Make Your Subject Stand Out

quick fix Often, one of the main goals when composing a picture is to make the subject stand out from the background and surroundings. This is especially true in sports photography, where the photographer wants to isolate the subject from a distracting background, such as when a football player is running in front of a cheering crowd. Portrait, wildlife and fashion photographers, too, often want to isolate a subject from the background, with the goal of drawing more attention to the subject.

In-camera, we can accomplish that goal by using a telephoto lens and wide ƒ-stop combination. The longer the lens, the wider the ƒ-stop and the closer we are to the subject, the less depth of field we have in front of and behind the subject.

In the digital darkroom, there are several techniques that simulate that in-camera technique. There’s also a variety of tools and filters that can help us make our subject stand out even more in the scene.

I used the following techniques on the snake picture (taken in Namibia, Africa) that opens this column and on the fawn picture (taken in my backyard in Croton, N.Y.) that ends this column.

quick fixStep One: Step One: Before we dive into the easy, fun and creative techniques, here’s my original image. Because it was taken on an overcast day, the picture lacks contrast. Plus, the snake’s built-in camouflage blends with the background. What’s more, some of the white rocks around the subject are distracting because when we look at a picture, our eyes are drawn to the bright areas first.

quick fixStep Two: Simple cropping made the snake more prominent in the scene because the subject now comprises a larger percentage of the frame. As an aside, if I need to crop an image, I always do this as a first step in image processing. I do that for the reason I just mentioned. However, I also crop out unwanted areas first because if I don’t, those areas will affect the histogram and the adjustments I might make using Levels or Curves.

quick fixStep Three: Speaking of Levels, here’s the histogram for my image, which you’ll find in the Levels dialog box. This histogram shows that the image lacks strong highlights and shadows, indicated by the mountain range not fully extending to the right (highlights) and left (shadows). Adjusting the highlights and shadows is as easy as moving the triangle sliders on the right and left to just inside the mountain range.

quick fixStep Four: Here’s the result of that simple Levels adjustment. Now the picture has more color, contrast and apparent sharpness (because the contrast has been increased)

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Step Five: The next steps involve sharpening the snake and blurring the background. In Photoshop CS3, this is easy to do using Smart Filters, which work like adjustment layers and layer masks, letting you paint out the effect (using the Brush tool when black is selected as the foreground color) for what’s called a nondestructive image-editing technique. To sharpen the snake, I used the Unsharp Mask filter, and to blur the background, I used the Gaussian Blur filter.These screenshots of the Layers palette show you the areas to which I applied the filters (white areas) and the areas I masked out (dark areas). If you’re using Photoshop Elements, you can achieve the same effect. First, make a copy of your image. You never want to work on your original file. Now, take your copy and make a duplicate layer. To blur the background first, blur the entire top layer, then use the Eraser tool to erase the subject area of your picture. Now your subject looks sharp, and the background is blurred.To intensify the sharpness of the subject, begin by flattening the layers. Then, dupe your layer and sharpen the entire top layer. Use the Eraser tool and erase the area around the subject. Basically, what you’re doing is controlling the subject and the background effects independently.

quick fixStep Six: When using Unsharp Mask or any other sharpening filter, it’s a good idea to use the +/- buttons in the sharpening window to zoom in on the most important part of the image so that you can see exactly how the sharpening technique is affecting it. After applying all the forementioned techniques, I used the Clone Stamp tool to remove the distracting white rocks. I also used the Dodge tool to darken the area around the snake.

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ANOTHER EXAMPLE: Let’s take a look at my before-and-after fawn images. Here, as you can see, I softened the background even more, and sharpened the subject using the aforementioned techniques, drawing more attention to the subject.

BRUSH TIP: Before using either the Eraser tool in Elements or the Brush tool in Photoshop, check out its Opacity on the Menu bar (at the top of your monitor). When
you begin erasing/painting out an effect, start using the tool at the center of the subject with the Opacity set at 100%. As you move out from the center of the subject, reduce the Opacity (by clicking on the fly-out arrow to reveal the Opacity slider). By gradually reducing the Opacity, you make a gradual transition between the sharp and blurred areas of the picture—the kind of effect you’d get in-camera by using a long lens and a wide aperture. In closing, I’d like to share one of my digital photo philosophies with you: When looking through your viewfinder, try to envision the end result you can achieve in the digital darkroom, which is what I did for the images in this column

quick fixRick Sammon has published 27 books; his latest include Idea to Image, Rick Sammon’s Complete Guide to Digital Photography 2.0, Rick Sammon’s Travel and Nature Photography, and Rick Sammon’s Digital Imaging Workshops. He has produced a DVD for Photoshop Elements users, 3-Minute Digital Makeover, and three DVDs for Photoshop CS users, Awaken the Artist Within, Close Encounters with Camera Raw and Photoshop CS2 for the Outdoor and Travel Photographer. To see more of Rick Sammon’s work, visit; visit for Quick Fix archives.

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