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Home Composition How to Take Stronger Portraits by Isolating Your Subject

How to Take Stronger Portraits by Isolating Your Subject

3 Easy Ways to Make Your Subject Stand Out

Isolating your subject will make for a stronger photo than when they are surrounded by clutter. Distracting elements in the same composition as a person you’re photographing will only serve to draw attention away from them.

There are a number of techniques you can choose to isolate a person in your compositions. The three main ones I like to use are covered in this article:

  • Composition Control
  • Depth of Field Regulation
  • Light Management

Composition Control for Subject Isolation

By controlling what’s in your composition and what’s left out is one of the best ways of isolating your subject. 

As you compose your portraits, be aware not only of your subject but of what’s surrounding them. If there are elements in your frame that distract, eliminate them.  Fill your frame only with what is relevant and fits with your intention for the portrait you are creating.

young Kayan girl isolated on a dark background.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Here are some methods a portrait photographer can practice to isolate their subjects.

Get in Close

Using a long focal length or moving in close to your subject you can fill the frame with their face. Having nothing else in view is the boldest photography composition techniques you can apply. 

This requires trust on behalf of the person you are photographing as some people can be nervous about you getting so close to them. As often as possible I like my subject to be happy with the images I make of them. I routinely show people the photos I have taken on my camera and watch their response. This helps me gauge how I am doing.

Being able to relate well to the people you photograph means they’ll be more comfortable with you in their personal space. Use a wider focal length, rather than a longer one, and coming in close to your subject to isolate them. This way you’ll capture more intimate portraits. Because you’re physically closer to your subject this will show in your photos. 

At times, leaving a little space around your subject, rather than cropping in very tight, will produce a more flattering image. 

Move Your Subject

If you prefer a portrait that’s not so tight and the background contains distractions, move your subject. By positioning your subject in even a slightly different location you can make use of a completely different background.

Look around and observe the location where you want to make the portrait. See if there is somewhere you can compose a picture so the background is clear and your subject is in isolation from it.

Empty walls, a fence, and even a clear sky can serve as backgrounds that make your subject stand out. You may be surprised at times how easy it is to find a clean background for a portrait once you start looking.

isolated photo of a Karen woman.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Move Yourself

Good composition in photography often requires that you move around and study your subject from many angles. Only taking a photograph from the first point of view you think of will not always bring about the best results in isolating subjects.

Even a small change in your position will make a difference in how you see your subject in relation to the background. As you look at your subject, stand in different positions. Look at what you can see in the background and how isolation of the person you are photographing is possible. 

Get lower to the ground, or a little higher up if you can. Make time to have a good look at the options for what you will see in the background. Subject isolation photography requires that you find a good place to capture your photos from. You want somewhere there’s nothing behind your subject that will compete with them in your composition.

Taking the time to move yourself, and your subject, you can create more interesting and effective isolation images. The best photography does not often happen quickly. Isolating your subject can take time to arrange, but when you get it right, the results are very satisfying.

Thai dancer in a street parade isolated with a shallow depth of field.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Move Things

Sometimes you might need to move things out of the way. When there’s distracting stuff behind the person you’re photographing, sometimes the best cause of action to take is to move it out of the way. This is not always possible or appropriate, but when it is and you do move things around, you’ll often isolate your subject better because of it.

Take a picture or mirror off a wall. Move the pot plants so they are not behind who you’re photographing. Put the floor lamp in a different place until you’ve finished your photography session. 

To create good isolation of your subject means you must control what is seen in your composition.

Choose the Right Focal Length

Portrait photography is most often done with a focal length of 50 mm or longer. The longer lens the photographer chooses, isolation becomes easier. 

The longer the focal length you choose for your isolation portraits, the more likely it is you’ll have a shallow depth of field. I’ll cover this in the next section. A longer lens also means when you take a portrait you’ll see less of the background. With a telephoto, your subject will be in isolation because of the narrower field of view that these lenses have.  

With a wider angle than 50 mm means you’ll see more background, even if you are close to your subject when you make your image. Isolation of your subject becomes more challenging the more background you can see.

If you’re using a zoom, try it at various focal lengths to get a feel for how you can most effectively isolate your subject. If you prefer prime lenses, experiment with different ones to discover which one you are most happy with. Which one gives you the look of isolation that you want to achieve?

dancer isolated image.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Depth of Field Regulation for Isolation

By controlling the depth of field a photographer can isolate their subjects very effectively. This popular photography technique needs to be understood and managed well for it to really have the most impact.

There are a number of factors that add up and result in a shallow depth of field.

Use a Wide Aperture Setting

The one many photographers think about first is using a wide aperture setting, a low f-stop number. The wider the aperture you can use, the shallower the depth of field will appear. So lenses with the widest apertures make it more likely that you can isolate your subject in this way.

