9 Ways To Isolate A Subject In A Busy Scene

Isolate A Subject In A Busy Scene
Image by Lisa Runnels

Street photography and photojournalism are the great examples of photography that can happen with very little control of the elements in the environment. The biggest tools we have for controlling the elements are our feet, composition techniques, and cropping.

When talking about controlling the elements, we might stumble into the need to isolate certain elements of the image to create a deeper impact in the message our image is going to deliver.

With some of the techniques, we will discuss in this article, the use of light to isolate subjects and how correct metering can ensure your images are exposed to your desired outcome. How about learning the bare bones of Light in this fantastic Guide “Understanding Light” by Kent DuFault – you'll be amazed at how drastically your images will improve!

In this post, I will briefly discuss nine ways you can enhance the isolation of the image’s main subject in street photography.

Scout Busy Environments

Image by Federico Alegría
Image by Federico Alegría

When wandering the streets, it is necessary to scout the scenes in search of meaningful stories to capture. Restrain yourself from shooting immediately when arriving at a street.

By scouting the streets, you'll become a common element and you'll be able to work more inconspicuously. By doing this, you'll easily identify subjects that stand out from the crowd, and your images will look much more impressive.

Busy environments have the potential to reveal amazing stories. You just need to be able to observe the scenes to develop a sensitivity for the stories hidden among the crowds.

One of the most beautiful things about urban social dynamics is the feeling of “everyone is in their own world”. Nowadays, people are immersed in their personal worlds.

Take advantage of this fact and learn to identify them inside the busy urban-scapes by:

  • Walking,
  • Observing,
  • Seeing
  • and Scouting.

Overexpose Your Image

Let's remember high-key exposure techniques, just to make a point. The main element tends to be more obvious, thanks its presence inside a white space. The isolation here is tremendously obvious. We are just establishing a foreground here.

In street photography, you can isolate subjects by using spot metering when establishing your exposure settings. If you expose with this mode in the streets, in most cases you'll get overexposed shots.

Because the light in the streets is so complex, to get a subject well exposed the surroundings may appear blown-out.

Digital cameras work in a way opposite to film. Film was better at recovering information when the shot was underexposed. Digital sensors, on the other hand, are better at recovering information when the picture is overexposed.

You'll achieve well-exposed subjects in scenes that are way more exposed than your subject. Therefore, this is an excellent technique for isolating subjects in the streets.

Use Negative Space

Image by Federico Alegría
Image by Federico Alegría

This is the compositional technique that blends large spaces of low visual impact, with small proportion elements or subjects that contrast in relation to the negative space. The negative space can be dull and flat – it doesn't matter because its purpose in the image is to be a negative space.

When working in the streets, the best example is found in work of various photographers who have recorded images of subjects walking in front of a wall.

This can be a very appealing way of doing things, because if we (as humans) don't perceive a balance or an equally balanced interaction between space and activity, the image will feel very claustrophobic (which of course can work to our advantage if a concept requires this eerie feeling).

Follow Your Subject

After identifying the main subjects, you'll need to follow them (without being creepy, of course) to reveal meaningful stories. You can follow or track your subjects in the micro-spaces of the streets thanks to servo-focusing. Try it out – it’s an awesome tool of the digital medium.

Get Close To People In Your Scene

Image by Federico Alegría
Image by Federico Alegría

When working the streets, getting close to people is an extremely important technique. One benefit of getting up close is that it helps isolate subjects in crowded and busy contexts.

Seek the perfect blend of isolated subject and context by using wide-angle lenses. Wide-angle lenses help us as street photographers by forcing us to get physically closer to isolate the main subject in the scene.

These lenses typically allow us to show a crowded context, which can work fine if our goal and concept requires it. But if you’re trying to isolate a subject, moving with your feet is the best way to go. Get in close!

Look For Interactions Between People

Crowds in the streets can be presented as a metaphor of endless rivers streaming through the streets. Social interactions between two or more subjects are really noticeable in the middle of such busy scenes.

Look for them, and you can get perfectly isolated subjects standing in the middle of the crowds. The juxtaposition of two people sharing thoughts in an endless river of people minding their own business can make for a very compelling image.

Be Patient – You Can't Rush That Moment 

Image by Federico Alegría
Image by Federico Alegría

Don’t forget to be patient. You won’t get amazing shots every time you head to the streets, but don't stop seeking meaningful stories that deserve to be captured and preserved.

Remember to always keep a camera with you, and make patience a social routine in which you wander around, always keeping an eye out for the social happenings around you that are worth shooting.

Get To Know The People

Image by Federico Alegría
Image by Federico Alegría

When embracing street photography, try to connect with people and get to know them. If you gain their trust, you'll be able to get more intimate shots.

Intimate shots are rich, and when you start to get them you will have entered another stage of social photography in which you can document deeper things.

Take Advantage Of Focusing Techniques

This is very straightforward. Use a shallow depth of field to isolate subjects in busy contexts. This is the simplest technique to establish the importance of the main subject against a background.

Remember to use this technique when doing portraits in the streets, and your isolated subjects will bloom in front of your eyes in the most organic way possible.

Some of the techniques in this article are discussing the use of light to isolate subjects and how correct metering can ensure your images are exposed to your desired outcome. How about learning the bare bones of Light in this fantastic Guide “Understanding Light” by Kent DuFault – you'll be amazed at how drastically your images will improve!

Further Resources

About Author

Federico has a decade of experience in documentary photography, and is a University Professor in photography and research methodology. He's a scientist studying the social uses of photography in contemporary culture who writes about photography and develops documentary projects. Other activities Federico is involved in photography are curation, critique, education, mentoring, outreach and reviews. Get to know him better here.

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