Category: Composition

Subject Isolation

Ways to make the photo be about what it is about, and not about anything else. This, I believe, is the most fundamental composition technique. This is a goal to achieve in an image, a way to think about what is and isn’t working in images.

Most beginner photographers will find their best images exemplify subject isolation.

Make your image such that it is an image of one thing, and strongly of that thing.

Ways to achieve subject isolation:

  • Get closer
  • Make it bigger
  • Cut the clutter
  • Deemphasize the background (blurriness or clean)
  • Use the rule of thirds
  • Try a blurry background (via depth of field or motion blur or just go somewhere blurry)
  • Break a pattern
  • Make it more saturated
  • Make it’s color unique
  • Make it contrastier

In other words, manipulate image properties to bring attention to the subject and away from everything else.

Subject Distance

It’s all about subject distance

Stop talking about lens width, or which lens width you prefer. Those are crops.

Those different crops affect the way photographers approach subjects, and the subject-background ratio. They give different looks, but it’s all subject distance.

Ansel Adams in ‘The Camera’:

“…the effect of changing to a lens of longer focal length is to increase the size of the image of any part of the subject. Beginning photographers therefore often assume that the effect of changing to a longer focal length lens is equivalent to moving closer to the subject. In fact there are important differences. Since photographers often do both at the same time- change lenses and subject distance simultaneously- the effects of these two acts are often confused.”

So what does subject distance actually do?

Understanding Subject Distance

When I say “subject distance” I mean the distance between the camera and what it is taking photos of.

What I actually mean is the relative distances of everything in the scene.

Basically, because of perspective, things that are further away are smaller. When we have photos with multiple objects at different distances (ie: the subject and the background), we can affect the percieved relative sizes of these objects just by moving closer or further away.

For the curious, there are special lens, telecentric or “orthographic” lenses, that do not experience perspective distortion.

First, watch this video

In the dolly zoom, also called the hitchcock zoom, the cinemetographer is moving the camera forwards and backwards. They are also zooming in and out at such a rate that the subject stays in the same relative location.

It’s All Relative

If I am 5 unit’s from the camera and the background is 10 units from the camera, 5 unit behind me, the background is twice as far from the camera as it is from me.

So the background is pretty big, all things considered.

If I walk towards the camera so I am only 1 unit from the camera, but the background is still 10 units from the camera, now I am 10 times closer to the camera than the background. Before I was twice as close.

I am going to be 10 times bigger than the background, while before I was only twice the size. I am going to take up a lot more space in the frame!

What Now? Math is confusing!

Relax. Just think about the relative distances to the camera everything is. Not actual feet or real life units, just how many times closer to the camera different objects are.

Lets think back to the hitchcock zoom video above (‘History of the Dolley Zoom’). Consider one of the shots, from jaws.

The top image, the camera is far away.
The bottom image, the camera is close.

Relatively, the background is much closer to the camera, compared to the actor, in the top photo than the bottom photo. The actor is much closer to the camera than the background in the second photo.

In the bottom image, we can see the orange/white striped building that we couldn’t see at the beginning of the shot. When the camera got closer to the actor, it also zoomed out (so the actor stayed the same size), revealing more of the background.

More Than Just A Film Gimmick

The hitchcock zoom, in film, is just demonstrating the optical effect. In photography, how far away to stand is almost always the first decision that photographers have to make.

How do you learn this? I can show you a million photos, or you can go take a few photos of the same object while moving forwards and backwards from it. Experiment!

Zoom lenses just crop

When you zoom in or out with a zoom lens (or by switching lenses), Nothing about the image changes. Nothing except for what section is visible, it’s just a crop!

Okay, the depth of field changes. Wider lens = deeper depth of field. Nothing changes about the nature of the size of the objects in a scene. They don’t really “get bigger”, that only happens when you move closer. All you are doing, when you zoom, is crop the photo! That’s it! That’s it! Nothing else!

Move your feet to actually, you know, change the image being taken.

Get closer!

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” – Robert Capa.

