Including extraneous details in your photographs dilutes attention. Or they distract the viewer’s attention away from your main subject.
Fill the frame! This was the only composition rule I had drummed into me when I started work in the newspaper photography department. Do not include anything that does not help tell the story better. If it’s irrelevant, remove it.
In this article, I share three of my favorite methods for isolating subjects.
The balance of light
Finding a dark background is always pleasing. When your subject has more light on them than the background, you can often expose carefully so the background is very dark or even black. This was a great technique for newspaper photos when we were publishing in black and white. It often works particularly well for portraits.
Train your eye to look for the right situations where you can use this technique. Once you are aware of what to look for you will do it instinctively.
Look for large areas of shade where no light is turned on, and no sunlight affects the area directly. In this portrait of the fish vendor at the market, her open storefront is perfect. The room behind her has no windows and only one or two low-powered lights. The light on her is sunshine reflecting off the building opposite her shop. It is diffused and soft and does not affect the interior of her room.
Setting my camera to expose her face correctly means the interior of the room behind her is underexposed. Use a spot meter setting to only read the light from your main subject and not the darker background. If your camera’s meter is set to take a reading from the whole frame and average it, you won’t get a satisfactory result.
The key to this method is the balance of light and shade. If you take your exposure reading from the whole scene, the camera includes all the dark area and wants that to be exposed well too. The resulting image will have an overexposed subject and visible detail in the shadows.
You can also use this same method with a background brighter than your subject. Doing this is often more complicated if the light is too strong or coming directly into your lens. The same principle applies when you have more light in the background than you do on your main subject. Make your exposure reading from your subject only, excluding light from the background. Your subject will be well exposed, and your background will be overexposed.
I have developed an outdoor daylight portrait studio which incorporates this technique. In this studio, I have good control of the light and the background. Here, I use black and white fabric backdrops which mean I have an even exposure on the background creating a great contrast to my subject.
The control of Focus and Depth-of-Field
The most popular methods used to isolate subjects is carefully controlled focus and a shallow depth-of-field. My very first lens was a 50mm f/1.4. So, naturally, I grew to love using the wide aperture capability to help me knock my backgrounds out of focus.
Using a wide aperture setting is central to this method. However, there is more to it than choosing your lowest f-stop number.
Relative distances have a significant impact on how much your background blurs. The closer you are to your subject, with any lens, the more the background will blur. Likewise, the further your subject is from the background, the softer the background appears.
Lens choice influences depth-of-field too. Using a telephoto lens, you can blur a background more with any aperture setting than if you use a wide-angle-lens.
Learn to control what you focus on, as well as the other settings that affect depth-of-field. Doing this well means you can include sufficient detail without compromising attention on your main subject. In this portrait of the tricycle taxi rider, I focused on him. I chose to have enough detail in the background, without it being sharp, because the background is relevant to this photo.
Compositional choices to isolate your subject
Point-of-view (the angle you choose to take your photo from), affects what you include and exclude from your frame. Often even just a small change in your camera position can have a significant impact on what’s in your frame and what’s left out.
Move around your subject and watch what happens with the background. Having a tree looking like it’s growing out of someone’s head is going to be distracting. Changing your angle of view a little your left or right eliminates this distraction. Selecting a higher or lower position helps if there’s a strong horizontal line in the background which dissects your subject.
Take your time. Pay attention to the background, not just your subject, when you are making your composition. After taking your initial photo, review it on your monitor. Study what’s in the background. Often this reveals distractions. Move around a little. One side or the other, up and down. Concentrate on the relationship between your subject and elements in the background.
Other methods of isolating your subject are many and varied. You can use contrasting colors, interrupted patterns, selective cropping and other techniques to help your chosen subject stand out.
Photographs are often stronger when your subject is clearly defined over everything else in the frame.
Experimenting with the methods I have outlined helps you build stronger compositions. Try them out. Try others. Find a few you like and this will help build up your individual photographic style as you begin to use them consistently.