If you want people to enjoy your photos, you need to make your subject pop.
What does that mean, anyway – pop?
Photographers like to talk about making their photos pop – as in they should be so evocative that your audience can’t ignore them. However, we have a slightly different take. It’s not your photo that needs attention, but your subject.
The photo is a frame that contains whatever you use to fill it but the subject is the hero of the photo. That’s the part of the photo that needs to stand out – or pop!
Why You Should Make Your Subject Pop in Your Photographs
Without a subject, your photo doesn’t really have a purpose. It’s just some random collection of items or people that you saw somewhere. Why would anyone care if they can’t tell the purpose of the photo?
That’s just a snapshot.
Your photo tells the story of your subject. It’s a story with a hero, and you need to treat your subject like the hero of your story. Heroes stand a little taller, look a bit bolder, and are unmistakeable when seen.
Don’t make your audience fight to understand your photograph.
They won’t. They’ll immediately recognize that the photo has no purpose and they’ll pass it by while searching for something else that’s interesting, entertaining or informative.
The One Concept That Makes Your Subject Pop
There’s one thing that will make your subject pop out among everything else in your photo. It’s easy to remember, and there are many tools and methods you can use to put the concept into action.
Something about your subject must be different than anything or everything else in your photograph. It has to catch the viewer’s eye so they know the story of the photo is about this one thing – your subject.
That’s not to say your subject as to be just one item or person. The subject may be a family or group of people. Maybe your subject is a still life bowl of fruit, a race car or a dog. It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that there’s something of interest that stands out above everything else. It’s something that you think is worth of a story, so you don’t want your subject to blend into the background with everything else.
There are two things you need to remember to make your subject pop.
1: The Eye Goes to the Brightest Thing in the Photo
Light is key to the human eye. More than anything else, we’re visually drawn to light. We’re curious people and we want to see what’s there. So the most important thing you can do to draw attention to your subject and make it pop is to use light to favor your subject.
That doesn’t mean you have to blast it with light. Photographers can use light like a faucet. You can control the flow of light and use it in creative ways.
Watch out for hot spots, though. The problem with the image above are the street lights in the background that can draw your eye away from your subject. It’s easy to get so caught up in your subject while composing that you miss some distracting lights that pull your viewer’s eye away from your main subject.
2: The Eye Goes to the Sharpest Thing in the Photo
After brightness, the next thing that attracts the human eye is sharpness. Have you ever looked at something out of focus and struggled to understand what it was?
That’s not fun.
As I said, we’re curious people and evolution taught us the importance of clearly identifying the things we’re looking at. Failure to do so could be the difference between hunting for dinner or being hunted for dinner. Objects that are dark, murky and blurry tend to be a bit frightening to us.
It’s much more pleasing to have a sharp object we can identify.
Too many sharp objects can be confusing, though. Isolate your subject with some bokeh and we think it’ a thing of beauty.
5 Ways to Make Your Subject Pop
Contrast may be the one thing you need to make your subject pop, but there’s more than one way to go about achieving contrast. You can use light, sharpness and color contrast – or combine all of these elements together, to truly make your subject stand out.
Don’t think that you need to club your audience over the head. Sometimes a subtle change in contrast will gently lead your viewer’s eye without them knowing.
Take some time. Experiment and see what style you like. Most important, what does your audience like?
1: Eliminate Distractions Behind Your Subject
If you do nothing else to make your subject pop, get rid of a distracting background. If the photo scene is too busy, it confuses the viewer. With everything in focus and equally lit, there’s nothing to direct the eye to your subject.
This is the essence of a snapshot.
A snapshot is a photo without any thought given to the viewer’s experience. It’s a mindless click to document something somewhere. Instead, you want to give your viewer a bit of structure and information as to why your photo is worthy of their attention.
Sometimes the fix for this problem is just to move.
Either move your subject so it doesn’t have a busy, cluttered background, or move your camera’s position to eliminate the distraction. Get up and move things in the background, if you can.
What happens if you can’t move and the subject can’t move? Then you have to ask yourself why you’re taking a photo that no one is going to enjoy. Otherwise, it’s just going to end up taking space on your memory card to no benefit at all.
Just because you can take a photo doesn’t mean you should. Think about your viewer’s experience. If you don’t put the viewer first, then what are they going to think of you when you show a hot mess of clutter that annoys their eyes?
2: Isolate Your Subject
If you really want to make your subject pop, find a way to isolate it from everything else. You can do that with light and shadow, sharpness and bokeh, or just finding a plain background.
I took the photo above in a pool hall. Let’s just say that pool halls are not the most inspiring places for a photo session. Occasionally, you have to make due with what you have and get a photo.
One of the ways to make something a bit more interesting is not lighting all of it. Leave a sense of mystery. Have you ever noticed that advertisements use dark background when they want to make something look luxurious, sexy or exotic?
They pull the subject out of the darkness with light, specifically to isolate their subject. It may be like a club over the head, but isolating your subject leaves no doubt as to what your photo is about.
3: Use a Vignette
There are a lot of distracting elements in this photo, but that’s part of the story. The subject is the centerpiece of this hall – an elephant on a raised platform. Given that it’s roughly the same color as the building material, I had to use a few things to try and draw the viewer’s eye.
First, there’s a vignette on the photo. Without it, everything was evenly lit and your eye would just wander around and slip off the edge of the frame. The vignette helps keep your eye directed inward of the frame.
Another technique was to use a Lightroom Radial Filter on the elephant. Adding just a touch of brightness also helps to direct the viewer’s eye. Most of the crowd is darker in the exposure, helping the elephant stand out a bit.
4: Have a Brighter Exposure on Your Subject
Look for directional light, or create it with your flash. One great way to make your subject pop is to put a bit more light on the subject than anything else in the photo. That may mean getting closer to a door or window. Set your exposure for the subject and let everything else fall into a lower exposure.
If you’re using flash, you may just want to add a touch more light to fill your subject to provide that pop of light while slightly underexposing the frame for everything else.
If you’re in post processing, you can achieve the same effect. Reduce the overall exposure of the photo, and then brighten your subject. We mentioned using the Lightroom Radial Filter as one tool to produce this effect. You can do the same thing in Photoshop using and adjustment layer to reduce the overall exposure, and then add a mask to open up your subject to get a bit more light.
5: Use a Brighter Color on Your Subject
Even with some motion blur to suggest movement, the color on this Cuban dancer pops off the background with her bright colors. You can use color contrast to distinguish your subjects from their surroundings.
The same effect would work in food photography. Imagine your typical green salad as a background with some bright strawberries begging for attention in the frame.
If you’re not sure which colors contrast from others, visit the Adobe Color Wheel and find colors on opposite sides of the wheel. Then go to town with contrasting colors to see what works for your subjects.
Let us Know Your Tips
Do you have a secret sauce for making your subjects pop? Don’t keep it to yourself. Please share in the comments and let others learn from your experience.