Back to basics: subject isolation

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The man: color, texture, contrast, motion. We’re not really missing shallow DOF, are we?

Regular readers will know that I’ve distilled down four common traits of a strong image: quality of light, clarity of subject, balance of composition and ‘the idea’. The first is very simple: does the light present the subject in a flattering way or as you would desire? Is it directional (i.e. are there shadows) so that it’s possible to determine spatial layout of the scene? The last two require some practice, and the final one is really an never-ending quest for every photographer because there is no limit to the complexity of message that can be conveyed. Today, we will look at the easiest yet most commonly overlooked one of the four: subject isolation.

At the most basic level, if your audience does not know what the image is about, then there’s no way any of the higher order associations/ implied relationships can be made. You cannot tell a story if you cannot identify the actors. The image has been limited in potential by removing or at best making ambiguous one of the main things that can make an interesting image. And if you don’t know what your image is about, then there’s simply no way for your audience to do so, either.

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The two silhouettes: color, texture, contrast.

Rule number one: ask yourself what the image is about. If you don’t know, then move on. If you answer ‘it’s the whole scene’, or the ‘quality of light’, or something equally ambiguous, then one of two things must happen: if it’s the whole scene, then the whole scene must be uniformly interesting without any distractions or particular bits that stand out – that is one of the objectives of abstract photography. If it’s ‘quality of light’, then the only tangible translation of that is color, intensity and directionality – in essence, can you see the shadows, and are they framed to clearly be the subject?

All methods of subject isolation rely on one fundamental principle connected to the way the human eye/brain combination perceives the world: pattern recognition. Elements that are familiar or expected (i.e. do not break pattern) do not receive as much attention as those which are not – consider camouflage; the whole point is to make the camouflaged object blend in with its surroundings by making it appear the same. It does not break pattern and therefore gets no attention. Conversely, if you have something that does break pattern – the proverbial bright pink bull in a china shop – then it attracts far more attention than is usually warranted.

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Phone woman: color, texture, contrast, DOF.

Photography is fundamentally about light. Therefore, if we go back to the visible/recordable properties of light I touched on earlier, we can also derive the mechanics of subject isolation: color, intensity, directionality. There are really only five ways* to separate one area of the frame from another: color, depth of field, contrast, texture and motion. However, the last three are really the same thing: texture is spatial frequency, which is represented by a change in contrast; motion is spatial frequency that only changes perpendicular to the direction of subject motion, which is again represented by a change in contrast. (Contrast is of course both the absolute difference and rate of change in intensity of light between adjacent spatial zones.) So ultimately, we are left with three. Of course, the more of these methods you can use, the more strongly your subject will stand out – and some won’t be sufficiently effective alone, like depth of field.

Other than if we’re working in monochrome, this is one of your strongest tools: it’s independent of overall and local scene brightness, depth of field, spatial size and frequency (texture). A bright red dot on a mostly monochromatic background will definitely catch your viewer’s attention. However, just be careful that the color of your subject isn’t overpowered by the color of secondary elements in the background – the bright red dot won’t stand out if it’s in a field of other, larger bright red, blue, green and orange dots.

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Gott’s. Color, texture, DOF, contrast – note how you notice the hard-edged menu first, and then only the person holding it – which is intentional, and a useful deployment of shallow DOF.

Depth of field
Shallow depth of field alone is the most overused method by amateurs. It is not recommended to rely solely on this method because not only does it not work to isolate a subject by itself – you can’t always use it. If you have a subject that sits in identical light to the background, with similar texture and similar color, it will never stand out no matter how shallow your depth of field. You still need contrast to make it work. On top of that, if your subject is at or close to infinity or the hyperfocal distance for your focal length and maximum aperture*, there is no way you can throw the background out of focus. However, being able to throw backgrounds and foregrounds slightly out of focus is very useful when it comes to accentuating the other methods of subject isolation whilst still retaining enough identifiability in the other elements to add context. You’ll notice that only two of the example images use depth of field as isolation techniques; and even then, the remaining elements are very clearly identifiable.

*This may actually be very close to the camera for a slow/wide lens, and also depends on your output size/resolution.

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Stream of people. Color, texture, contrast, motion.

