How to Isolate Your Subject in Lightroom

How to Isolate Your Subject in Lightroom

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One of my favourite portrait techniques is to isolate the model by using a short telephoto lens and a wide aperture. The idea is to throw the background out of focus and keep the subject sharp, so there is a clear distinction between the two. This creates beautiful bokeh and the illusion of depth.

Isolating the subject in Lightroom

Another way to isolate the model is to place them in the light, against a dark background that is in the shade. The opening photo (above) used this technique. I asked the model to pose in a doorway, and she is separated from the background because there’s no light illuminating the interior of the building.

These techniques are very effective but sometimes the results won’t match what you visualized. It may be that the background isn’t quite as dark as you would like, or not out of focus enough. It may contain distracting colours or highlights. In these situations you can use Lightroom to give you a helping hand.

Take the following photo as an example. The model is an artist who creates artwork from scrap metal. He is lit by daylight coming through open doors to camera left. I originally visualized the scene with the background going dark. Here’s what I was hoping for (the final result, after editing in Lightroom):

Isolating the subject in Lightroom

In the event however, that didn’t happen. The workshop was illuminated by lighting coming through skylights and a window at the rear. The blurred area on the left is the door to the workshop – included to add a sense of depth and to hide a white metal tank in the background. The door is outside, so it came out very bright compared to the interior.

This is the photo, more or less straight out of the camera.

Isolating the subject in Lightroom

Quite a difference! Let’s look at some of the techniques I used to isolate the subject in Lightroom, and complete my original vision of the photo.

  • I added a Radial Filter and moved the Exposure slider left to darken the area around the subject. The Radial Filter is a very flexible tool as you can adjust the size and shape to match your subject.

    Isolating the subject in Lightroom

  • I used a Graduated Filter to darken the out of focus door. Now it doesn’t pull any attention away from the artist, who is the focal point of the photo. You can use Graduated Filters to darken any part of the background in the same way.

    Isolating the subject in Lightroom

  • Next I used the Adjustment Brush to darken some areas that weren’t covered by the Radial Filter. I painted in the area I wanted to adjust (shown by the red mask, below) and moved the Highlights and Shadows sliders left to make it darker. The Adjustment Brush tool is extremely useful for making local adjustments in areas that the Radial and Graduated Filters are unsuitable for.

    Isolating the subject in Lightroom

  • Finally I created another Adjustment Brush, painted over the model and moved the Clarity slider right. This made him look sharper by emphasizing the texture. It’s a technique that works better with men than with women as it affects skin texture, emphasizing wrinkles and other marks. A subtle touch is best. Here, increasing Clarity made the model’s skin brighter, so I moved the Highlights slider left to compensate.

    Isolating the subject in Lightroom

Here’s a before and after comparison so you can see the difference that those four simple adjustments made.

Isolating the subject in Lightroom

I’ve also created a YouTube video that shows how I processed this photo in depth.

You can also experiment with using the Adjustment Brush to select the background and making it softer by moving the Clarity slider left or desaturating it with the Saturation slider. Care is required with both techniques as they are easy to overdo – once again a subtle touch is best. They may come in useful when there are bright highlights or distracting colours in the background.

Isolating the subject in Lightroom

What techniques do you use to isolate the subject in Lightroom? Please let us know in the comments.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Ksharp

    Pretty good examples of why Lightroom with a couple of gentle touches can really transform a photo.

  • jtmcg

    Nice work Andrew. For backgrounds like the violinist image, I also use the HSL tool. Using the picker I reduce the luminance and maybe saturation of the green areas. Of course that doesn’t work very well if your main subject contains the color that you’re trying to de-emphasize. But for example for a white egret with green foliage in the background it works pretty well.

  • Mahadimenakbar Mohamed Dawood

    This article is very helpful but unfortunately my adjustment brush is not working in my computer lately… I do not know why…

  • I know of no reason why your adjustment brush shouldn’t work. Have you tried reinstalling the software? That often fixes strange problems like this.

  • Yes, the HSL tool is a very useful one as well. Colour desaturation is a great way to de-emphasise the background.

  • Thanks!

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  • Hrithik

    Thanks for sharing the tutorial. Please share more tutorials on Lightroom or share the link if you have already written more article on Lightroom technique. I simply loved it, I tried with my photo and it worked πŸ™‚ Thanks again.