Stop zooming in to get closer. Start moving your feet. Making the subject larger than other object in the frame doesn’t just clearly signify it as more important. It also gives a more intimate feeling, more involved. Exaggerating object sizes to be larger than real life (compared to background) is much more interesting than a photo that puts the audience further than they normally are. Bring the audience closer than they are used to!

This is just a guideline. When starting out with photography, I highly encourage you follow it. Start moving your feet while you take photos, and see how they change.


What, really, is saturation?

Saturation is like the opposite of converting an image into greyscale.

Every pixel is stored as a values of red, green, or blue. These are simple numerical values between 0 and 255.

Red is (255,0,0) and green is (0,255,0).

When these values are all the same value, the pixel is greyscale. (0,0,0) is black and (255,255,255) is white.

Converting an image to greyscale involves averaging the values together. Red (255,0,0) might become (127,127,127).

If greyscale is the three values (rgb) merging towards the same color, then saturation is when these values are further apart from one another. Increasing the saturation increases the difference between these values without changing the overall tonal brightness of the pixel.

That’s the easy way to think about it. It’s also sort of wrong.

Except… changing the saturation of an image isn’t quite as simple as pushing the “R, G, and B” values further from each other, as this would eventually leave us with just red, green, and blue pixels; and would distort what the colors are percieved as during the process. A purple might become blue as it saturates. Computers need to keep the ratios between the values proportionate.

One way to do this in real life is as follows:

First, the color is converted into a different color-space. A color-space is a 3 dimensional map of colors. RGB space is a 3D space with red, green, and blue values each on an axis (think XYZ).

We convert to a different color space such as HSL. HSL is Hue, Saturation, Lightness as the axis’s, as opposed to by quantity of red,green, and blue values.

With the colors organized by hue,saturation, and lightness. Then one pushes the colors along the saturation axis easily, and then convert back to RGB space. These conversions can be done with matrix transformations, if you remember your linear algebra from college. If not, don’t worry about any of this.

Read more:

Image Properties

In order to understand images, we need to be able to talk about them. We need to be able to identify various attributes of images, and identify how they are different from other images.

I call these tools “image properties”, but they sometimes might better be considered as “properties of things in images”. Either way, these are things we can identify about images.

Here’s a list of some common properties that an image (or a thing in an image) may have.

  • Brightness
  • Contrastyness
  • Color
  • Saturation
  • Size
  • Position
  • Sillhouette
  • Focus (out of focus vs. sharp)
  • Motion Blur
  • Implied motion
  • Headroom
  • Facing Direction/Looking Direction
  • Distance from camera
  • Perspective Distortion
  • Framing
  • Completeness

Many of these are self-evident, but let’s break it down.


How bright is the object? Is it totally white or black? Over or under exposed? Are it’s edges bright, is it totally bright, and/or does it have highlights?


How Contrasty (yes that’s a real word) is it? In some ways, this is the opposite of blurriness, as contrastiness and percieved sharpness often go hand in hand.

Does this object take up a little bit of space on the histogram, or do we see a full range of tones from black to white?


What color is it? What is the nature of that color? What does that color say about the object? What does the color pallete of the image say? Are there complimentary, or other such color rules, at play?


Saturation refers the percieved color intensity of any color or object. How ‘colorful’ is it, basically? Read more on saturation.


How big is the object compared to other objects? How much space does it take up in the frame?


Where (in the 2D image plane) is the object? Is it on one of the third lines?

Where (in space) is the object? Is it near other objects? Far from them?


What is the outline of the object? Is it a blob, or defined? Does it overlap with other objects in the scene


Is the object in focus? Is all of the object in focus?

Motion Blur

Does the object have motion blur, or is it on a background that has motion blur?

Implied Motion

Does the object look like it should be moving, like a car with blurry wheels, or a person running.


If it does have motion blur or implied motion, does the object have space to move in the image, or is it against the edge of the frame?

Does the object have spacing around it, is it “comfortable” where it is, or does the position feel unnatural, like a person’s face up against the far side of a photo.

Facing Direction/Looking Direction

Is the object “open”, towards the camera, or “closed”, away. Is the object towards the edge of the frame or towards the middle/accross the frame.