Contrast is the only one of the five that works all the time: something that is higher contrast will always be more obvious than something of lower contrast. It can also negate spatial/size differences – low contrast and large is less noticeable than high contrast and small. Perhaps this is a holdover from our days in the jungle, when there was danger in darkness and uncertainty in sudden light. Directional light is the key to producing contrast, because contrast is really the presence of shadows – look for your shadows to be visible in some way. If the shadows fall directly behind your subject, the light source is originating from the same direction as the camera and you will have no easy means of separating foreground from background. (Though that may not be a bad thing in some cases – for instance if you are going for an abstract, painterly image – one more example of rules that are not necessarily absolutes…)

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The rock: Texture and motion – minimal change in contrast, minimal change in color. But it works because there isn’t anything else that’s more contrasty or different in color to the rock, either.

I’ve always considered this property to be both the simplest to see and the most difficult to explain. It’s really about spatial frequency: something that has high frequency detail won’t stand out against something else that also has high frequency detail. Perhaps an example is in order: people (high frequency, irregular detail) stand out well against plain walls (low frequency, regular detail) but not so well against trees (high frequency, irregular detail).

Effective use of motion blur can take place in one of two ways – the subject, or the background. If both are moving, then it’s impossible to determine whether the motion is deliberate or accidental camera shake. Effectively, what is happening is that we are creating a patch of fairly uniform texture against which to place something else; as a result, that change in texture creates a noticeable transition and therefore isolation.

Finally, it’s important to remember that what makes your subject stand out can also make distractions stand out: your subject will therefore have to be even more well isolated to rise above the noise. It is of course also possible to have a clearly defined subject with only one or two methods of isolation if your background and edges are clean – this is the main reason I keep stressing to my students to pay attention to the immediate backgrounds. Why make life more difficult otherwise? MT


Subject isolation, storytelling and composition are covered in greater detail in the 5-part Making Outstanding Images workshop video series, available here.


Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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  1. Ranjan Kumar Mandal says:

    A fantastic write up Ming. It is an unique one about Subject Isolation. I shall read more of your write ups.

  2. Just dropping in to let you know I truly appreciate your insights and essays regarding photography. Recently, your images, reviews and essays regarding technique have made me re-evaluate the way I see the world, especially in terms of images. I find myself “thinking” before every image taken. However, it is something that requires discipline. This, unfortunately, is not easily taught. Your essay reminds me of a lesson from my days as an architecture student: We were charged with designing a new home for a fictitious client. After presenting my first go at the home, my professor that told me I “needed an editor standing next to my side 24 hours a day” because I had tried to include too many concepts and ideas into a building. In my youthful ignorance, I thought that such a problem could not exist. Rather than try to design the building with many ideas that REINFORCED a single over-riding concept or thought, I tried to include every idea I could muster into an architectural “stew.” What I learned then, was that a certain rigor and discipline was required to advance the building design and create something special. In fact, my professor next term discussed the “craft” of architecture, for what appeared at the time to be, ad nauseam. The same lesson, however, is true for photography. I took up photography as a hobby about this time (using my father’s 1967 Nikkormat), B/W and self-developing, and tried to learn the techniques of photography. Years later, after letting it slide as a hobby, I started shooting with a DSLR and found myself just snapping away (almost arbitrarily) when the opportunity arose, without discerning what was making the image special (actually not so special), which, is quite the opposite of executing with rigor and discipline. I thought if I reviewed the image AFTERWARDS, I would learn from its flaws and improve. What I have since learned is that great photos rarely happen by accident. Great photos happen from a study and implementation of the CRAFT or art of photography. Successful execution can be illusive, but the thought put into the photo BEFORE it is taken is what makes for better images. That said, an honest evaluation of myself and my images reveals I am just taking pictures because I love the “act” of taking pictures (being mobile and about, observing the world, recording images for the sake of posterity, trying to share something I see with another, etc). Unfortunately, the physical action of taking a photo is just a part of the equation; different from creating and communicating the concept of the photo. As an analogy, it similar to the difference between a draftsman and an architect. The “artist” is capable of elevating a medium so as to communicate with an observer in a profound way, either positively or negatively. The success of an “art” is measured by its execution of craft, which, in your recent essay, has been explained very eloquently and thoughtfully. I hope it rubs off on my future work. Your words have forced me to be more thoughtful of my photography in the future; re-living similar lessons I thought I had learned in the past. For that I am grateful. Thanks Ming.