With any focal length, the wider the aperture setting you use, the less of your composition will be in acceptably sharp focus. The longer the lens you use, the background at any aperture will appear more blurred.

A 50 mm f/1.4 or f/1.8 makes it easier to create a shallow depth of field than a kit zoom that may only have it’s widest aperture of f/4.5. However, when all you have to work with is your kit zoom, it can still be possible to make portraits with your subject in isolation.

Using your kit lens to isolate your subject with a shallow depth of field you need to try two other methods. This is because the widest aperture is unlikely to blur the background much.

close up isolated portrait of a young guy.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Use a Longer Focal Length

The longer the focal length you use, the shallow the depth of field will appear to be in your photos. Using a 24 mm with the aperture set to f/2.8 the background will not look so blurred as if you use a 105 mm at f/2.8. The principle applies to any aperture setting you choose. With a longer lens the background will appear more blurred.

Try zooming your kit lens to the maximum focal length. Choose the widest aperture setting. This will not be as wide as it is when you use the widest zoom setting. But it will more likely give you a more blurred appearance and isolate your subject better.

It is possible to isolate your subject by blurring the background with a wide focal length, but it must be a ‘fast’ lens. Lenses with wide apertures are typically referred to as ‘fast’ lenses. Using a 35 mm f/1.4 I am able to capture portraits with beautifully blurred backgrounds.

isolating your subject using shallow DOF.

Keep Your Distance in Check

A photographer can create a nice image with a blurred background by managing the distance from camera to subject. And subject to background.

The closer you are to your subject, the more likely you are to be able to use a blurred background for isolation. This is true for any focal length at any aperture setting you use. When you work with a longer focal length, you’ll not be able to focus so close as you can with a wider focal length. The exception would be when you have a macro lens on your camera. This is one reason I love my 105 mm macro lens for taking portraits.

Generally, though, wider lenses allow you to get closer to your subject and have them in focus. Be careful not to let your subject distort if you’re using a very wide lens and are focusing in close.

Experiment with various lenses and taking portraits at different distances from your subject. You may find a short focal length and getting in close can produce a more satisfactory isolation.

Subject to Background Distance

The further your subject is from the background, the more isolated they will look. 

If you are not managing to achieve a nicely blurred background, move your subject further away from it. The more distance there is the more blur will occur.

It’s a common mistake for beginner photographers to have their subjects stand right up against the background. This rarely produces the best results and makes it almost impossible to create an image with a blurred background.

novice monk walking alone.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Light Management

Another method you can use to create isolated portraits is known as ‘figure to ground’ photography. This is when your subject is either significantly lighter or darker than the background.

This can be easier to control in a studio setting, but you can also create figure to ground portraits in natural lighting. The key to doing this well is to make sure the exposure value on the background is more than two stops different than on your subject.

A Portrait with a Dark Background

If you have someone standing in the sun, with the light behind them, you’ll often find the background is in the shade. With a reflector to bounce some light into your subject’s face, you will ensure that it’s a few stops brighter than the background.

Use your camera’s spot meter to take a reading from the face of the person you’re photographing. Then take a reading from the background. If there are two stops of more difference, your subject will appear isolated against the dark background.

Beautiful woman studio portrait

A Portrait with a Light Background

Use the reverse principle from creating a dark background portrait. There must be more light on the background than on your subject. This can be more of a challenge, but can be a very effective way to isolate your subject.

Setting your exposure well with this technique is critical. It’s easy to end up with a silhouette when you might not want one. Sometimes creating a silhouette can be the perfect way to isolate your photography subject.

Make spot meter reading from the face of your subject and set your exposure accordingly. If you use averaged metering to take a light reading the bright background light might influence your exposure. Your subject may appear a little underexposed.

This technique can also be used when your subject is backlit and the background is not in the shade.

happy Chinese woman.
© Kevin Landwer-Johan

Conclusion

There are many ways you can practice to isolate your subject and create interesting portrait images. Some will work better than others depending on the location and the lighting you are working in.

Sometimes you’ll find it more appealing to make photos with little or no background. At other times creating a blurred background will help your subject stand out more from their surroundings.

Know your camera equipment well. Practice and experiment with your photography. Write notes about what you are doing and review your images critically. This will help you understand what works and what doesn’t work so well.

Having a selection of lenses allows you more flexibility. Fast lenses and longer lenses can be helpful. But if all you have are kit lenses you can still learn to make lovely portraits of people isolated from their backgrounds.

Check out this video for some more helpful information about camera settings for portraits.

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KevinLJ
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he's covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who's willing to learn.

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