background behind it. The benefit here is that, with a clean backdrop, your subject will stand out clearly in the frame. This also eliminates the opportunity for one of my biggest pet peeves in photography. When people have things like trees, lamp posts, or other things seemingly sticking out of their heads because the object is behind them in photos.
Clean backgrounds work great for making people really pop in the frame while standing on a mountain top. Try positioning the person to have the sky behind them instead of the mountain or the valley below you. This will make the person much more noticeable.
Something to watch out for, the colour of the background - ensure your subject doesn't blend in. A clean blue background doesn't do you much good if your subject is also wearing blue.
Tip #2: Use Light
Light is a great way to cause isolation on your subject and separate them from the scene. This can be done with off-camera flash or by using the natural light around you. Humans are naturally drawn to the brightest parts of photos. Use this to your advantage by having your subject stand in the lightest part of your composition. People will see them right away, and you will cause some separation from the background. This works particularly well in forest settings where there are shafts of light cutting through the forest. Make sure your subject is standing in one of the light shafts rather than one of the shadowed areas, and they will pop more.
You can also create your own bright points in images by using off-camera lights. This works great for nighttime portraits. At night, set up for a long exposure, but place a light behind your subject. This causes rim lighting and helps your subject to stand out in the darkness. You can also try adding a headlamp to your subject and having them look up into the sky or down into a valley. The headlamp will illuminate your subject just a little bit while also giving your viewer a bright point to hone in on. You don't need anything fancy to do this; basic flashlights can work.
For off-camera lighting, I suggest looking into a company called Lume Cube. They make tiny lights that are very bright, portable, and weather resistant.
Tip #3: Use Motion
Motion is one of those great givers in photography. We can freeze everything to the point where you can see water droplets frozen in the air. Or, we can drag shutter speeds out and have everything look like a blur. Motion can change an image immensely. So, use this to your advantage when you are getting your subject to stand out.
One of the great ways to do this is by shooting a stationary subject and letting everything move around it. Think about shooting in a city. You pick a statue that is in the middle of traffic. Typically, if you photograph that with a standard shutter speed, you would just have a snapshot of the moment with all these vehicles and people clearly visible. And the statue may be the main focal point, but there are a lot of distractions. Now, instead, drag out your shutter speed to 20 or 30 seconds. That statue will remain still, and the traffic around it should flow and move. This will add a framing element around the figure and focus your viewer on it. It will also add some visual interest if there are lights or blurs of the traffic moving.
To do this properly, you will want a tripod or some way to stabilize your camera. You may also need neutral density filters if you are shooting during daylight.
Tip #4: Use Geometry
Sometimes it's just not possible to remove all the distracting elements from a shot. However, you still want your subject to really stand out in the image and be isolated from the rest of the noise. This is where geometry can help.
Use natural curves, triangles, Vs and anything else that have a meeting point and put your subject at the junction. If it's a V, position your subject at the tip of the V. If it's a triangle, place your subject with the point just above them. Look for moments where the chaos in the scene can give you a spot to lead your viewer to the object you want them to see. Guide the viewer with geometry (like leading lines and framing) to help get your subject to stand out in the chaos. The geometry will also add visual interest to your photo, helping you retain your viewer's attention.
This is great when you are in cities, as there are so many geometric shapes you can use to draw attention to your subject. One of my favourites is shooting a well-known building through the meeting point of two branches on a tree. I use the tree to frame the building and draw the viewer into the image. And it usually gives them a new perspective on the building as well.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.