  3. I kinda want to know who the blurry man is in the picture. 🙂

  4. René Le Blanc says:

    Great write-up again, Ming. One of so many, thank you so much! As a regular reader (and buyer of your teaching material) I noticed before that you are quite critical when it comes down to the use of a limited DOF, as a personal opinion. I my self feel very much attracted to images with a narrow depth of field, provided that the blurring is smooth and undisturbing. It’s why I so much like looking at the work of 8×10 inch photographer Greg Miller at Or the amazing 1913 (one year before WWI!) pictures of Christina, the young daughter of the photographer, at Or the portraiture of Jan Scholtz at Or my Vivian Maier books. Indeed, isn’t this in fact one of the unique distinguishing qualities of photography, which seperates it from traditional painting? Why be negative about that? Although I suppose having just the right amount of blurring in an image adds the most to the strength of an image, I wouldn’t know why it should be necessary for a background to be recognizable at all. Why should it be? After all it often isn’t the case in traditional portraiture painting either. Since I bought my digital Leica M my Summilux 50mm f/1.4 ASPH. became my most used lens, because it allows me to isolate allmost any subject in whatever busy environment with gorgeous unobtrusive rendering of that environment. Isn’t it just a matter of personal preference?

    • Not at all, I think there’s a misunderstanding here. I’m not critical, I deprioritize DOF simply because there are a lot of situations where it simply isn’t an option (distance, wide angle) – and it is still ineffective if relied on independently on contrast. This is regardless of whatever lens you might have – you can never isolate one mountain from the next by depth of field! I think we need the right amount of DOF – enough to isolate/differentiate (if possible) but not so much as to render background indistinguishable and remove the ability for it to add contextually to the image. The only thing I’m critical of ‘walls of bokeh’ for the sake of it: why not just use a backdrop sheet?

      • Michiel953 says:

        Because a backdrop wasn’t available at the time? On the subject of what is available to allow you make your shot, as you may know I do a lot of portraits (the 58/1.4G mainly) in “across table in restaurant near window” situations. Recently I noticed the waitress was clearing the table behind my subject, and I then asked her to hold up the (white) tablecloth as a reflector next to my subject, and then as a backdrop behind my subject. The effect was interesting and certainly noticeable, although not to my liking in every respect. Something with the balance of the light, ambient, reflected, inside and outside. At least I’m milking the possibilities of the situation…
        Here’s a link to the reflector shot; possibly works only for FB friends (which I think you are 😉 )

        • Michiel953 says:

          So it didn’t work at all. Anyway, it was posted January 20…

        • The one thing you’re always guaranteed with using reflectors is your secondary source will never overpower the primary, and you won’t get a ‘direction conflict’…

  5. Wolfgang Weidner says:

    Ming! It is pure joy to follow your craft. Another crystalline article.

  6. Very interesting set of comments. What fun! What comes immediately to my mind opens a parallel discussion on how one’s personal reaction to an image and how one analyses that reaction may well determine ‘strength’ by which I mean the ‘power’ of the image or its ‘impact’. I can see all the points of view here. To me, I can react to an image in so many ways – appreciating it’s aesthetic, geometric, stylistic, philosophical and emotional resonances – which I accept are ‘mine’. When I compare these qualities of an image, I can see the parallels with appreciating say, a poem or a piece of music, or a dance etc. For me the challenge is in the way that the photographer sees what he has deliberately shot and why versus the life that image takes on immediately it’s viewed by any set of individuals, each of whom will react to it in their own way – at any level or in respective of any aspect of it.

    Take a piece of music – no matter whether it is absolute or programmatic, you cam dissect it into musical phrases, you can examine the choice of key(s) and chordal progression, you can appreciate the hint of melody, you can appreciate the specific choice of notes and the inherent harmonies they create AND OR you can sit back and feel the flow and respond to the emotions that generates in you. ‘Strength’ or “Impact’ or ‘Power’ or ‘Effect’ can be measured by all of those attributes and the more you are musically aware, the more powerfully that music will speak to you. There are similar parallels in hearing poetry read by the poet – the more you understand about the technicalities of poetry, the deeper your potential response to it BUT your emotional reaction will be somewhat more immediate for you and in a very obvious sense, will require no analysis. It is what it is. In that sense once written, when read, a poem takes on a life of its own – dependent upon the understanding and emotional reaction of the listener or reader, which may not in any sense correspond to the intention of the poet. So it is with images. Exactly so. Ming’s analysis is, as always, provocative as it is informative, but it’s intention, I am certain, is to convey some of the elements of the technicalities of strong images so he can pass on the value of his experience to others who value that guidance. As in fact I do.

