Making A Great Photo - Simplicity :: Digital Photo Secrets

Making A Great Photo - Simplicity

by David Peterson 6 comments

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.

Stick with a few colors.
Don’t complicate things by trying to bring every color into your image.

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.

Most people think this post is Interesting. What do you think?


  1. Jeannie M. Rose says:

    Hello Mr. Peterson. As one person stated earlier, the picture doesn't have a strong enough shot to define it as a simple picture. When I look at the picture, I am not focused on the main subject (the boy getting wet). There are other things in the picture which draws my attention (the tree, back wall, flowers). I am still learning about photography, so I have no suggestions. However, I would take the picture is such a way, the boy would be the main focus.

  2. Rob says:

    I do not think it is a simple picture--almost but not quite. The point of the picture is to see the joy of the child getting water cooled on a hot day. The tree should go as should the right side wall. The picture should be slightly higher so we can see the source of the water. It might have been more effective if we only saw the child from the shoulders up. The arm is partly missing in any case, and the chest is not necessary to show his enchantment as that is done via the facial expression. The picture is not clear enough, but that is likely due to the amount of water. If the volume of water is scaled back however we lose some of the charm of it. More lighting might help.

  3. Carole says:

    I think it would have been helpful had there been a more shallow depth of field, a use of the rule of thirds, more light on the subject's face (rather than the back of his head), ability to see more of the subject's eyes, less water flow (so subject is more easily seen).

  4. Sandra says:

    I think the pic is a little too tightly cropped. I would have like to see where the water source came from if at all possible. I'm missing out on his reaction because it seems blurred and not much lighting.

  5. sandra says:

    The tree in the background needs to be removed but also the water around the kid makes it hard to see his face.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *