There’s a lot of talk about isolation in photography, and for a very good reason. Isolation as a composition technique is perfect for drawing your viewers’ eyes to where you want them to look. But do you know what is involved with isolating your subject?
It sounds all very serious and unfriendly, but trust me, it’ll make a huge difference to your photography.
What is isolation in photography?
Put simply, if you want to make your subject stand out in a photo, you need to isolate it.
To understand why subject isolation is so effective in photography composition, read about the Gestalt principles of segregation and figure to ground in our tutorial on Gestalt theory.
Isolation can be used with all types of subjects in photography composition. It’s not just for portraiture, even though that’s where you hear about it most.
How to isolate your subject
What I love so much about isolation in photography is that it combines so many different techniques. There are umpteen different ways to isolate a subject in a photo and it all depends on the:
- Atmosphere you want to create
- Tools you have at your disposal
Here are my favourite photography isolation techniques for great composition, which I’ve split into four categories:
- Background blur
- Physical isolation
- Post processing
As I said, each method of isolation has a number of different photography techniques you can use, so you’re bound to know at least 1 of them already. Now let’s take a closer look.
You’re going to need this free cheat sheet…
When we think of isolating a subject in a photo, we very often mean separating the subject from the background. Not always, because we’re not always separating the subject from the background, but we’ll get into that further down.
The first technique that springs to mind for isolation in photography is blurring the background using a shallow depth of field. This is especially popular with the current trend of using very wide apertures that completely blur out the background.
I used a shallow depth of field to separate the subject from the background.
6 ways to isolate a subject using a blurry background
Let’s start with aperture settings for blurring the background as it’s the most well known method to make the subject stand out. When you widen your aperture for a blurry background, you create a shallow depth of field.
If you don’t shoot in manual mode, don’t worry, you can still isolate a subject with a shadow depth of field. Shooting modes you can use include:
- Aperture priority mode
- Portrait mode
Aperture priority mode
In aperture priority, simply set your aperture to anything from f5.6 and wider, all the way to f1.4 if your lens goes that far. The smaller the number, the wider your aperture will be and the blurrier your background will be. Your camera will set the appropriate shutter speed for the scene.
You have less control if you use the portrait scene mode, but the main point of this mode is to use a wide aperture to blur the background. So, if you’re not comfortable with changing settings yet, portrait mode is a good way to start playing with depth of field to isolate your subject.
Not all cameras have portrait mode, but if you have an entry level camera it definitely will.
Here we have a waddle of penguins (Love that phrase! I had to Google “collective noun for penguins” to find out.) There’s nowhere for the eye to settle and we quickly move past an image like this.
Below, I used a shallow depth of field to blur the background, a longer focal length to get in close and differential focus to isolate one penguin in particular. This is a much more engaging image.
2. Focal length
The longer the focal length you use the more blurred out your background will be. So a focal length of 105mm will give you a blurrier background than if you photographed your subject at 50mm.
If you can’t open your aperture wide and you don’t have a long focal length, don’t give up. You can use distance to blur your background.
Specifically, you need to create distance between your subject and the background. The closer you are to your subject and the further away the background is, the more blurred out the background will be. Your subject will then be isolated.
Just be aware that focal length can distort your subject’s features.
A great composition technique for blurring the background is selective focus. It’s also called differential focus and it works hand in hand with the previous points on distance and aperture.
If you selectively focus on a particular subject, which results in other subjects in the image becoming out of focus, that subject is isolated in the photo by being in focus.
The boy is isolated in the photo for two reasons: differential focus (his family behind is out of focus) and contrast (light bouncing up from the path is lighting his face further separating him from the background as his family are in the shade of a tree).
The next two points both achieve isolation in photography, by blurring the background with movement, but in two different ways.
The panning technique is great for capturing moving subjects and isolating them from the background.
When panning, the photographer moves at the same speed as the subject, which causes the background to blur.
In both the above photo and the next one the background is blurred to isolate the subject, but it’s been achieved with different techniques.
This is for a moving background.
To create a blurred background through motion, the background needs to be moving while the subject remains still.
Creative use of shutter speed is important with both of these camera techniques as it needs to be slow enough for the movement to blur, but fast enough for the subject to be sharp.
Contrast can be created in an image in many ways. The most obvious of these is through color and the play of light.
5 ways to isolate a subject with contrast
Color is a fantastic tool in photography composition. For isolation in composition color works really well when you use dominant colors (red, orange, yellow) against a background of recessive colors (blue, green).
See the top image for an example of how red stands out against a blue background.
2. Dark vs Light
A light subject will stand out against a dark background and a dark subject will stand out against a light background.
