How To Isolate Subjects, Part 3

Common Raven (Corvus corax) ©Mike Spinak


[Editorial Note: This is the third part of a series, showing methods of isolating photography subjects. Part one is here. Part 2 is here.]


In the picture of a common raven, above, I isolated the subject from the surrounding elements of the scene by using a lens with a rather narrow angle of view. Generally speaking, the longer the lens’s focal length, the narrower the angle of view. I took this picture with a 300 millimeter lens, with a 1.4x teleconverter attached, for a total focal length of 420 millimeters.

“Angle of view” is the angular extent of a scene shown by the lens. Imagine a cone of everything the lens takes in, extending out from your lens into the scene you’re photographing; the angle of view is the angle of that cone. Here’s a top-down diagram, to make that concept clearer.

The narrower the angle, the smaller the area of the scene that the lens shows, while any given part of the scene takes up a larger portion of the picture. This applies not only to your subject, but also to the background behind your subject. The narrower the angle of view, the narrower the slice of background area which will be visible behind the subject, too. Here’s another diagram, to show how this works.

Here’s a quick demonstration of this:

Photographed with a 15 mm Fisheye Lens, with a 180 Degree Diagonal Angle of View

Photographed with a 420 mm Lens, with About a 5.5 Degree Diagonal Angle of View

The two pictures above show the same flowers photographed at the same size (i.e., they cover the same length in both photos). I photographed the first with a 15 millimeter fisheye lens, which has a full 180 degree angle of view, including literally everything in the scene forward of the lens (with “fisheye” non-rectilinear distortion). I did the second shot with a 300 millimeter lens with a 1.4x teleconverter, for a 420 millimeter total, which has a narrow angle of view of only about 5.5 degrees. In the first picture, you can see everything from the sidewalk I’m standing on (in the lower right corner) to the wall and fence of a building (along the top). In the second shot, you can only see a few square feet of the area almost immediately behind the flowers.

The ability of long lenses with narrow angles of view to show just small slices of background almost immediately behind subjects can be utilized to isolate subjects, by selecting angles to the subject which single out small patches with a minimum of distracting elements behind the subject. That’s just what I did, in the case of the common raven picture at the top. I photographed this raven at Bryce Canyon National Park – where the bird was perched on a trash can in a busy parking lot. I positioned myself at an angle to the raven where there was a small slice of greenery from a tree behind the bird, and then waited for the bird to turn to an angle and pose that I liked.

To give you a better idea of what the entire scene around the raven looked like, I’ve made a crop of the raven’s eye, and enlarged it, brightened it, and supersaturated it, to make the reflection in the eye clearly visible.

Crop of Common Raven's Eye, Showing Parking Lot Reflection

As you can see, I was able to dramatically reduce the extraneous elements of the scene and isolate the subject, using just one of a few sparsely spaced trees as carefully selected background.

If you have a telephoto lens and any small patch of uncluttered area somewhere in the background of your subject, then – with a little bit of observation and effort – you can often employ a narrow angle of view to isolate subjects from their busy backgrounds quite nicely.

If you want to isolate a subject, use tunnel vision.


Common Raven (Corvus corax), Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah


All pictures and text are © Mike Spinak, unless otherwise noted. All pictures shown are available for purchase as fine art prints, and are available for licensed stock use. Telephone: (831) 325-6917.

  • Toni Aull - Outstanding!!
    Especially the one single eye vision. What a reflection!!ReplyCancel

  • Don Salper - Mike,

    David Salper put me on to this today. I saw all three isolating parts. I’m glad I did. Thank you, Mr. Zealot. Your work, your ardor, and your careful explaining are enviable.

    I am up close and personal with this raven…and feel privileged.

    The back-lit and isolated garlic mushrooms allow the gossamer spider web to show, which I love; and I’m wondering if that is a little fly on the left mushroom?

    The passiflora tendril is stunning, and your patience to get it exemplary. An artist would give his or her life to create something that beautiful. I guess I’m thinking of Alexander Calder.

    Macloskey’s violet–what’s the use of words, only wonder will do.

    Trees and sky make great partners, which you show with the weathered bristlecone pine. I’ve been wanting to get down to the Getty photography tree exhibit but haven’t made it yet.

    Hiking and mountain air are clearly some of the side-benefits from your work and artistry. Again, enviable.

    Thank you.

    Don SalperReplyCancel

  • naturography - Hi, Don,
    You’re welcome; and thank you very much!
    That’s not a fly on the left mushroom; it’s some tiny bit of organic fluff – I can’t tell what, exactly. Maybe a piece of a feather.
    I love being able to get out into the mountain air, while also being able to create.
    I hope you come back and visit, again. I have about 70 other articles on here, plus new ones coming all the time.ReplyCancel

  • Kimberly Hosey (Arizona Writer) - Great explanation and illustration of your technique, and that raven shot is just spectacular!ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Kim.
    And by the way: Welcome to my site! it’s great to have you visit.
    Also: I was looking at your picture of your little boy with the dove, yesterday. That picture just warms my heart every time I see it.ReplyCancel

  • naturography - Thank you, Toni.ReplyCancel