There are a number of questions that I ask myself when I hunt for a composition. “Would it be better as a horizontal or vertical shot? Should I use a wide or long focal length? Should I consider a higher or lower vantage point?” All of these questions are good ones to ask whenever you’re setting up a shot.
However, one of my favorite questions to ask is also one of the most challenging to answer: “How can I most effectively portray my subject?” In my experience, one of the best ways to accomplish such a thing is to isolate your subject from the rest of your scene. At times, the greater the isolation, the more effective the composition.
When I say, “isolate your subject,” what I mean is that you should strive to set it apart from the rest of its surroundings. Sure, there are all sorts of ways to make your subject stand out even when it’s surrounded by a bunch of other dominant elements, like trees or rocks, for example. However, there is also something to be said about looking for clean, unobstructed compositions to showcase your subject. One of the most common examples of this borders on cliché but is nonetheless effective: the solitary tree on the horizon.
Don’t get me wrong. I love those types of compositions. I’ve got tons of these photos and will always look for more every time I go shooting. My point is that looking for unique, out-of-the-box ways to convey your subject through isolation can be a very powerful compositional asset.
There have been many times when I’ve abandoned a photo because it was simply too busy for me. I couldn’t get the subject to pop because of how messy the frame was. The longer I practice photography, the more I appreciate the simplicity and elegance that can come from a disciplined use of subject isolation. It’s a wonderful exercise that I hope you consider the next time you head out on a shoot.
See more of Brian Matiash’s work at learn.matiash.com.