Isolation: Two Divergent Views of a Photographic Topic

“Isolation:” Alone in the wilderness. Set apart from the background. Miles and miles away from any- and everything. A single subject. From a photographic point of view, isolation is one concept that has two meanings as well as two approaches.

Typically the first visualization to come to mind when considering “isolation” is a place far removed. Many photographic locations fit the bill. Those who have ventured to Africa for a safari can draw on memories of the remoteness of the villages and other outposts.

Whether the journey is to deep Africa, the Australian Outback, or Wiseman, Alaska, there are ways to emphasize isolation in images. For northern Alaska, the perfect time to shoot is in the middle of winter when the entire area is covered with a blanket of snow. This same technique can be used to illustrate isolation in other places, as well, such as Yellowstone or southwestern Colorado. For example, you might feature a cabin or building set apart and surrounded by snow. Old cabins, maybe even a hundred years old, make great subjects. The areas around the old mining towns of southwestern Colorado are dotted with them. As you shoot, get into a position that allows you to eliminate any other major distractions in the picture to create your feeling.

Why try to show isolation? There’s a certain emotional tone to such settings. Although the surroundings show cold, the overall image projects a warm feeling of comfort and solitude. If you visit the same locations you used to illustrate isolation during some season other than winter, you soon discover the scene is nowhere near as appealing with undergrowth and other clutter visible.

Photo of tent in remote area
Copyright © Andy Long

This looks like a very odd spot to set up camp, out in the middle of nowhere.

Copyright © Andy Long

Look for subjects that look very out of place, such as this stop sign. For who or what would you be stopping?

As subjects, older buildings generally work better than modern structures as newer ones don’t lend an impression of isolation. The one instance where a newer item could work would be a tent set up in an area where you’d never expect to see one. A great example was a scene of a tent standing in a remote area of northern Alaska with snowshoes, cross country skis, and other items set up around it. Other old subjects that can communicate remoteness include machinery from days gone by, or old cars or tractors with weeds and grasses surrounding them.

Items that are seemingly out of place can be fun to work with, as well. An example might be a single small prop plane parked in the snow with nothing else around, while the short landing strip beneath it is also covered with snow. Keep an eye out for things out of the ordinary to help tell the story about an area, such as a stop sign that just doesn’t seem quite right in its location.

The other side of isolation is a pure photographic technique, where a single subject is set apart from the rest of the image. This can be achieved in a variety of ways such using depth-of-field, lighting, contrasting colors or textures, or subject number.

Isolating a subject using depth-of-field can be achieved in one of two ways: if the subject has some distance between it and the background, or if you’re quite close to the main subject. The closer a subject is to the background, the more prominent the background is going to be. Creating distance to the background and controlling depth by opening up to a wider aperture – i.e. f/2.8 or f/4 – will create a soft background and cause the subject to stand out from its surroundings. For wildlife, there are times when you don’t take a shot just because of the background. An example of this might be if there is an elk very close to a group of trees as opposed to one standing in an open meadow. When the animal is close to the trees, the trees will be very evident in the images and more than likely act as a distraction as branches will cross through the elk’s antlers and tree trunks may appear to grow out if its body. If a setting like this arises and you have never taken a photograph of an elk, take a shot of record, but be aware it won’t be the greatest of shots.

Being very close to a subject and opening up the lens to its widest aperture will create a shallow depth-of-field and render the background soft. The closer the subject is to the camera, the less depth-of-field for a given f-stop. In days gone by, camera lenses used to have markings that showed depth-of-field range for focus distance and f-stop combinations. Today, using either the depth-of-field preview button on the camera or an iPhone/iPod application such as DOF Master is helpful.

For this exercise, assume a 70mm lens is being used. If using f/4 and focus is set at five feet, the closest near focus limit is 4.83 feet and the far limit is 5.18 feet, thus giving a very shallow depth-of-field and softening the background to isolate a single subject such as a flower in a field of lots of flowers. To show how depth-of-field changes with focus distance, the same settings used with focusing at twenty feet from the camera gives a range of 17.4 feet to 23.5 feet being in focus.

Photo of red fox
Copyright © Andy Long

Subject distance to background and an open aperture (f/4) provides softness.

Wildflower photo

Copyright © Andy Long

Closeness to the main subject and a shallow depth of field can set apart a single flower from all the others.

Lighting can also help a subject to jump out of the background. Side or backlighting can put nice light on the subject while keeping the background dark. This technique can be effective for both wildlife and wildflowers. Obviously, it has to be done just after sunrise or just before sunset when the sun is very low on the horizon.

Backlit photo of Columbine flower
Copyright © Andy Long

Back and side lighting is very effective in getting your main subject isolated from the background.

As with depth-of-field, a greater distance between the main subject and the background is also beneficial, although not fully necessary depending on the lighting conditions. One way to approach this style is by creating a silhouette with either the sky or water as the background. To make a really nice silhouette, a strong foreground subject is needed as well as a strong background–preferably a good sunrise/sunset. Take a spot meter off the background and use either exposure lock or manual exposure mode and dial in the correct settings.

Silhouette photo of a balanced rock
Copyright © Andy Long

A silhouette in and of itself stands alone from its surroundings.

A third approach to isolating a subject is by combining contrasting colors or textures in the image. The previous discussion of isolation of a remote place in a winter setting can be applied here, contrasting a snowy background and a building, tree, or even a single autumn aspen leaf against the white. Other contrasts can include leaves set against a moss rock or a sea star on a rocky beach. Searching out contrasts can result in quite a few other combinations where the main subject is isolated from the second object.

Photo of Star Fish

Copyright © Andy Long

By the use of contrasting colors, patterns & textures the viewers’ eye is guided to the main subject.

Another direction to emphasizing a subject is to use number. One might be a lonely number, but in photography, a solitary item draws the viewer’s eye within the composition. One thing in the image very different from everything else–even if it’s a very small part of the whole–will pull the viewer to it more dramatically than almost any other technique. Combining this technique with one of the other forms of isolation will create an image with a lot of impact.

While we’re considering the track of the viewer’s eye, remember that when you want to include two or more main subjects in your shot, it’s important to have them very close to each other rather than spread across the frame. You don’t want the viewer to have to jump from one to the other in order to put the whole scene together.

Photo of Snow Geese

Copyright © Andy Long

These two snow geese, which are very close together, will keep the eye focused on them and not the others in the background.

Feeling isolated is something not many people strive to achieve. However, in photography, illustrating remoteness can be a very strong emotional technique.

by Andy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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