Isolate the subject to add impact to your smartphone photos

Clearly communicate the subject or story

We live in an era of being over-exposed to visual content; in the form of photos, videos and infographics. We want our favourite images to be noticed and enjoyed by others too.

Capturing and sharing images has been democratised by the smartphone and made it really easy to share a bad photo. The next step to transition from a happy snap to an engaging, impactful image is - make it instantly obvious what you want the viewer to notice first.

One of the best strategies in my recent article, ‘3 steps to capture a WOW photo on your smartphone’ the second step was – clearly communicate the subject or story.

Number one tip:  Isolate the subject from the rest of the image to make it stand out and add visual impact to your smartphone photos.

Here's the list: 

  1. Identify the subject
  2. Remove background clutter BEFORE the photo
  3. Remove background clutter AFTER the photo
  4. Blur the background to remove distractions
  5. Shoot from a lower angle to isolate subject against the sky
  6. Use lighting to place a spotlight on the subject
  7. Darken the background
  8. Get closer to the subject
  9. Use selective colour to make your subject stand out
  10. Simple, single colour or texture background

Let's get started!

1. Identify the subject

The first step in my photo checklist – is what is motivating me to lift my smartphone to take the photo? This helps you break down the scene and make it more obvious what you are trying to communicate or share.

The subject could be a person, their expression, their attire, the context of where they are or their activity.

Identifying the motivation or story helps tremendously, to isolate the subject and identify appropriate inclusions in the rest of the image image to provide context.

The second step is experimenting and deciding the angle and perspective, how close to capture or crop the image.

2. Remove background clutter BEFORE the photo

Have you noticed that the most professional looking images are ‘clean,’ distraction free. As a viewer, your attention can be pulled around all over the scene looking at distractions or worse yet, be directed by lines leading your eye out of the photo! 

Take the time to either remove distracting background elements, such as glasses on the table or shoot from an alternative angle.

Isolate the subject by removing distracting background before taking the photo

3. Remove background clutter AFTER the photo

Sometimes it is not practical to move objects, you had to get a quick shot or you realised when reviewing the image, there was something in the shot that you did not realise at the time.

Using Snapseed photo editing app by Google or Retouch by Adva-Soft – you can easily remove objects in the photo. Yes, really – just like Photoshop. Using the healing or cloning tool, you simply swipe over the object you want to remove and it will fill in the area with the same content surrounding it.

4. Blur the background to remove distractions

I have written an article on how to blur the background to really make your photos pop off the screen. Why does it work? It isolates the background and reduces our attention being distracted by the unwanted content in the image.

In my article - Blur the background on your Android & iPhone photos, I explain the different modes available in various smartphones, shooting techniques and three different photo editing apps to blur the background on any image captured on an iPhone or Android smartphone.

5. Shoot from a lower angle to isolate the subject against the sky

This is a very simple technique not requiring any removal of objects or photo editing.

Simply getting lower than the subject and shooting upwards can separate the subject from the ground. This works particularly well if there is limited contrast (variation) in colour.

Isolate the subject by shooting from a lower angle

6. Use lighting to place a spotlight on the subject

A location where there is a slither of lighting hitting the subject can produce and ethereal mood.

This can also be reproduced in food photography on your smartphone by holding two boards and letting directional light pass between them.

7. Darken the background

Our eye is attracted to objects in sharp focus, vivid colours and bright parts of an image. Hence, darkening the background can also isolate the subject. This can be achieved two easy ways:

  • Place a black board behind the subject
  • Use Snapseed photo editing app to selectively darken sections of the photo
    • Go to Tools > Brush > Exposure > adjust to -10 and swipe over areas to darken
darken the background to isolate the subject in your smartphone photos

8. Get closer to the subject

Holding the smartphone lens close to the subject not only fills the frame, it makes it proportionally appear larger. This technique isolates the subject from everything else – as they appear smaller, the further away from the lens they are.

Remember in the first video of my free smartphone photography course - do not digitally zoom in on your photo. Where practical, zoom with your feet and get closer.

9. Use selective colour to really make the subject stand out

An app like PicsArt allows you to convert the image to black and white, then reveal the colours that you want to make the subject stand out. Open an image in Picsart then go to Effects > Colours > Colour Splash then drag the circle onto the colour your would like to highlight.

What I love about this app is you can add a second and third colour to include. If some extra bits are included that you want to remove - tap on the eraser on the top of the screen, wipe over the sections to return them to black and white and tap on the tick mark.

Lastly, hit Apply  then the arrow on the top right corner to save or share instantly.


Isolate the subject and make impactful photos by using colour splash

10. Simple, single colour or texture background

Positioning the subject in front of a wall or door, offers the viewer little else to look at – allowing the viewer to only concentrate on the subject. A contrasting background will help make your subject pop off the screen.

Facebook and Instagram community - Weekly mobile photo theme: Isolated Subject

Each week our supportive community participates in weekly challenges to continue their development after attending an in-person or online training session.

This collage represents some of the fantastic images that were shared.

The closed Facebook group is also open to those who register to the mailing list.


We have covered some smartphone specific techniques and photo editing apps that can assist isolate the subject, before and after the capturing an image.

The number one take-away I want you to remember is – to always consider your motivation for taking the photo. This makes it so much easier to identify and isolate the subject to create a more impactful image.  

Related Articles Mentioned

Love taking photos on your smartphone and want to create images you thought only possible on an SLR? The Get Started page will help you navigate to the:

Mike James hosts regular group workshops, corporate training and is a sought after speaker and photography clubs and social media events. Get in touch with Mike here.

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Also published on Medium.