What are your top ten favorite songs of all time? Go ahead, write them down; I'll wait...
Got 'em? OK, how many have a main subject or character that's isolated in some way - a broken heart, can't find their way back home, doesn't fit in, better than everyone else, or just plain lonely?
None? You live in a fantasy world.
All? You live in a fantasy world, but it's colorful.
Some? Maybe even most? You're perfectly healthy, realistic, have thick skin, and are fit for this world. Read on.
I'll go out on my familiar limb here and guess that the songs you love best tap directly into an isolation theme. Especially sad songs, but songs that walk on sunshine too. It's what makes them stand out. I'm so lonely I could cry, croons Hank. Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in a church where a wedding has been. Elvis maintained a room in the Heartbreak Hotel. Major Tom is floating off into space. Lady Gaga was born this way. Bob knows no direction home, like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone. James feels good (he knew that he would). Strong characters and tales emerge from the jungle of guitars and keys and drums and demand singular attention. And we don't forget them.
A good photograph behaves the same way. A strong subject isolates itself from the background and takes control of the narrative. A dying leaf barely hangs on to an autumn twig and we feel for it. We can't not look at a pair of bright blue eyes and not fall in. A red balloon in a blue sky laughs all the way to the stratosphere before it bursts and says uh-oh.
When we really pay attention to what's in our camera viewfinders, we realize that unless we do something about it, it's 80% clutter. The 20% that's left is what we really want - that's where the story is, the life, the isolation. The rest can go away. But it takes work - first in the will to see the 20%, and second in forcing the camera to see the exact same 20%. Otherwise, our Nikons, Canons, Sonys, Pentaxes and Fujis see every stinking thing and nail it to the sensor with religious fervor. They excel at it and their advertisers even brag on it like it's a good thing. But the truth is that we must be mindful of not letting the 80% through the lens in the first place. In short, we need to be selfishly ruthless with our compositions.
Why? There's only one story that matters at a time. We, as visual poets and minstrels, are called to isolate and extract that one story from all possible choices and paint only THAT on the sensor. It's an act of will, a learned skill, there is no pill.
So how do we do that? Here are some practical considerations:
- Simplify the background. Clutter loves background undergrowth. Eliminate clutter by moving yourself, the camera, stuff, use a different lens... etc. Do whatever it takes to create a clean background for your main subject to dance in. No main actor likes to be upstaged by unnecessary understudies.
- Place your subject carefully in the frame. Allow it space where it can attract the most attention - perhaps by light or focus. Remove everything that competes with your subject until you've removed too much. Then one at a time, start replacing your supporting actors.
- Depth of field. DOF is one of the easiest ways to isolate a subject. With very shallow DOF, it doesn't matter how cluttered the background it - it will disappear into bokeh. But that brings up other issues, like tone and color. A subtle shift might make all the difference.
- Light (intensity and direction). Maybe your subject would benefit from the spotlight approach. Or perhaps sidelighting sets it off from everything else. Or a gel to change hue. Backlight a bride. Wait for a cloud to pass or the sun to peek around a crag. It really is all about the light, so place it where you really want it. Don't settle.
- Look for what doesn't fit and accentuate it. A nun on a skateboard, a tough guy crying, a red fox in white snow.
- Spot color. Yes, spot color is a cheesy, bad cliche most of the time. Except when it's not.
- Motion. Pan a fast moving subject with a slow shutter speed. Or freeze it with a fast shutter speed.
- Point of view. Shoot from the ground up, or from high down. Upside down. Look behind you - it's Bigfoot. Darn, not fast enough - you missed him.
There are plenty of psychological considerations, as well. Shining a light inward to explore what isolates us can reveal plenty of creative photographic potential. It's an act of will more onerous than simply changing an f/stop, but arguably more rewarding too.
How else can we ISOLATE? Hmmm. Here's one... when it's late, turn up the ISO.
I SO LATE will run for two weeks, from November 2 through November 15. Happy shooting!