If there are eyes, are they looking at camera, behind camera, or to the side? Is the head facing the same direction the eyes are? Is the chest (the collarbone) facing the same direction as the eyes and/or head?

Distance From Camera

How far is the object from the camera? Was the photographer fery far away, or very close? Is the object the closest thing?

Can the photographer get closer? Could they go further away?

Perspective Distortion

Does the size of the object relative to other objects in the scene match with our expectations of reality, or have things become amplified? Are flat objects still flat?

If this object is one of a series of similar objects, like columns on a building, how much different in size is this object than the others?


Does the object have a natural, unnatural, or implied frame around it.

A natural frame like a window, looking through railing poles, or curved tree branches; where an object would be surrounded in a sight that may be expected “naturally”.

An unnatural frame where something has been constructed, placed, or held up to the camera.

An implied frame where there is no literal frame, just a use of shadows and other compositional elements to ‘surround’ the subject.


Is all of the subject visible? Is any part not visible implied in existence, like the top of a head. For the parts not visible, is it uncertain what is out of frame? like just how far down an iceburg goes, or how large a crowd is in an image of a close-up of a few people marching.

If somebody is reacting from something, is that something visible?

If a baseball pitcher throws a ball, do we see the ball, or just the pitcher’s posture?

It’s All Relative

I skipped many of the hypothetical questions because they are all the same:
Is this the most [blank] thing in the image? Is is the brightest? The darkest? The only thing in focus? Is it the closest thing to the camera? The furthest? Does it break a pattern? These questions one can ask themselves about almost everything on this list when considering why an image does or does not work, and what to do about it.

Rule Of Thirds

The rule of thirds is perhaps the most fundamental rule of image making there is.

First, let’s look at some examples of photos that use the rule of thirds. Check out the following site (occasionally updated by yours truly) for a whole pile of example photos that follow this compositional guideline.

Rule Of Thirds With Bird Dot Tumblr Dot Com

What Is The Rule Of Thirds?

Fold a piece of paper into thirds. Do it again the other way. You know have a tic-tac-toe board of sorts, on the image. The lines and intersectiosn made by the creases, those are the third lines.

When humans look at rectangles, we tend to look at these points and lines first. We also tend to observe things that fall on these lines more than things that don’t.

This image (shot on an Olympus OM-1) puts the ladder on the left third line.

How To Use The Rule Of Thirds

Thus, when we are trying to figure out where in the frame to put something, the simple rule is this: Put it on the third. On an intersection or line.

Landscape? Don’t put the horizon line in the center, this is uncomfortable. Move it to the top or botton third line!

This image puts the horizon line, blurry as it is, on the bottom third. The subject is, of course, on the left; and their face on the top-left intersection.

Taking a close up photo of a face? Too big to put it on a third? Put the eyes on the top third. Done, now worry about something else, like the expression or the lighting.

The Rule Of Thirds is Everywhere

This rule is considered by many to be the most fundamental guideline (concrete, actionable guideline) when taking a photos. When you crop a photo in most software, thirds lines appear to help you decide. Most cameras allow you to put third lines over your viewfinder/preview to see while taking pictures.

In this photo, the subjets are on the bottom-right third line, the road on the bottom line, and the building horizon is about the top third line. I didn’t think about any of this when I took this photo, I just saw the evening light providing a rim light around my friends, a nice scene of a city; I dropped back a few steps, pulled my Olympus XA out of my pocket, and snapped the photo.

Break This Rule

Of course, with such a fundamental rule, it will get broken. All the time. I encourage you to break it! Break it on purpose, as an exercise in understanding other compositional elements, as they must be present to “take over” from this rule, which can largely be a starting point.

The easiest example is scenes with symmetry, or stronger compositional elements that matter more – like leading lines, or the photographer’s physical restrictions (I couldn’t go there, or get close enough, etc).

In this photo, the leading lines mattered more.

The second reason to break it is, by breaking it, you can draw a lot of attention to the object that “doesn’t fit”. Big pictures of walls with a subject in the corner, for example.

Videos On The Rule Of Thirds