    • Michiel953 says:

      What a great response Mike, and I’m very much with you. And I really love this discussion as well; thought provoking and inspiring!

    • I’d suggest a different approach: you can’t necessarily get the same emotional response from an image or a photograph if the necessary elements aren’t present. To go one step further, if you don’t have some level of understanding and control – whether conscious or intuitive – of the techniques required to do that, you as the artist can’t create the desired emotion deliberately

  7. Brett Patching says:

    Good article Ming! Very clear and with great examples. Off to practice 🙂

  8. Ming, is it intentional that each photo of yours, when I click on it to expand it, I get the doggone Flickr sign-up page? Just askin’ 🙂

  9. I’m probably going to come off as pedantic here, but I think the term ‘strong’ image is problematic. What makes an image strong is surely subjective. The crappy family picture on the mantlepiece is ‘strong’ because it evokes memories and emotions — regardless of light, DOF, idea and composition. So for instance are Martin Parr’s mugshots in a 1970s style photo booth. Perhaps it’s more meaningful to talk in terms of what makes an image striking or beautiful, which is what I think you’re talking about and which is not (for me) the same thing as a ‘strong’ image.

    • Yes and no – there are images that are universally attention-getting – that’s what I’d consider as strong. Not necessarily mantel snapshots – that only has limited accessibility. Break down any of these relatively universal images, and you’ll find they do actually hit lost of the points in the article. There are some exceptions, but I haven’t been able to find that many.

      • I looked up pedantic… I guess I disagree with this being too detailed. I love the detailing, both in word and imagery. Yet I suppose Sohall is arguing that “strong” is a poor word to be used. Yet one way to look at it is where strong means: able to stand alone. In that sense most all of your images, Ming, are very strong. If that is strength, your images are Mike Tyson on his best day ever. They are “so strong it hurts” 🙂 and I almost need to rest between each image. I think strong can apply in that sense. Epic, sweet, memorable, historical, even whimsical or ironic might be a little different than just plain strong.

        • Thanks – not sure about taking on Tyson though! I think Sohail has a valid point about strength being somewhat relative, but I was referring more to common properties of images that ‘work’ – a reverse derivation, if anything.

      • I think a lot of what classes as photojournalism (of the Nachtwey variety) could come under the category of images that aren’t always reducible to those four parameters. One relatively recent image that comes to mind is the washed up body of Aylan Kurdi. It’s of course a very powerful image (possibly a still from video footage) — so much so that it had a significant impact on foreign policy. Now one could dissect the image and say that its ‘strength’ is due to a series of technical parameters, but we immediately know of course that it’s much, much more than that.

        • I agree – what I’m trying to say is that in addition to the social significance and human interest, the image still is strengthened because the subject stands out, light suits the mood etc.

    • Good to be reminded of the basics again!

      Sohail, you are right in that strong images are often strong because they have an emotional or personal connection to the viewer. For me, after having lived with the 4 things philosophy for about 3 years (has it been that long?!), I would say they do not in and of themselves guarantee a strong or even good image. But they do tell you how to clearly express whatever idea you have in your head without distraction. Some of them, like subject isolation, is to make sure that what you want to show is actually seen. Some others like the idea of balance makes sure there isn’t an element or arrangement in the frame that distracts from what you’re trying to show. Of course, there’s overlap between all of them, and they can be used in multiple ways.

      An analogy might be an actor learning to speak clearly and learning to control their body so they can communicate to you whatever feeling or idea they might have. The 4 things are like a picture frame, and it’s up to you the photographer to put something in it that’s meaningful to the viewer. That’s my understanding so far, and it may change again in the future!

      • I’m not arguing against the four basic parameters here. They’re crucial, and I try my best (thanks to Ming) to incorporate them in my photos. What I’m getting at is that they are important for a particular kind of aesthetic — one that I too like many other here aspire too. I guess I’m uncomfortable with the use of the term ‘strong’ because for me it has a lot to do with emotional impact. So if someone could figure out a ‘grammar’ of emotional impact (i.e. the basic ingredients that make a photo connect with the viewer) that would be (for me) the way to go on what makes an image strong.

