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Subtract!

by David Peterson 8 comments

If you live in the Western world, you've almost certainly had significant exposure to the idea that "more is better." You see this it pretty much everywhere you go—people buy bigger houses when they don't really need them, the portion sizes at restaurants are enough to feed a family of six from a single plate, and the drive to accumulate—whether it's more pieces for your wardrobe, more rare collectibles, or simply more things than your neighbor has—seems to be ingrained in our popular culture. So it's not surprising that when you first start to take photographs, you may approach them with the idea that "more is better."

Now it is certainly debatable whether more is better at that restaurant or in your personal collection of potato chips that look like Donald Trump, but it is not always (or even usually) true that more is better in photographs. The problem with having multiple points of interest in a single image is that it creates chaos. For all we seem to believe that we love the idea of "more," the reality is that human beings prefer simplicity, at least on a subconscious level. When you look at a photograph that has a lot of objects in it, you don't know where to look first. And subconsciously, you actually do want to be told what the most important element in the photo is, and you're not usually going to have someone there who can verbalize that to you.

Think about it this way: the last time you were at a supermarket shopping for salad dressing, how long did it take you to select the salad dressing you wanted? Now if you always buy the same brand and flavor, this probably wasn't a difficult choice, but what if you were looking for something new? The chances are pretty good that the salad dressing selection at your local supermarket is vast. You have a lot of different options to choose from, from a full-fat bleu cheese it to fat-free Caesar. If you found yourself at least momentarily frozen in place, wondering where to look first, then you were suffering from sensory overload. This is exactly what you do to your viewer if you put too much information in a single photograph. Let's look at an example.

  • Nikon D50
  • f/8.0
  • 0.025 sec (1/40)
  • 34 mm

Mein Schreibtsch (my desktop) by Flickr user jonas_k

In this photograph, there seem to be multiple points of interest. There's the computer monitor, but there’s also some large photos on a clipboard. There’s a book and there’s a vase of flowers. And the only person in the frame seems to be sort of unimportant—his face isn’t visible, and he’s partially out of the frame. Because there are so many elements, you're not sure what the subject of the photograph is supposed to be.

So why is it important to know this? Because a viewer who can't identify the subject of the photograph isn't likely to spend much time looking at the photo at all. It's that salad dressing problem all over again. When you're standing there in the supermarket in front of that massive display of salad dressing choices, how much time do you actually spend looking at each one, versus just shrugging your shoulders and grabbing the first one that appeals to you? Photographically speaking, you don't want your viewer to have a salad dressing experience when he looks at your image. You want your viewer to know exactly where to look, because only then can you convey a message to your viewer, whether it's a specific message or an implied one. Whatever the case may be, you want your viewer to experience something when looking at that photo, other than frustration. In other words, one bottle of salad dressing, with maybe a few tomatoes in the background to help give the image a little color.

How to subtract

So how do you go about giving your viewer a simpler experience? You need to take a more systematic approach to your photography. In fact, I recommend an almost mathematical approach, in the vein of subtraction. When you think that you have an interesting scene in your viewfinder, stop for a moment and ask yourself how you might be able to simplify it. The first thing you can do is analyze each one of the elements that are in the frame. Which ones do you need, and which ones don't you need?

For example, let's say you're shooting a photograph of a person working on a farm. If you use the wide-angle approach for this photo, you may get the person and whatever she is planting in the photo, but you may also have additional elements such as farming equipment, stacks of seedlings, the farmhouse in the distance, and some tourists who wandered in on open farm day. You might even see some really non-relevant objects, like a water bottle or a book the farmer brought along to read on her lunch break. How many of those things belong in the photo? You can exclude the tourists right off the bat—they don't really have anything to do with what's going on with that farmer and the plants she's putting in the ground. You could make an argument for the farming equipment and the farmhouse, because they help give the photo a sense of setting, but how necessary are they really? You already know from looking at the farmer herself that the photo is about farm life, so those two elements aren't necessarily adding anything to the composition. The stack of seedlings could provide some ambience too, but if she has a seedling in her hand those other seedlings are probably redundant.

