How to Isolate Subjects, Part 1

© Mike Spinak

For the picture of the bristlecone pine tree, shown above, I purposely composed the shot in a manner which isolates the subject. Those familiar with my photography know that I isolate the subjects in my photos, fairly often.


“Isolate the subject” is by no means a rule in photography. It’s not even a sensible guideline. I’m not suggesting that you should isolate the subjects in your photos. I’m just discussing how to do so, if you want to. For some pictures, it might be best; for others, not. It depends a lot on the scene, the situation, your vision, and what you’re trying to express.

That said: there are many ways to isolate subjects. Today, I’m starting a short series showing some of my favorite ways.

The primary way I isolated the bristlecone pine, above, from distracting background elements, was to get down, and point upward. By moving your camera to a very low position, and pointing the lens in an upward direction, you will tend to frame the picture with only sky behind the subject, instead of land. It’s very easy, and very effective.

It’s not ideal for all situations. Pointing upward at some subjects may create an undesired funny-angle look. It makes the lower parts of the subject closer to the camera, and thus, larger; and the upper parts of the subject farther from the camera, and thus, smaller. This unusual vantage point can sometimes seem warped, and jarring. Another issue is that some situations require tripods. (For example: the bristlecone pine photo, above, was a 25 second long exposure – which made a tripod necessary.) For occasions when a tripod is necessary, you’ll need the tripod to be capable of being set low. Many tripods can’t be set very low to the ground.

Nonetheless, when it works, it’s often an elegant, effective way to isolate the subject. For the photo, above, my camera was just a few inches off the ground. For the purpose of showing the difference, I went back several years later, and re-photographed the same scene from standing height.

© Mike SpinakYes, the light is also a factor in this picture, but I’ll keep the lighting discussion to my Seeing the Light series. You can see, from comparison of these two pictures, that getting low to the ground made a significant difference.

Some people don’t shoot from ground level because it’s strenuous, uncomfortable, rocky, muddy, dusty, or whatever else. Yes, it is – but if you want to make the best pictures you can, don’t let a bit of discomfort, inconvenience, or laziness stop you. Be a zealot. Do what it takes to get the job done right.

When you want to isolate the subject, get down and dirty.

Continued in How To Isolate Subjects, Part 2.


Weathered Bristlecone Pine (Pinus longaeva), White Mountains, California

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.