        • I think getting an emotionally powerful photo is a much tougher thing to spell out exactly, and is perhaps impossible! As an aside, some of this discussion reminds me of the discussions about Salgado’s style, which some people claim diminishes pain and suffering. That is, his photos are too beautiful for what they’re trying to depict. I don’t agree with that at all, and I think the best response to that came from David Hurn in his book written with Bill Jay, On Being A Photographer:

          “What is indisputable is that the better the picture the more people will look at it over a longer period of time — which means the subject matter will have more resonance whatever the original reason for admiring the image. I have never understood the idea that the picture is ‘too good’; it is never too good as long as the subject has been clearly revealed. The photographer’s aim is to create beautiful pictures, of any and all subject matter.”

          One could argue that there are photos other than “beautiful” ones that hold a viewer’s attention or invite repeated viewings, but I think Hurn’s point is that it is the responsibility of the photographer to make a photo as a thing unto itself that has its own reasons for existence. The photographer has to straddle two worlds here: one is the subject or whatever is being depicted, but the other is his own responsibility as a photographer to make photos that are valid photographic objects. These are photos that speak with good grammar and syntax, if we stretch the language analogy further.

          • Bill put it well – and yes, the literary analogy is a good one. You can say something, and get your point across eventually, or you can say something with full knowledge and deliberate application of the vocabulary and syntax necessary to make a convincing argument. All I’m saying is we should aim to fall into the latter camp…

          • Andre Y,

            I’m not sure it’s impossible. We can all to some extent articulate why certain images impact us on an emotional level. We might not be able always to pinpoint some of the more nuanced emotions we experience, but they’re certainly well within our grasp.

            On Hurn’s point, I’m not persuaded that it’s such a great response. It’s certainly true that the job of the fine-art photographer is to create beautiful pictures, but it’s much too narrow a view to assume that all photography is motivated by beauty. A picture can of course hold for all sorts of reasons (shock, awe, humour, cringe value, etc). Beauty is one point (a large one albeit) along a broader continuum of reasons as to why we look at pictures.

            Re Salgado, it’s not unusual that people say that about his work. He straddles that fine line between photojournalism and fine-art photography by capturing or perhaps making beauty out of the crude realities of people’s lives. I’m not passing judgement here, but I think it’s a fair comment on what he does. However, many others like Nachtwey who don’t straddle that line, are not ultimately concerned as Hurn would have it by ‘beauty’.

            Last, yes, good grammar and syntax doubtless produce great literary works. But the very great writers have always consciously broken those rules. Shakespeare for instance often used double negatives and double comparatives. If we insisted that all our sentences needed to be immaculately constructed in Standard English, we would risk reducing poetry to a dull and soulless activity — reminding me of that final film scene in ‘Dead Poets Society’! ☺ What I’m arguing here is that photography needs to be grounded in a much broader vision that speaks to the broader complexity of the human condition away from technical considerations important though they are. Images are strong because they hit us in a special way — not because they’re constructed in any particular way. That should (as I see it) be the basic starting point.

            • It’s definitely possible to analyze an image and say why it affects us the way it does, but that still doesn’t give us a prescriptive way to make similarly powerful images. For example, there’ve been hundreds of years of analysis of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, but still no way to replicate the impact of their music in new compositions.

              • We’re not trying to replicate Mozart — just capturing and conveying the human emotions we experience the every day. It’s not a particularly esoteric undertaking.

    • Michiel953 says:

      Sohail, it’s all subjective. I find “strong” (I tend to prefer the term “interesting”) a very good moniker, sort of “one term fits all” thing.

      If we restrict that sort of assessmentto what the image actually conveys to us (devoid of personal, family etc connotations), the image should speak to us, move something.

      The four traits?

      Quality of light: yes, although that’s a subjective element as well (obviously). Dull light doesn’t usually help, though it can have a certain quality (I did some F2AS/FP4+/tripod assisted landscape photography recently in disappointingly dull and grey winter light; still not sure about the “quality”);

      Clarity of subject: yes, even if the subject can be everything that is in the image;

      Balance of composition: no, I like imbalance (not always though, it creates tension and interest;

      “The idea”: yes, there should be an idea behind that image, even if the random viewer might not discover that idea without help…

      I like the silhouettes shot a lot!

