Isolating Your Subject

We live in a hectic, fast paced world. It seems like everyone is always pressed for time. A Mary Chapin carpenter song wraps it up perfectly – ” … everybody’s got to go, got to be, got to get somewhere.” I know this feeling all too well and have consciously made changes in my life to slow down and just breath in many ways. When we slow down we see more. And you really need to see your subject in order to connect with it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a person, pet or thing. If you don’t take the time to get to know your subject, all you are doing is taking a snapshot. So slow down, connect and make your subject shine through your lens.


One way to do that is to isolate your subject. There are various ways to do this. A common way is with selective focus. Shooting with a wide aperture and creating a shallow depth of field is an easy and effective way to showcase your subject and turn the background into a dreamy blur. Keeping your subject a good distance from the background (try 20 feet or more) and using a long focal length will help too. I took the following photo with my Nikon 85mm lens, f/1.8 @ 85mm. The background was a bunch of bushes and trees that were about 25-30 feet away. I found a few dangling leaves with some backlighting. I think the backlighting made all the difference in the world. There were all kinds of leaves dangling, but it was the backlit ones that made me stop in my tracks. It took me a few minutes to find these leaves, but it was well worth the time. I spot metered on the leaves. I wanted to expose for the leaves to show the intricate detail. For me, it’s that detail that makes the leaves both beautiful and fascinating. The combination of backlighting and selective focus made the leaves shine.

You can also use negative space to isolate your subject as in the picture below. I used a combination of negative space and selective focus. I used a shallow depth of field to blur the background and then used negative space to help draw the focus to the tiny blossoms. The negative space on top pushes the eye down to the colorful, tiny blossoms. I shot the following peach blossom buds with my Nikon 70-200mm lens, f/5.6 @ 200mm. The slightly overcast day provided soft light, which was perfect to photograph these delicate buds. I could have shot this tighter like the leaves above, but I think the all that negative space on top made the composition more interesting and even showcased the buds better than a close-up shot. So, consider combining different elements to place the focus on your subject. It’s all in the way you see your subject and how you want to tell your story.


You can also use just negative space to isolate your subject. You don’t have to shoot shallow. The following photo of the pigeon on the bench is a perfect example. For me, the colorful, textured wall was just as interesting as the pigeon. I wanted to show the detail in everything, but still keep the focus on the pigeon. Using negative space was an ideal way to do that. I think the pigeon really stands out in that sea of orange color. I thought the wall looked like an urban forest with the stains and textures. I enhanced the color in PhotoShop to give it a little punch. Never underestimate the importance or power of your background. The background should always be a crucial element in your composition, no matter what you are photographing. Colorful walls make great backgrounds for all kinds of subjects including pets, people, vases, etc. Always be on the lookout for colorful walls. I took the following photo using my Nikon 28-70mm, f/8 @ 40mm.


Framing is an excellent way to isolate your subject. There are numerous and creative ways to frame your subject. Using light and shadows is one way. Take the time to observe the light and shadows in your own home at various times of the day. Every home has windows, so watch for interesting patterns of light and shadows that fall on the floor when a subject is present. I took the following picture of my dog early one morning. I love how he is framed in the beam of light. The light was streaming through my office window, then through my office doors out into the living room. If you look closely, you can see the pattern of light from the window shutters (top right corner). My office has two doors and one of them was halfway closed – hence the beam of light across the floor. When my little dog stepped into the beam of light, my heart skipped a beat. I knew I had to get a picture of that. I grabbed my wide-angle lens because I wanted to get the long light shaft and the entire shadow. Shadows are longer early in the day and late in the day, so be on the lookout for long shadows. They can make a strong impact. This shot required no special setup other than enticing my dog to stay put. The light streaming in through the windows and doors created that unique frame on it’s own. I underexposed the image slightly to make the shadows darker and photographed this using my Nikon 12-24mm, f/5 @ 18mm.


Combining framing and selective focus is another way to isolate your subject. Sometimes you need to use both when you have a challenging scene. I recently visited the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It is a fascinating place to take pictures. I took several images in Death Row and finally settled on the one below. I used both framing and selective focus to highlight the metal cot in the first cell. I thought that personalized the setting and made a strong impact emotionally, at least it did for me. I also took pictures where the metal gate in front had the focus and the cellblock was blurred. I also took pictures where everything was in focus except the metal gate. I spent a lot time taking pictures in that area trying different focal points and compositions, until I settled on the one that worked for me. Some settings are more challenging than others to photograph. But it’s the challenging scenes that teach you the most. I took the following photo using my Nikon 12-24mm, f/5.6 @ 17mm.



If you take the time to slow down and invest in your subject, you will learn a lot about yourself and become a better photographer too.

Jill Flynn

Jill teaches Pet Photography for BPSOP

The Leading In Rule

Together with my ” Stretching Your Frame of Mind ” workshop I teach around the world, I been told by students way too many times that they, in return, have been told to always have their subject walking, running, or facing into the frame. This is referred to as “leading in”.


It’s a ‘mind bender’ for me! Why on earth would anyone tell you that?  I suppose the reason is that they want you to be a good photographer, and whomever keeps saying this is indeed a good photographer and teacher. If being a good photographer is your goal, then that’s great. If you want your photos to consistently be “up a notch”, you might consider raising your level of awareness. If you want to be more than just a good ‘shooter’, you might want to consider other points of view…like mine for example.

It will be OK!!!

If I put someone looking into the frame, then the viewer will know what that person is looking at. If I have someone walking or running into the frame (giving the subject room to run as they say), the viewer will know where they’re going. Where’s the mystery and drama in that? Sounds pretty boring to me. I want the viewer to wonder what the subject is looking at, and where he’s going NEXT. By placing the subject close to the edge of the frame facing out, two things will happen:


Placing the subject close to the edge of the frame, and minimizing the’Negative Spac’ between the subject and the edge, you’ll generate Tension. The Tension comes from the anticipation of the subject leaving the frame. Second, you’ll imply content outside the frame.