So one thing that you could do with this image is zoom in a little bit to exclude the farm equipment. You might decide that the farmhouse itself looks picturesque enough that you'd like to include it, but you don't want it to take attention away from your subject, so you can switch to a larger aperture to turn it into a soft, semi-identifiable blur. Finally, you can take a few steps forward and ask yourself what else in the scene might be excludable. You could angle out all but a few of those seedlings, or you could decide that all you really need to make this photo work is a close-up of the farmer's hands putting the seedling into the soil. Maybe you only need to show her fingers pressing the soil down around the seedling after it's been planted. Or perhaps you want a more personal photo—instead, you could exclude the seedling and shoot only the farmer's face.

These are just a few ideas, and depending on what elements are actually in the scene and what you're trying to accomplish with your composition, your choices are going to vary. Don't be afraid to try a few different ideas, and remember that it's OK to have a few supporting elements in the frame—in other words, its not necessary to simplify to the point of Japanese flag-style minimalism. If the environment is important, you might want to include something contextual in the scene, such as that pallet of seedlings behind the farmer. But ultimately, it's usually better to go for as simple a composition as you can, and that means systematically subtracting everything you don't think works. Which, of course, means asking yourself which objects need to be in the scene, and which ones do not.

Making the choice

Now it could be that you really can't decide, which I think is a trap that causes a lot of photographers to just stick with a more complicated composition. What if all those elements seem to be adding to the composition, and you just don't think you can exclude any of them?

First, take a deep breath. This is a little bit like decluttering your home, which is another task that can be really daunting. But unlike decluttering your home, you don't have to permanently exorcise everything you think you don't need—instead, select a few elements to feature in one photo and a few elements to feature in another photo, and then you can decide later on which of the two compositions worked better.

It really comes down to theme, and then to emotion. If an object doesn't fit the theme (like the book or the water bottle or the tourists), exclude it. If an object doesn't support the emotion that you're trying to inspire in your viewer (and all photographs should inspire some kind of emotion, or else be dismissed as boring), exclude it. The farm equipment fits the theme, but what does it do to inspire emotion? If the answer is "nothing," it doesn't deserve a place in your composition.

  • Nikon D810
  • 100
  • f/0
  • 0.006 sec (1/160)

Lost in a Fog by Flickr user Ordinary Extraordinary World

Conclusion

Think of this like a math problem, only a fun one (it's not trigonometry or anything). Just break every scene into individual components, and then subtract the ones that don't fit. The solution to your equation should be a strong emotion or feeling that the scene is able to inspire in your viewer. Before long you won't even have to do this systematically—it will all come naturally, just as basic subtraction does.

Summary:

  1. How to subtract
    • Consider all the elements
    • Ask yourself which elements support the theme
    • Exclude all but the most necessary elements
    • Experiment
  2. Making the choice
    • Try multiple ideas
    • Only include elements that inspire emotion

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Comments

  1. Andrew Fung says:

    This article is a good reminder to photographers, especially the less experienced photographers.

  2. Eileen Taylor says:

    I like the story telling/emotional importance of the composition. Even if you are covering something I am familiar with I always pick up extra tips! For me the picture did not say "farming" but "gardening", so I wouldn't have excluded a farming clue. I enjoyed the contrasting textures of the wood and the tools. The gnarled hands were testament to hard work!

  3. Lenore says:

    As usual this is a fabulous article. What I often do is take several of the same scene (when I can't decide what to put in), starting with lots, and then moving in or zooming in closer progressively taking may be half dozen shots finishing with what I think is my main focal point. That's the beauty of digital!

  4. Virgil says:

    This kind of falls into the category of thirds. The subject is placed into one third and the other two thirds are there for support.

  5. Kiripai Kaka says:

    Awesome information. I have known this for a long time but still find it hard to do.

  6. George Jenner says:

    I found this very thought provoking, which is just what an article should be.In short it was excellent.Thank you.

  7. Rick Urban says:

    In the interest of decluttering a comment, "If I am going to save an email on my computer, it will be one or more of yours!"

  8. Ravindra Kathale says:

    A very pragmatic article. Almost how to do type. Quite specific. Liked it. Off the cuff, it appears to me that this approach will result in several images in place of one, at least in the initial stages. I don't know. Will have to experiment and find out. Second thought that comes to mind is is this the same thing as minimalism? If not, what is the difference?

    Thanks for a well composed article. Prompts me to experiment and master it.

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