Just bear in mind that our eyes will always be drawn to the lightest part of the image. So, when isolating your subject, just make sure that there are no distracting light areas away from the subject jostling for attention.
The windows behind the boy are overexposed while he is correctly exposed, which isolates him in the photo.
3. Splashes of light
When photographing indoors in particular, you can make use of the splashes of natural light that direct sunlight will introduce.
Position your subject in the pool of light and meter for this area. The rest of the scene will be significantly darker, thereby isolating the subject.
It actually doesn’t have to just be direct sunlight, but of course the harder the light, the more the contrast will be between light and dark.
Using backlight in photos is one of my absolute favorite ways to light a subject. Backlight is also called rim light, because when you light a subject from behind and photograph from the shadow side of the subject a rim of light appears around the subject.
This rim of light is perfect for separating the subject from the background and so isolates it in the photo.
Backlight from the setting sun separates the model from the background.
A silhouette, by its very nature, is going to stand out from the background. It’s taking the concept of dark versus light to the extreme. Because in silhouette photos the subject is just a dark shape against a light background, it’s instantly isolated in the photo and our eyes are immediately drawn to it.
The viewer’s eyes are drawn to the shape of the silhouette as she contrasts against the light background.
You know how when you’re on a crowded beach just looking out to sea and somebody stands up and moves to the water and you automatically look at them? You didn’t notice them before, but the moment they’re separated from the crowd you see them.
It’s the same with isolation in photography.
Physical isolation of a subject in photography is literally making them “stick out like a sore thumb”, but it’s a good thing.
As with all things in photography, to physically isolate your subject, you have options.
3 ways to physically isolate a subject in a photo
Remember I mentioned that we’re not always separating a subject from the background? Sometimes we’re simply making the subject matter stand out from the other elements in the scene with an isolation technique.
That’s what we’re about to look at.
1. Interrupted pattern
If you want the green apple to be noticed, put it with a bunch of red apples. The break in the pattern composition of round red shapes will draw the viewer’s eyes straight to the green round shape.
Speaking of shape, an irregular shaped object in the middle of regular rectangular shapes, for example, will also stand out.
Humans like to make sense of the world around us, so we very quickly spot a pattern. And just as quickly we’re drawn to the difference, the break in the pattern.
We’re used to seeing the world from our usual standing eye height. So when we photograph a subject from a different viewpoint, it immediately stands out. In the case of children and animals it’s particularly effective to photograph them from their viewpoint. In other words, at their eye level.
This is because it makes the subject of the image obvious. Otherwise, why would the photographer have chosen that point of view?
This is the most obvious method of physical isolation if you photograph a subject with a lot of space around it, it really does stand out.
There are a few photography composition tricks that will help you make the most of space for isolating your subject. Use:
- The rule of thirds to position your subject within the scene at a point that draws the viewer’s attention
- Leading lines to lead the viewer through the space in the scene to the subject and
- Negative space to offset the subject and give it somewhere to move or look into
The girl is placed at the rule of thirds, leaving negative space in front of her and I lowered my viewpoint by photographing her at her eye level. Although the background is a similar color, she also stands out because of the color of her shirt.
Editing for isolation in photos
I’m a fan of subtle processing, because I feel post production should be about finessing an image, as opposed to completely changing it. That’s just my style and, if I’m honest, it’s probably influenced by the fact that I don’t like to spend a lot of time at the computer.
A combination of processing techniques applied subtly goes a long way to separating your subject.
A useful tip is to keep checking back on the original so that you can see when you’re going too far with the processing. The longer you work an image the easier it becomes to overstep the mark, because you get used to seeing it in its transformed state.
3 ways to isolate a subject in post production
1. Desaturate background colors
I’m definitely not advising doing “spot color” in post production as that’s dated and can so easily look tacky.
However, used with subtlety and restraint, partially desaturating some of the colors within a scene, while maintaining the color saturation of your subject, is a great way to draw attention to your subject matter.
Adding a vignette in post production helps to frame your subject and draw the eye in. Again, I advise subtlety.
3. Radial masks for isolation
One of the best additions to Lightroom in recent years is radial masks in the masking tool. IMHO.
They’re great for isolating your subject with subtle exposure changes to make your subject stand out in the image.
On the left is the starting image following by a slight adjustment in Lightroom with the radial filter to isolate the subject. The next two photos are extreme examples of going too far, but you can see where the filter was placed.
Leave a comment
If you have any questions about isolation in photography, let us know in the comments.
Also, I love good news, so if my subject matter isolation tips have helped you to understand how to separate a subject from the background and make it stand out in a photo, share that too.