  • Dane Robison

    I use all of the techniques you mention to some degree (with the exception of the radial filter) but the best method β€” by a country mile β€” is to work on getting it right in-camera. This is not a pot-shot at you, but I’m disheartened by the number of young newcomers to photography I run into who are content to just capture *something* in the camera and then later use software to try and make it look the way they’d hoped. It’s usually doable to a degree, but wouldn’t you rather spend your time behind the camera than in front of a computer … and end up with better results? To that end, a telephoto lens (not necessarily a short one) and a single off-camera speedlight can do wonders.

  • Thanks for the article, Andrew. I like these tips, but I do have one question that has nothing to do with the subject of your post πŸ™‚ This probably sounds like a very basic question, but do you need to use special equipment when photographing very bright light sources like the flame of a welding torch? From what I’ve heard, directly at it can damage your eyes and I would assume this holds true when looking through a camera’s optical viewfinder as well.

  • Thanks, glad you liked it. This link will bring up all DPS articles about Lightroom. Quite a few of the recent ones are mine and there are some more about using the Develop module in the mix.

    http://digital-photography-school.com/?s=lightroom

  • Hi Dane, very true. In this situation it would have been possible to use a Speedlite, if I had one with me, but the length of time it takes to set up a Speedlite and evaluate the lighting ratios etc. would have slowed me down immensely. Working in natural light gave me a lot more freedom to move around and adapt – the artist was moving around his studio a lot, doing things in different places during the shoot.

    That’s not to say that using natural light is better than using a Speedlite, even in this situation. It’s just that the different tools force you to work differently and with different results.

    It would certainly be interesting to see how someone like Joe McNally would tackle a shoot like this.

  • Hi Simon, I used a Fujifilm X-T1 to take the photos and I found a benefit of the electronic viewfinder is that you can look at the flame without hurting your eyes. You can’t look at it with the naked eye, or through an optical viewfinder.

    I did another shoot recently with a glassblower who used a similar flame and he gave me protective glasses. He explained that the flame emitted harmful infrared and UV rays as well as being very bright and that you can’t view it with the naked eye without risk of damage. The glasses changed the colour of the flame too. It was strange taking photos with the glasses on but it worked okay.

  • Thanks Andrew, and that’s certainly a benefit of mirrorless cameras I had not considered before. I’ve had my eye on a Fuji X100t for a while now, and this only adds more fuel to my Gear Acquisition Syndrome πŸ™‚

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  • Eli Weitz

    Andrew, loved the article ‘Isolating the subject in Lr’! The descriptions & sequencing of the examples really brought it home for me; wish I’d seen this earlier!

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  • Lisa Moyer

    Very helpful! Your articles have really broadened my knowledge of LR!

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  • Matt Terence

    Obviously this was written for Lightroom and makes good use of the tools available, but would it be cleaner to use Photoshop masking to isolate the model? Is there an advantage to using LR for this type of work that I am not seeing?

  • Yes there is. In Photoshop you would need to create a 16 bit TIFF or PSD file to take full advantage of the information contained in the Raw file and these take up a lot more hard drive space than the Raw files Lightroom uses. Plus, if you use Lightroom to organise your photos keeping editing within Lightroom wherever possible creates a simpler, leaner workflow.

  • Matt Terence

    Thanks for the response! I wasn’t aware of the 16 bit TIFF or PSD files needed for Photoshop to take full advantage of RAW. I will go look into more info – further down the rabbit hole i go!

  • Ha good to know, luckily I have one of those too!

  • Jan

    Hello, maybe it is only me, and/or the small size of the photos, but in the 2nd example it is not obvious whether the reduced clarity brings anything, and IMHO the saturated looks better. But I do get the point as I have used the same kind of tricks. I often use the brush with an negative exposure to darken areas around the main subject.
    Thanks πŸ™‚
    Jan

  • Augusto Ilian

    I make it in PS with Topaz remask plugin but I find this technic better because it doesnt need the tif file creation in PS. Thanks a lot for the info.

  • Martin Schiffer

    LR is such a wonderful toolbox to enhance your pictures.

    I used the radial filter a lot for editing the pictures of a recent concert shoot, but have to try combining it with the graduated filter next time.

    https://www.facebook.com/schifferfoto/photos/a.904998729554518.1073741832.891184664269258/925574574163600/?type=3&theater

  • mayecorrie

    Good blog, after a great informative article, thanks for sharing. Thanks for this info!

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