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Subject Separation: Fast-Track Your Photo Composition Skills With One Technique

Subject Separation: Fast-Track Your Photo Composition Skills With One Technique

Photographers spend their entire careers mastering the art of composition, gradually honing their skills over many years. For new photographers, learning compositional theory from scratch is a huge task, but you can fast-track your progress by focusing on one technique first: subject separation.

The Challenges of Learning Composition

Learning composition as a beginner photographer is tough. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the vast array of compositional techniques when I first picked up a camera. You’ve got the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, leading lines, subframing, layering, the golden ratio, golden triangles, and so many more. Even learning the names of each technique is a task in itself, let alone putting them all into practice. When I’m learning something complex, I like to simplify it as much as possible. I want to focus my attention on two or three high-impact fundamentals that will help me make as much progress as I can, as quickly as possible.

After experimenting with every compositional technique I could, I started to figure out which ones I should prioritize. I’m talking about the techniques that every photo needs to work. I was happy to worry about the other ones later, knowing I would have more experience to put them to better use once I was comfortable with the basics. And, by the process of elimination, I realised that practising one compositional technique encompassed everything I needed to learn first: subject separation.

What Is Subject Separation in Photography?

Subject separation is one of the most important compositional techniques in photography. It refers to the subject(s) being visually separated from the background and surrounding elements in the frame. It makes the subject clearly visible and defined, drawing the viewer’s attention to the most important part of the image. Separation also adds impact to the subject, making it more prominent in the frame and removing potential distractions.

With poor subject separation, it doesn’t matter how many leading lines or rules of whatever you try to squeeze into the shot. The most important element in your composition loses its impact and your image falls flat. So, without subject separation, you're not going to see the benefit of other compositional techniques in your images. In street photography, specifically, poor subject separation or clarity is by far the most common issue I see in images.

Below is one of my first attempts at street photography (not that I knew it at the time), and it's a bit of a mess. Aside from the missed focus and exposure, there's very little subject separation here at all.

With flat lighting, low contrast, and poor color combinations, the subject almost blends into the background.

Instead of rushing the shot, I should have waited for a subject with stronger color contrast against the wall. This would have also given me time to check my focus and exposure settings for a better image. By thinking about subject separation in this one image, I could have addressed several other problems and produced a significantly better photo.

Now, I mentioned color contrast as a potential solution to the lack of subject separation in this image, and here's the thing: the core techniques for achieving subject separation develop some of the most important skills you need to learn as a photographer: space, lighting, and contrast.

This is why I think focusing on subject separation is such a powerful learning strategy. Because the methods you'll use to improve this one compositional technique will teach you a lot of the photography essentials. For me, this also put all the other compositional theory on ice until I was ready to start integrating other techniques.

Looking back, it's obvious to me how much I was struggling to learn composition before this happened. It's also clear how much faster my compositional skills developed after this point, and I think this process could really help beginners in a similar position now.

How To Achieve Subject Separation in Your Images

Photography is a two-dimensional medium that compresses a 3D scene into a flat image. This compression means that anything in front or behind your subject in the frame interferes with separation.

Here's another early attempt of mine, this time in Vietnam. While the subjects are interesting enough, elements in the background are compressed into the same plane of view as their arms. This removes any subject separation in the most important part of the frame.

No amount of leading lines would save this image without achieving better subject separation.

Luckily, we have plenty of techniques that we can use to create separation and add depth to our images. But, for beginners, I suggest you focus your efforts on the three most fundamental techniques: spacing, light, and contrast.

These will have the biggest impact on your photography and, once you’re comfortable with them, you’ll be ready to incorporate other techniques.

Space Around the Subject

First, work on getting clear space around your subject so you don’t have anything overlapping them in the frame. Second, be mindful of your backgrounds and choose a scene that either adds to the story or doesn’t add anything unwanted. Keep an eye out for elements directly behind or in front of your subject, as these will get compressed into the same plane of view.

Don’t worry if you struggle with this at first, especially if you’re shooting in uncontrolled environments. Keep practicing, and you’ll quickly get a hang of where to position the subject, yourself and the camera.

Lighting Your Subject

Lighting is the most important factor in any photograph, but it’s also one of the most difficult to master. We’re not going to try to master lighting in this exercise, though; we’re going to learn one important application of it and build from there.