All this is a big part of the Psychology of Gestalt I teach in my workshop. In short, we  want the viewer to take an active part in our pictures.  The viewer will always react to that which is most different. In our reality, making the mind work harder is not necessarily a good thing, but in photography it is.  By leading the viewer’s eye in and out and around our composition, or having them complete an image, or have them consider the scene, they are taking an active role, and when we can accomplish that our images will definitely be stronger.`

Here’s some examples of just what I mean:





Joe Baraban / Instructor at BPSOP
Joe Teaches:

Shooting At Dusk

When it comes to shooting cityscapes THE time to do it is after sunset or before sunrise. Too many photographers pack up their gear at sunset and head home, but the most dramatic shots are still waiting for you. The trick is to shoot at the right time.

The ONLY thing you need in addition to your camera is a tripod. The second thing that is key is being there at the right time of day. Generally speaking, this is about 15-20 before sunrise or after sunset. There will be a 2 to 3 minute period where the lights of the city and the light in the sky are perfectly balanced and everything will come together like this.


f/5.6 for 30 seconds at f/5.6 – ISO 100, Santorini, Greece

Many people attempt these shots when it is too late and that leaves them a black sky which doesn’t bring much to the image in the way of being compelling. So, let’s take a look at the progression.

Here is a shot about 5 minutes after sunset.


f/8 for 4 seconds, ISO 200, Dubai, UAE

5 minutes later the sky has darkened


f/8 for 8 seconds, ISO 100

Notice above how things are balancing out a lot better. But we aren’t quite there yet. 10 minutes later we get that balance!


f/8 for 30 seconds, ISO 100

Above we have everything balanced out perfectly. Wait 10 more minutes and you get a black sky and lose all that color.


f/8 for 30 seconds, ISO 100

So, looking at the above shots…how do I come to a decision on what my exposure should be? That’s an easy one. I am in manual exposure mode and take my meter reading off the sky. This means, while looking through the viewfinder I look to up just above the skyline so that ALL I see in the viewfinder is the sky. Adjust for a correct exposure and then leave it there. The reason we do that is that the lights in the buildings will throw the meter off if you include them when you take a meter reading. Most times you will end up with an underexposure. So, meter the sky and keep metering that sky every minute or so…because the sky is losing light as time progresses.

Another thing that can be difficult at this time of day is autofocus. When it is darker out it can be difficult for the AF to lock into something for focus. So, what I do is pick a single AF point and choose something with a lot of contrast…in this case it was the buildings. I get my focus lock and then turn the autofocus OFF so it will stay locked at that distance. Be careful not to rotate the focus ring manually after you lock focus. Now you are all set and you can fire away with your exposure and focus set and know without a doubt that everything will be in focus and properly exposed.

Like anything, the more you do this the better you get at it. I am to a point now where I can watch the light while sitting at a restaurant with my wife, dash off to shoot, and be back in 5 to 10 minutes with the shots on my card, which keeps everybody much happier.

Here are a couple more shots that were taken using this technique.


f/16 for 25 seconds, ISO 100 – 10.5mm fisheye, Rome, Italy


f/8 for 30 seconds ISO 100, Newport, OR, USA

Chris Hurtt
BPSOP Instructor

Chris is teaching:

The Art of Seeing

Understanding Exposure

Mastering Nikon Flash Photography


Did it do it?

This week BPSOP instructor Joe Baraban reminds us to ask yourself an important question.

Did it do it?


One of the things I like to tell photographers to ask themselves is,  “Did It Do It?”  I pass this on as soon as I can to my students so they can get a handle on it and start incorporating it into their thought process.  Ask yourself, “Did it do what you intended”.

If I took a census of all the frequently made mistakes that beginning photographers make, a few quickly come to mind.  One of them is when the student explains to me what they were trying to achieve in their photo that is clearly esoteric. Sometimes it’s so esoteric that only the student/photographer themselves gets it.

Now that’s really esoteric!!!

Whatever message you’re trying to send out (in a photograph) has to be able to stand on it’s own.  I explain to my students that they won’t always be around to describe their thinking and make that idea clear, so unless it’s an obvious abstraction of reality where it’s best if the student lets the viewer decide what they think it is, the photo should be a “quick read”.

If you intended for the man that’s standing on a rock overlooking the ocean to be in deep thought, make it so his body language conveys that thought. Where you place him in the composition is so important. Putting him in the bottom right corner says something entirely different than placing him in the middle of the frame. Put yourself in the viewer’s place and think whether you would get the message. Right before you click the shutter “consider the scene, and its eventual outcome”.


In my photo of the boy I shot it for Russel Athletics, the message the client wanted to get across was that if if you work hard enough, no matter where you come from, or where you live, you can make it in the big leagues.  The shot up top was shot for Shell Oil and was meant to bring the month of July in the USA!
Come join me in my Stretching your Frame of Mind Classes and we can work together on making images that do it!
Joe Baraban
BPSOP Instructor

For More FREE Photo Tips…. Subscribe to our Newsletter

  • "I have had so much fun learning exposure from you guys. Learning is one thing, but gaining the confidence in your abilities is also very important. Through your teachings, Q&A area, and critical evaluations, I have not only learned, but have truly gained confidence in shooting. Thanks! You guys are the best!" Read More
    Sandi Understanding Exposure
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • 11
  • 12
  • 13
  • 14
  • 15
  • 16
  • 17
  • 18
  • 19
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
  • 25
  • 26
  • 27
  • 28
Translate »