Having your subject isolated from the background is a good technique for creating striking photographs. But it is not always easy to achieve this.
In my last blog post I wrote about how I do this with my portable pseudo studio. It’s the whole function of the studio’s design to give me a nice clean background that my subjects stand out on. Getting such a featureless background in everyday life is a challenge I am often working to overcome when I am out shooting.
In this post I’ll use a few images I shot during a recent Chaing Mai Photography Tours workshop to help illustrate my thoughts.
Controlling depth of field so the background is out of focus. This is one of my favorite ways to separate a subject from a busy background. Having lenses with a maximum aperture of at least f2.8 will help (or wider if you are shooting with a wide lens.) The other two things that will affect how out of focus your background is are the distance ratio between you and your subject and your subject and the background. Your choice of lens will also have an effect.
With this photo of the Buddha statues I was shooting with a 35mm lens on my Nikon D800. My aperture was set at f3.5. Because I was in so close to the head of the first statue and the next closest statue in the background was about 2m away, it is nicely out of focus. I could have opened my aperture further, to f1.4 and blurred out the background even more, but I wanted to show that there are other statues in the background as it creates more of a story.
If you don’t have a lens with a very wide aperture you can use a telephoto lens or a long zoom set at it’s maximum aperture and focus close on your subject. If there is sufficient space between your subject and the background, the background will be out of focus, leaving your subject nicely isolated.
Utilizing a naturally dark background, as I have with the photo of the red candle, has given me a strong image with an uncluttered background. This was shot outdoors on a sunny day. Because the sun is hitting the candle, but not the background, the background is considerably under exposed. In this composition there was a lot of distracting elements behind the candle that did not add anything to the image. By carefully choosing my point of view I was able to have the single red candle stand out against the darker background. Finding a background significantly brighter than your subject will also serve to help isolate your subject, but it is often more difficult to get a good exposure in those situations.
Finding a naturally uncluttered background can be difficult, especially shooting in busy city market where this image was taken. The photo of the policeman was shot from an overhead walkway. Often you will be surprised if you look around the scene you want to shoot. See if you can find a point of view that will offer you a clear background. I did have to crop out a motorcycle wheel and some of the car, but leaving enough of the car to add to the story.
Choosing the right moment to shoot can also help isolate your subject. With this portrait of the market vendor I have achieved a shallow depth of field shooting with my 105mm at f2.8. Drawing attention to my subject by framing the shot carefully so she is sandwiched between the umbrellas and the out of focus foreground. (I also like the hand reaching across picking up the green mango in the foreground because it mimics my subject’s hand as she turns her grilled bananas.) I shot a number of images here mainly because she was busy cooking her bananas and moving around, and there were people constantly moving across the background. While they were out of focus catching one or two other faces behind my subject took the attention off her and the photo lost impact.
There are four of the techniques I use to get my subject isolated from the background. Shallow depth of field, utilizing a dark background (or a light one,) finding a naturally uncluttered background by carefully choosing your point of view and taking your time – waiting for just the right moment to shoot when you have moving distractions in the background.