Make your subject stand out from its surroundings.
Make your subject clear by composing carefully (limit what you choose to show).
Take advantage of aperture and focal length to isolate your subject.
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In most cases, an image will benefit greatly from having a clearly defined subject. The human brain is constantly trying to make sense of the visual information that the eyes supply it and it does so by categorizing and prioritizing all of the information it takes in. When it identifies what to focus on (the subject) it can start determining how it feels about it. Here are three simple tips that will help you create strong images with a clearly defined subject.
Why is this image compelling? I believe it’s because in a sea of sameness, the white duck stands out from the rest. The white duck is clearly the subject in this image because he is very different in color and size to the rest of the birds in the image. By making the image black and white, I punctuated the difference between the white duck and the darker birds.
Imagine if the white duck were removed from the picture and replaced with more of the black birds. What would the subject be then? It would be very difficult to determine a subject, wouldn’t it? The subject would be all of the birds in the picture which would make for more of an abstract image because there would be nothing specific to focus on.
What’s the subject in this image? Is it the Cherry Blossom Tree? The Cherry Blossoms themselves? This image is not as strong as it could be because the subject isn’t clearly defined. If my intention was to make the Cherry Blossom Tree the subject then perhaps it would have made more sense to back up and show the entire tree. If my intention was to make the blossoms the subject, then getting closer to a specific blossom or small group of blossoms would have made that clearer. Take a look at the next image:
The subject in this image is clearly the small group of Cherry Blossoms. I chose to photograph these blossoms because the area behind them was mostly blue sky so they stood out and weren’t competing with all of the other blossoms for the viewer’s attention. I also limited the depth of field to isolate the small group of blossoms which brings us to the third tip…
The subjects in the image are fairly clear, but they could be made clearer by limiting the depth of field in order to blur out the distracting background, in this case a chain link fence. Take a look at the next image to see what I mean.
Your eyes go right to the colorful bird because the background is completely blurred out. I achieved this look by using a telephoto lens and selecting a wide aperture. The longer the focal length of lens is, the less depth of field you’ll have in front of and behind the subject you focused on. The same is true for aperture, the wider the aperture you choose, the less depth of field you’ll have in front of and behind the subject you focused on. Subject to camera distance also plays an important role in depth of field, but if you make sure to thoughtfully choose your focal length and f/stop when photographing a subject you’ll have some very powerful tools at your disposal to clearly define your subject.
Images and Text by Josh Goodman