Why I Rarely Shoot Wide Open: How to Separate Subject from Background

There was a time when I would always shoot wide open, and it hurt my progress. The kit lens that came with my camera had a slow aperture, so getting blurry or creamy background was quite unusual unless the subject was close.

I was pleased whenever I would get a street photo with a blurry background, so as soon as I got my hands on an f/2 lens, I would always shoot with f/2 to get that background blur. I shot wide open all the time to the point that I stopped learning.

In my mind, a good photo meant having a blurry background, but we know that’s not always true.

Using a shallow depth of field makes it easy to separate the subject from the background, but always relying on it could also limit us and our compositions.

Here are other ways to separate the subject from the background:

#1. Light

We can use contrast to lead the viewer’s eyes through the image. We can have the subject well-lit while the background is underexposed.

Alternatively, we can have a well-lit background and an underexposed subject.

#2. Colors

We can utilize color harmony. Bright colors will stand out from muted colors.

Think of complementary colors. Subjects wearing red will stand out from green plants.

#3. Motion Blur

We can use motion blur to convey that the subject is moving. We achieve motion blur when dragging the shutter to blur the background while maintaining a relatively sharp focus on the subject.

Another way to achieve motion blur is by having a moving background and a stationary subject, like a person in front of a train.

#4. Subframing & Layering

Subframing is when one element of the photo frames another element. The subframe adds focus to the element inside it.

Layering is utilizing ‘layers’ — the foreground, subject, and background. We use different elements to direct the viewer’s attention as they look at one element and jump to the next.

It took me some time to learn these other ways of separating the subject from the background because I would always go for bokeh. Now, the other options work better for me in most cases.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that you should not use shallow depth of field. Use whatever you think works best for what you’re trying to achieve. But if you are currently in a place where I was, always shooting wide open, maybe it’s time to learn something new. Perhaps it’s time to learn other ways of shooting.

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About the author: Kebs Cayabyab is a photographer based in Makati, Philippines. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of Cayabyab’s work on his website, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.