Oftentimes, there’s only one thing I need to communicate with people who are just getting started in photography. It’s so amazingly simple that it couldn’t be anything but simplicity itself. The difference between an okay photograph and a great one usually comes down to this. Great photos are simple. If you want to take your photography to the next level, you should be asking yourself “what can I get rid of?” not “what can I add?”
Simple means picking a theme
Great photos have a message they are trying to communicate. The photo above could be said to communicate a number of things: nourishment, friendliness, generosity, compassion, warmth, etc. It’s all focused on a single hand gesture, an offering. The idea behind simplicity is not to merely pick one theme. There are many themes in this image. We provided them a single conduit through which they can be expressed. That’s what true simplicity is about.
Simple means focusing your viewers’ attention
Everything in the above image leads you straight to the apple. Follow the hands, and you will get there. Follow the lines from the shadows on the sweater, and you will get there too. Because the image is symmetrical, you can get away with placing the apple in the center of the frame. Symmetricalness is its own form of simplicity. Use it wherever you can find it.
Simple means an absence of distracting elements
There’s a reason studios are such an important part of portrait photography. So many other locations are too distracting. A great portrait needs to focus directly on your subject and nothing more. There can be a few elements in the background, but they need to be kept to a minimum or else they will take too much of your viewers’ attention.
Even if you aren’t in a studio, you always want to think about elements in the scene that don’t necessarily contribute. Landscapes need to have a nature theme or an urban theme. Rarely do the two work together. They especially don’t work well with one another when you have a single power line blocking what would have otherwise been a serene natural scene.
Simple means limiting your color palette.
When you have too many colors, it can get confusing. The best photos pick a simple color palette, and they stick with it. I like to pick a single complimentary color pair. Think of pairing orange with blue, green with red, and yellow with purple. Also be aware that it’s okay to have different variations of black and white in your image. Those colors are so basic that you can expect them to be in every photo you take.
Complexity is best when it’s hidden in something simple
The above image is a good example of that. Yes, it’s a complicated piece of architecture, but it has a very simple pattern. It is modular. You can zoom out and still see it as a unified whole. This is the way you need to approach complexity whenever it can be found in your images.
Don’t focus on complexity for the sake of itself. Find a way to relate it to a much larger theme. Hide it inside of something simple. Make it a pleasant surprise for the people looking at your photo.
Now it's your turn. Do you think the photo below is a simple photo? What is the photographer trying to convey? Should any element be removed? Should anything new be added? Should it have been recomposed? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Keep asking yourself what you can take out an image. Perhaps you need to extract your subject from a complicated background, or maybe you need to get closer and focus on the smaller details. Simplicity doesn’t have to be boring. As a matter of fact, I’d argue the exact opposite. By keeping it simple, you’re opening the door to a much more interesting photography experience.
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