      • How about looking at it this way: given two images with the same subject elements and emotional content (or otherwise), the one with the four parameters will be the stronger one.

        That said, it isn’t even quite that simple since light affects composition etc…

        • Again, I’d argue that what you’re adding is a very particular stylised effect to the image (one I aspire too), which makes it more striking and perhaps more beautiful, but not necessarily stronger. Take for instance Nick Ut’s famous picture of the 9-year old Vietnamese girl fleeing from a US napalm attack: would it have been stronger if the subject had been better isolated, shot in more flattering light, and/or better balanced? I’m not sure any of that really matters insofar as adding to the strength of the image.

          • liramusic says:

            to Sohail, I appreciate your thoughts. I wonder if the strength of a photo could also lie beyond the frame of the photo. Could that be a “kind” of strength, too, when the photographer illuminates thoughts that go far beyond what is seen. I hope this adds here? I don’t mean to think beyond the thread itself in any bad way; my weakness is that my thoughts quickly wander away from the line of a defined conversation. My mind goes into abstractions and I sometimes wish I did not have that issue. But whereas you brought up the Vietnamese girl running, that brings to mind timing-based photos.I tend to think of your work, Ming, as more like a painting-like and so “strength” is in that way– where the limit of the strength analysis is what we see in the frame and not abstractly what lies outside the photo. I am not too sure, just thinking out loud.

            • Our job as photographers is definitely to show in a lasting way what might otherwise pass most of the world by – I think it means a good photographer is really a good observer first and foremost; the rest is about presentation. Food may taste good if heaped but appeal to more of the senses and create a more complete experience if presented properly…

          • I’d say yes, but then we’ll never know 🙂

            • Guy Incognito says:


              >> would it have been stronger if the subject had been better isolated, shot in more flattering light, and/or better balanced?

              As you point out – it hardly matters given how strong it is. The strength of an ‘image’ is probably a logarithmic function of the input (composition – used in the broad sense). There is an idea of sufficiency here too – at some point the payoff for ‘better’ input doesn’t matter. The main subject in “Napalm Girl” elicits such a strong response in the viewer that we forgive Ut and the photo for its sins.

              For what it is worth, I decomposed this image in a
              previous comment
              . There are many more things ‘right’ about “Napalm Girl” than there are ‘wrong’. What sins!?

              Are there things you could do to make the image better? I doubt it given the circumstances. Are there things you could have done to make it worse? You bet – and an awful lot of them!

              • Guy,

                Asking how the Napalm picture could be compositionally or technically better is assuming that it needs to be. If anything, I think those considerations make it weaker by diminishing the raw and natural circumstances it was shot in. I haven’t had the chance to look at your previous comments, but for me what makes this image ‘strong’ is the extreme juxtaposition between brutal military might and the girl’s utter vulnerability by virtue of her facial expressions caught at the moment of peak emotional impact and exacerbated by her nakedness. All technical considerations are frankly of minimal importance.

                • I agree with Sohail here, and perhaps an analogy might help. If you’re really mad, and want to curse someone out (maybe they just cut you off in traffic), there’s not much nuance you’re going to add to your cursing that’s going to make it feel any worse to the person receiving it. The words you say have to be clear enough that they know you’re not wishing them a good day, but the sentiment will come through. The napalm picture is similar: its subject is so strong (and clear enough) that you are not going to improve its impact you cleaned up its edges, composed in a balanced way, etc.

                  Some subjects require more nuance and refinement, while others just need you to yell it loud enough so people know what you’re talking about.

                  • Guy Incognito says:

                    Sohail, Andre Y,

                    Don’t get me wrong. I am not claiming it could be better. It is a very moving and powerful image.

                    > Are there things you could do to make the image better? I doubt it given the
                    > circumstances. Are there things you could have done to make it worse? You bet
                    > – and an awful lot of them!

                    We are in agreement here!

                    While technical considerations might be of minimal importance – this is not true of the composition. This is why Ut had far more options to make it worse than he did to make it better.

                    > Asking how the Napalm picture could be compositionally or technically better
                    > is assuming that it needs to be. If anything, I think those considerations
                    > make it weaker by diminishing the raw and natural circumstances it was shot
                    > in.

