Should You Always Isolate Your Subject?

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

One of the things we’re commonly taught about photographing wildlife is to always isolate your subject by making the background completely out of focus (like in the photo on the right).

This helps the viewer immediately focus on the subject, but should that always be your goal?

When you choose not to isolate your subject against it’s background, you can reveal much more about your subject (such as it’s habitat, size, what it might be doing at the moment, etc).

Here are a few examples to help illustrate what I mean:

Red-shouldered Hawk perched on a tree

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

When I first saw this Red Shouldered Hawk, I really wanted a photo where the background was completely out of focus, so all the viewer really saw would be the hawk and the branch it was perched on. I knew I was much too far away to get this kind of shot, but I took a photo anyway because this was the first time I saw a red shouldered hawk :)

When I looked at the photo later when I got home, I actually changed my mind and decided I liked the shot better this way (with the background somewhat in focus). Here’s why: it helps show how much the hawk has adapted to his surroundings and blends in with his background. If the background was completely out of focus, this effect wouldn’t have been illustrated very well.

Having the background just slightly out of focus also helps paint a picture of the hawk’s habitat, whereas a totally isolated hawk would just look like a big bird in front of a mysterious out of focus background.

Allen’s Hummingbird Perched on Ocotillo

Photo by Steve Berardi

Photo by Steve Berardi

When I first saw this Allen’s hummingbird, I had a vision of photographing it perched on this Ocotillo, but with the blue sky in the background instead of more Ocotillo. I waited around for about an hour, hoping it would land where I wanted it to, but it just kept perching low to the ground.

So, I finally just snapped a few photos anyway. Just like the hawk photo above, I didn’t like this shot at first, but then later changed my mind and thought this was a good photo for similar reasons: it helps show the environment of the bird. With all that pollen on the hummingbird’s head, the viewer might even assume (correctly) that it’s been busy gathering nectar from Ocotillo flowers all day :)

What do you think?

Agree? Disagree? Please share your thoughts with us by leaving a comment below. Thanks! :)

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, software engineer, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of southern California.

Comments

  1. Ahhhh Steve love this post….as much as I would love to isolate my subject matter…I love the contast of the natural environment look and feel. Most of my shots that I take are like above with background. I don’t have many that have a background that is out of focus…I guess really it’s about you as a photographer…what your looking for in your photography. I’ve grown alot over the last few months and I’m learning something new everyday!! Going on a masive Hiking Trip into the interior of BC this month. Canoeing, hiking and also taking a trip to the Glacier peakes as well. My objective is more scenic shots since I haven’t mastered them yet…I’ve tried but have failed badly. Also hoping for some Bear shots, Elk, and I’m hopeful for an Owl. I will try and say hi when I get home maybe I will have something fabulous to show for my trip!! Again thanks for this wonderful post.

    Crista Cowan
    Victoria BC
    Canada

    • Crista – good point that “it’s about you as a photographer” — it’s really easy sometimes to get bogged down by all the “rules” and forget your original reason of why you take photos in the first place. I think for everyone this reason is different, and everyone should take this into consideration when deciding to obey a “rule” :)

      Your massive hiking trip sounds great! Wish I had a trip like that planned for this summer. Good luck with the landscape photos! Will there be “spirit bears” where you’re going? I saw photos of them recently.. pretty amazing looking animals..

      Steve

  2. Well Steve if I luck out and see one I will definately photograph it. I just bought an excellent Camera Case for my adventure. I needed more room for batteries…don’t want to be caught without extra’s that’s for sure. Have you checked out Steven Kazlowski’s photo’s of the Spirit Bears. He has captured the images close to where I’m headed. Hard to believe that these beautiful bears are related to the Black Bear. I expect to definately see Black..but if I see a Spirit I will definately not miss that opportunity. I’m headed into the mountains of Whistler accually…there are alot of lakes there and opportunities to hike into the lush forests. As well as take the opportunity to hike up the mountain sides. I love to stretch my long legs Steve does the soul good….

  3. Sometimes you don’t have an option. If the animal you’re after is not cooperating, sometimes it is enough to just get the shot. One of the things I enjoy most about wildlife photography is you never know quite what you’re going to get! A chance encounter with an unexpected anilmal in an awkward place can often yield a shot which is artistically suboptimal – but more than worth it just for the sentimental value. But it is is good to know what it is you’re setting out to achieve.

  4. @Crista – I have seen Steven Kazlowski’s spirit bear photos – they’re amazing! Hope you have a good trip!

    @Ian – Good point! Most wildlife is so unpredictable, that you don’t have much time to make quick adjustments in settings and/or composition. Just getting the photo is often 90% of the work :)

  5. I try to include context in most photos I take. I also try to blur out the background to give the subject more presence, similar to your Allens’ Hummingbird photo. It provides context but softens the background.

