In some ways this is Rule Zero of photography. If the subject of a photograph fades into the background, is it really the subject? Without a subject, do you really have a photograph? If a tree falls in the woods ….
OK, is this getting too philosophical for you? Then look at it this way: unless viewers see what you intend them to see, your photograph won’t accomplish much. To make the subject stand out, we can make it lighter or darker than the background, give it a distinctive color, position it at one of the one-third points or at the center, arrange leading lines pointing to it, or frame it with other objects. Both in the camera and in the computer, photography gives us lots of ways to direct the viewer’s eyes to the true subject of an image.
Here’s are before and after versions of an image recording my chance encounter with a Copperhead snake fording a stream in southern Alabama.
His camouflage is superb. I almost didn’t see him. And the initial image almost hides him. Simply subduing the background let the snake’s rusty colors, scaly texture, and distinctive markings stand out.
Here’s an exercise. Find a scene and experiment with these techniques. Review your results and note how each technique enhances the subject. Document your conclusions so that you can refer to them in the future.
Here’s a bonus tip: Use the squint test to verify that your subject pops. Examine your image image the way your viewers will. Close your eyes and gradually open them. The first thing you notice better be the subject.