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How to Isolate Your Subject in Lightroom

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
Andrew S. Gibson

is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He’s an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!