                    I would argue the opposite! An ungenerous way of looking at this is; that there was no way to take a bad photo in that situation because the subject was so strong. Ut simply had to be there to click the shutter. I know you would not dare suggest such a thing! Hopefully I haven’t pushed past a logical extreme into reductio ad absurdum!

                    True, you don’t need to talk about compositional considerations to feel the emotion or understand the historical gravitas of the photo. However, talking about the compositional considerations, I think, better credits the photographer and helps us understand how he communicated that event to us.

        • Michiel953 says:

          No no Ming, that’s allright, it’s a very effective analogy (did you read philosophy in Oxford?). I still disagree on the “balance” criterium. I just don’t feel that the more balanced one of the two in the analogy (if we could decie which it is of course) would be preferable, stronger. I very much welcome your thoughts on that one. The subject of a following article; imbalance and tension?

          • The complete opposite – theoretical physics!

            Imbalance isn’t necessarily a good thing, but tension in its own way is balanced: there has to be something to offset the main subject, otherwise there is no tension…

            • Michiel953 says:

              Nahh; not the “complete” opposite… 😉

              No tension without (implied, not directly visible?) balnce. Definitely a forthcoming article. If you don’t do that, I will. Even if it will take me some time…

      • Michiel953, curiously “interestingness’ is the term Flickr uses, which is based on an algorithm that tries to gauge the degree of human interest in images. It’s problematic too. As you know, pictures of cute kittens and bunnies can tend to end up generating lots of interest.

        • Michiel953 says:

          Hi Sohail; no problem. What I mean by “interesting” is an image (could be a sculpture, or just something one observes, a painting, a photograph) that arouses one’s interest ánd curiosity (hence my stress on imbalance 😉 ). Strong might, as I said, be a better label…

        • I actually wonder how that works. Somebody has to set those parameters, surely? And I don’t believe the algorithm is smart enough to recognize a kitten…bokeh, perhaps.

          • Michiel953 says:

            Parameters is… algebra? Mathematics? Ignoring the subjective or rather, intersubjective side of life to muddle that with pseudo-accurate terms?

            Sorry, that’s my argumentative bastard side… And no, interesting is not what a lot of people find interesting, it’s what Í find interesting… 😉

          • I don’t think the algorithm has any particular view about what constitutes a strong image. It’s simply a reflection of what the Flickr community deems to be interesting by virtue of hits, faves and comments. That’s not to say it’s completely meaningless. Popular appeal can be important too, I think. But if it can align with with a more thoughtful or more disciplined approach to image thinking, that can sometimes be an indication of a good image.

            • I have no idea how one would automate this – I don’t think it’s possible, because it’s as much reactive to popular culture trends and current events as it is dictative of them…

          • Guy Incognito says:


            >> And I don’t believe the algorithm is smart enough to recognize a kitten…bokeh, perhaps

            Google has already done this

            Based purely off lens reviews? Surely?

      • I think balance is important in so far as it affects the intent and impact of your image. Good balance should be a transparent thing: you don’t notice it unless you’re looking for it. Bad balance draws attention to itself and away from the subject. A photo can rely on having bad balance for its effect, but if that’s not your intent then it’s better for the viewer’s attention to not be distracted by bad balance.

        BTW, having balance doesn’t mean a static picture, or not having tension. It’s closer to a graphic design sensibility of balance where the visual weight of various areas in the frame are balanced.

    • Guy Incognito says:

      If we’re going to be pedants here, I’m going to be a bit curmudgeony and call Sohail out on this one.

      >> The crappy family picture on the mantlepiece is ‘strong’ because it evokes memories and emotions

      I understand what you are getting at here but the fact that you like your child’s finger painting, because they are your child, does stop the finger painting from (in all likelihood) being crap!

      Read the title of the post again: subject isolation. You are conflating the emotional significance of a subject and how to best isolate/represent that subject.

      The crappy family picture on the mantelpiece will have minimal emotional resonance for non-relatives. However; show a series of differently composed portraits of the same family to non-relatives using different compositions/isolation method and you’ll probably find consensus on the ‘strongest’ image – despite a weak emotional affinity with the subjects. Perform the same experiment on relatives and I bet ‘on average’ you’ll probably find that their response aligns with the non-relatives – despite a strong emotional affinity with the subjects. Why? Independent of our emotional relationship with the subject we can choose how best, or worst, to portray it!