  6. Steve – I agree with your notion about keeping the environment within which the subject is located somewhat in focus. While a shot of the subject only is sometimes essential particularly if you need a shallow DOF to reveal detail, I think it’s more pleasing to show the environment more often than not.

    PS – I really enjoy your newsletters.

  7. Good post Steve. I usually try to include both types of shots when I’m lucky enough to be in a position to. The first shot takes in the environment and then if the bird hangs around long enough or I can get close enough I try to isolate it.

  8. Hi Steve, just wondering why you have replys to today’s posting dating back to July? This is the first I saw this posting.

    • @Frank – Good catch! ;) Once in a while, I look at older posts and update them if I have something new to say or a new example to share. That was the case with this post–I originally posted it over four years ago, but I wanted to update it with a newer/better example (the hummingbird photo).

  9. Biju Jacob John, Bangalore, India says:

    Hello Steve, it is always such a joy to read your articles. Very informative. Thank you and please keep writing!

  10. I agree with Lee – ideally I would try to get both types of shot – a close up with the subject isolated and a ‘small(er) in the frame’ shot showing something of the habitat/surroundings, though given the unpredictability of shooting subjects in the wild I accept this is often impossible and usually you just have to take what you can get.
    For me, one of the problems with the isolated subject/clean background type of shot is that they can sometimes look rather unnatural – almost studio-like. For instance, here in the UK ‘rent-a-hide’ type wildlife photography has become very popular over the last few years and it’s now becoming very easy to identify these types of shot due to the sameness of the background and/or sometimes even the unnatural looking moss covered perch or the obviously unnatural reflection pool – not my kind of thing but each to their own.

  11. Steve,
    We like all your posts and articles! This is a good point you bring up. I wonder what f stop you generally prefer with shots like these?
    Thanks for your work!
    Greg Sava

    • @Greg – Thanks for your kind words!! As far as f-stop, it really depends on how close you are to the subject and how far away the background is, but generally for shots like this I’d use between f/5.6 and f/11

  12. I hate the word “rules.” Rules are more or less (usually more) set in stone. Personally, I think a better word as well as way of thinking would be guidelines. We’ve been having a discussion along these same lines in an online photography group I belong to. Thinking of photography as the artform that it is, the final result is in the “mind of the photographer.”
    When in doubt as to which way the background should be, completely out of focus or not, I try to shoot both. That way, you can see the results of each shot. One thing that can be said about shooting wildlife with the background to some degree in focus, to my thinking, is that it gives the viewer an insight to the subject’s natural surroundings.

    As far as

  13. I think both types have their place. If the bird is doing something like feeding young or having a meal then including the environment helps to tell the story. On the other hand, if it is perched or flying, its a different story as a busy background can create too much conflict. Between these two situations is a grey area that I think is up to the background and the photographers vision for the shot.

  14. Agree with the comment that getting the shot is 90% of the battle. Framing the subject, background, blur or not, adds icing to the cake.

  15. I too, like both approaches. Can you tell me what f stop you used on both? Thanks.

  16. Peter Horan says:

    For me it’s a split decision. I find the background in the first photo to be too busy and distracting. However I really like the shot of the bird on the Ocotillo. I think the background really frames the bird nicely without pulling attention away from it.

  17. Thank You Steve , I enjoy your newsletter and you are so kind to respond.

  18. Brian in Whitby says:

    I once took a photo of a woodcock sitting on her nest. This is a ground nesting bird so it was impossible to isolate her from the cluttered surroundings. I took the photo anyway. When I put it in the local camera club competition one of the judges said, “I don’t see anything.” Then another judge said, “I see an eye. The bird was so well camouflaged, she blended right into the surroundings. That was the whole point of the photo.
    Showing wildlife in isolation is sometimes the wrong way to go. Where the surroundings say something about the animal’s behaviour or interaction with its environment, that is the story that should be told.

  19. Good article and this is such a good point, the digital revolution now lets everyone be a bird photographer.
    I have seen so many images with dropped out backgrounds that I am now beginning to really look for more narrative. I am preferring the contextual shot with the animal / bird in its environment, – the skill that goes into that is challenging but more satisfying, more brain work on design elements and principles to lift it up to the next level.
    Thank you Steve for making this the debate as I feel it is a current one, I know bird photography is hard in itself but it is becoming very similar in style with it’s dropped out backgrounds

  20. Frank Hering says:

    Hey Steve,
    My favorite photos are the ones with the background slightly shown. It tells a “Full Story”. Many times I try to include the sky when there are nice clouds to accent & complement the flowers, bushes, and trees etc. Talk about depth – it’s there with the “3D” Look. Having a color contrast is a great element of isolation too.

    Sometimes, photography seems over-analyzed to me. Yes, there are guidelines & order, but every photo is different and every situation is unique. Variety is key. If every photo looked the same, we’d all be bored.

    Love Your Photos & Site

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