In a genre like street photography, one of the easiest ways to use lighting for subject separation is to find a scene with interesting light and shadow. This allows you to use the lighting of the scene to highlight your subject and block out distracting elements.

Once you get more confident with lighting, you can use it more subtly to highlight the most important elements of your subject and add mood to the scene.

For example, the image below relies entirely on the neon sign behind the subjects. This wouldn’t work without the reflection on the glasses of the subject to the right of the frame. So, I had to position myself in the right spot to get this reflection and adjust the composition as the subjects moved.

Enhance Subject Definition With Contrast

Contrast helps you separate your subject from elements in the frame where you can’t create perceivable space. The most obvious use case for this is separating your subject from the background and anything behind them in the frame that could reduce subject clarity. Basically, contrast prevents your subject from blending into the background or other elements in the image.

Color and light contrast are the two most common techniques for achieving this, and they complement each other perfectly. With light contrast, you’re essentially using light and shadow to create separation between highlights and shadows.

In the image below, the neon sign creates visual space around the subject, while the high-contrast scene allows me to enhance subject definition with a partial silhouette. Then, in editing, I could increase contrast further with color grading to add tints of green into the midtones.

In parts of the frame where light contrast is lower, color contrast is perfect for adding extra subject definition. Likewise, if you’re dealing with flat or direct sunlight, color contrast can help you create separation in challenging conditions.

Here's another early photo of mine from one of the busiest streets in Kyoto, Japan. While it's hardly a great image, it's a wonder I managed to get a shot without any tourists in the frame. Even still, the shot wouldn't work if it didn't have such strong subject separation, mostly thanks to strong color contrast.

The white makeup on the Geisha and her purple kimono add perfect color contrast to the green tint of the background.

Honestly, I didn't think about any of this when I took the photo; I just tried to get the thing in focus without anyone else entering the frame.

The Learning Process

For me, this learning process started as a bit of an accident. I just happened to realise that a lot of my images didn't work because the subject wasn't clear enough or separated in the frame. I wasn’t being intentional enough with my positioning, composition, and patience to get the right shot. So, I started trying to separate my subjects as much as possible and I stopped worrying about other things like leading lines.

Is the subject clearly defined and separated? This became the question I instinctively asked every time I reviewed images.

First, I concentrated on getting enough physical space around subjects in the frame. Next, I realized poor lighting was still harming separation in some images, even with enough perceptible space, so I started working on this. Then, I noticed weak contrast and unwanted color combinations were still hurting some of my images.

With enough practice, I was getting the kind of separation I felt I needed. This gave me more time to think about other compositional techniques while shooting. I also found myself getting bored of taking similar shots with acceptable subject separation and started exploring other creative ideas.

I started focusing more on details, removing elements from the frame and not showing the whole subject. Over time, I started experimenting with techniques to obscure subjects, making them less visible but keeping all of the subject separation and definition I had previously worked on.

Now, I’m asking myself a different question: how little of the subject can I show while still creating an impactful image?

This is a far more satisfying question to ask creatively but focusing on subject separation helped me get here faster.

Building on the Basics of Subject Separation

Once you’re skilled at getting subject separation with space, lighting, and contrast, there are plenty of other techniques you can bring into the mix.

For example, you can use layering to block elements in the frame and add more depth to your images. You can also use framing to emphasise your subjects and guide the viewer’s eye to the most important part of the image.

Getting back to fundamentals, perspective is a powerful compositional tool and simply changing the position of the subject, yourself, or the angle of your shot can make a big difference. You’ll often hear the phrase “work the scene,” and it’s always worth playing around with different perspectives while doing this.

You can also experiment with depth of field but always be careful of becoming over reliant on shallow depth of field. A blurry, messy background is still a mess, especially if you’ve got unwanted colors and shapes in the frame.

The list goes on, but the key point is this: focus on the core essentials of subject separation (space, lighting, and contrast), and everything else will fall into place when you're ready.

With clear subject definition in every image you take, other compositional techniques — like leading lines and sub-framing — will have more of an impact. You'll see what works and what doesn't more clearly because a lack of subject clarity is no longer an issue.

As a result, you'll learn faster and take larger steps towards mastering composition.

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Useful article, even for the genre I am working in, thanks.

Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. Yeah, I hope this is relevant to all types of photography, even if street is my main focus. Glad you enjoyed it