      Sohail – perhaps you are digging more into the realm of The idea of a 5. I think these concepts are more ineffable than a ‘strong’ image.

      Debating about what is good art is fun but ultimately futile if you expect a definitive answer. So is semantics if we are ultimately on the same page! What should we call a ‘strong’ image if not strong? :-p

      (All written with levity)

      • Guy,

        As I’ve written in this thread, I’m suggesting that we substitute our current use here of the term ‘strong’ for something like ‘striking’ or beautiful and reserve ‘strong’ for images that hit us in a special way.

        • Guy Incognito says:


          > I’m suggesting that we substitute our current use here of the term ‘strong’
          > for something like

          I know… but,

          > Debating about what is good art is fun but ultimately futile if you expect a
          > definitive answer. So is semantics if we are ultimately on the same page!

          I think we are on the same page! Would a rose by…?

          I am open to other suggestions if I hear them. Strong serves the purpose for me very well. Any other term should be equally generic or neutral with respect to aesthetics and emotion.

          Think of all the ‘strong’ art that deals with the grotesque. It certainly does not match the conventional definition of beautiful!

          • A dubious point, Guy. The term “strong” is no more or less “definitive than any other. Further, no one is making the case for a perfect term — rather for a better or more helpful one.

  10. Great to see you go back to basics at the start of the year.
    It’s refreshing and makes me want to get out and shoot to play with what I just read.

    I can see where you are going when you put motion and texture under contrast as changes in frequency.
    If I’m not mistaking color is change in frequency also. And wouldn’t DOF, if seen as an absolute difference, be contrast?
    That leaves us with one: contrast, which you, once again, take out of the murky gut feeling area and into the light with this great article and beautiful examples for us to contemplate.
    Thank you!

    Little ps: in the first paragraph, shouldn’t ‘The last two require some practice’ be ‘The next two’?

  11. Wonderine says:

    The photo “Stream of people” is intriguing: how could keep your camera steady for that lapse of time? You didn’t have the chance to set up a tripod, correct?

  12. Interesting read with lovely pictures. Thanks for sharing!


  1. […] it’s a very short but somewhat elastic period of time in which we must observe, notice and isolate some action or event or subject of interest to us, know the reason behind that attention, and then […]

  2. […] have to be in the foreground, or in focus, or the largest object in the frame; it merely has to be the most visually prominent. The Idea of Man series deliberately exploits this. On top of that, use of out of focus foregrounds […]

  3. […] you inexorably towards a single point or points, in a certain order. This is not be confused with subject isolation, though the two are inextricably related. Subject isolation merely defines how well distinguished […]

  4. […] want to confuse your audience by including elements that are irrelevant or worse, distracting and visually stronger than the main subject. As we know, the very act of composition itself is one of both cropping and curation: we are […]

  5. […] – then it breaks pattern from the rest of the frame by being empty. Photographic implication: Make sure your subject breaks pattern to stand out; think of camouflage and reverse […]

  6. […] be able to parse the bulk of the scene on autopilot – e.g. not cutting off edges, watching subject isolation and backgrounds – and thus be able to devote more conscious concentration to the critical […]

  7. […] it’s a very short but somewhat elastic period of time in which we must observe, notice and isolate some action or event or subject of interest to us, know the reason behind that attention, and then […]

  8. […] – then it breaks pattern from the rest of the frame by being empty. Photographic implication: Make sure your subject breaks pattern to stand out; think of camouflage and reverse […]

  9. […] contrast or definition (opposite of blurring) is too much; this depends very much on how well your main subject is isolated. So long as it remains the most prominent thing – and the OOFF falls below the secondary and […]

  10. […] want to confuse your audience by including elements that are irrelevant or worse, distracting and visually stronger than the main subject. As we know, the very act of composition itself is one of both cropping and curation: we are […]

  11. […] something that doesn’t catch your attention in some way, and whilst there’s the whole psychological logic behind subject isolation methods, we cannot discard individual biases. It is very, very difficult – almost impossible – […]

  12. […] what I consider to be the cornerstone elements of a good image. I’ve also written about subject isolation and finding that extra unpredictable magic element that lifts an image to the realm of the […]

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