Keep it simple, stupid. Yes, there is perhaps no phrase that is more true and more insulting all at the same time (who are you calling stupid?) But generally speaking, the first part of that phrase describes the best way to accomplish most of the things we do in life. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule, but for the most part the simplest option is usually the best one.
[ Top image line 2 by Flickr user amelimeloo]
The same is true for photography. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But David, I’ve seen loads of photos that were really complex and seemed to also be very successful. So what are you talking about?”
Yes, it is certainly true that you can take interesting photos that are also quite complicated. But photographers who take these sorts of images successfully have a very good understanding of things like composition, pattern, color and other elements that you can combine to make a strong image. They are also very careful to include only important elements in the scene—even in a complex image, all objects need to have a reason to be in the shot. Or to put it another way, experienced photographers know how to break the rules, and how to do it well. For beginners, I always recommend mastering those simple compositions before moving on to the complex ones.
So first, let's take a look at the whys of simplicity. Why are simple photos often so much better than complex ones? If you think about this logically you may come to the opposite conclusion. If there is more to look at in the photograph, doesn't it follow that you will spend more time looking at it? Unfortunately, this does not tend to be away most people's minds work. Let's use an analogy so you'll understand what I mean. When you go to the supermarket, and you want to buy a bottle of salad dressing, would you rather have a choice of 25 different bottles of salad dressing, or would you rather have two or three?
Now, most supermarkets seem to think that you'd rather have a choice of 25 different bottles. But if you’ve ever had the experience of standing in front of that shelf full of all those different choices and feeling a little bit frozen with indecision, then you can start to understand why someone may also feel a little bit baffled and disoriented by a photograph that has 25 different elements in it. For the most part, we human beings feel more comfortable when we just have a couple of things to look at. Just as you don't want to have to decide between 25 different things—whether it's salad dressing or your dream home—most people also don't want to have to spend their time trying to decide which of the 25 elements in a photograph are the ones that they're supposed to be looking at. To give someone too much choice, or too much visual information, is to simply confuse them. Most of the time more is not better.
So, how many elements should you include in the photograph? The simple answer is three. Yes, that’s really an oversimplification, but it is a very good place to start. The rules are partially responsible for that answer—studies have shown that most people feel comfortable looking at groups of odd-numbered objects rather than groups of even-numbered objects. The reason for this is because odd-numbered groups are dynamic. We expect to see things in pairs, so when we encounter a series of objects that can be organized into pairs our brains do exactly that—we put them into those neat little groups and then stop looking at them. When this happens in your photograph, you end up boring your viewer. Once he's stopped putting those objects into neat little groups, whether consciously or subconsciously, he stops looking around the photo.
Clearly this is not what you want an image. As a photographer, your goal should be to keep your viewer’s eyes moving around the frame. A moving eye is an interested eye, so it is critically important to hold your viewer’s attention by encouraging him to examine all the elements in the frame. To do this, start with that simple group of three objects. Or if you really want to go hog wild, use a single object. Nothing is simpler than that.
Dayzeeee! by Flickr user bitzcelt
This is another thing that a lot of beginners don't get right. Your background is important. It is important even if it has nothing to do with the subject of your photo. If you don't get the background right, you can ruin the shot. Why is that?
When beginning photographers take pictures, they often have what I like to call “beginner’s tunnel vision,” which is the experience of looking through the viewfinder and seeing nothing except the subject. I am pretty sure that this has happened to you, because it happens to all beginning photographers. Have you ever taken a bunch of photos of, say, your kids, which you thought were pretty awesome, and then when you got home you discovered that there was a giant overflowing trash can in the background that you never even noticed? Now that trash can is dominating every single scene. Instead of looking at your adorable kids, you spend most of your time studying that big ugly overflowing trash can. That is not what you intended—and it certainly doesn’t make for an adorable kid photo.
For some reason, you failed to notice that trashcan even though it was right in front of you. Why? Well, because of your beginner’s tunnel vision. It's actually very natural to have this happen to you. The reason why it happens is because everyone who takes photographs is naturally focused on their subjects. You want those adorable kids to just smile and look at the camera, or look at each other and do something cute, and you want that so badly that you just don't notice anything else that’s sharing that space with them.
Momma's Little Dumpling by Flickr user myxabyxe
Fixing this is just a matter of training yourself to take notice of everything in the environment before you take the picture. This could be as simple as looking up from your viewfinder and taking conscious note of all those background elements. If there's something you don't want in the photograph, such as a smelly garbage can, you simply relocate your subjects, angle the object out, or use a very large aperture to blur it out of existence. Either way, your ultimate goal is to simplify your composition by eliminating those distracting background elements.
Now what about your subject itself? How simple does that need to be?
Let's say you are at a buffet. You want to capture all of that marvelous food laid out on the table. Before you zoom out and try to get a shot of the entire table, ask yourself whether or not that image is really going to tell anyone much about the buffet. It might say to them this was an event where there was a lot of food, but when you get down to it that is a pretty meaningless conclusion. The buffet is going to feature a lot of food. That's not what people remember. What people remember is the quality of the food. So you're not going to get a memorable shot of that buffet by zooming out including every single one of those dishes. What’s going to be much more meaningful is a zoomed-in shot of one dish, with a few blurry dishes in the background.
Showing your viewer only a single dish is going to accomplish couple of things. First of all, it's going to pique his interest, because he's not going to be overwhelmed by all of the different bowls and platters scattered across the table. Instead, he is going to know exactly which one of those dishes to look at. That allows him to think about what that food might taste like, and to imagine that he’s enjoying the experience of being at the buffet. That is the power of simplification.
To get the hang of simplifying your photographs, you need to put some thought into each and every image you shoot. Before you even look through that LCD, ask yourself how you can simplify the shot. What elements are in the scene that really don’t need to be there? If you’re not sure, ask yourself: “What does that parked car contribute to this image?” If it’s a photograph about transportation, maybe that parked car does have a reason to be there. If not, it’s probably not adding to the scene. Angle it out, or blur it out. Do that with every background element and all unnecessary foreground elements, too. Once you have the photo narrowed down to only those elements that are important, you’re going to have a much stronger image.
This really is just a thought process. To simplify your work, all you really need to do is think it through. Remove everything in the scene that isn’t adding something to the composition. And be honest with yourself. You may really, really love the architecture in a building that appears behind your subject, but if the photo isn’t about the architecture, or the city, or some other something that is relevant to that building, it doesn’t belong in your image. When in doubt, angle it out.
If you’re still not buying the “simple is better” argument, I want you to try shooting the same subject both ways. First, shoot your subject in a busy background and don’t bother about any of the other things in the frame. Then, shoot the same subject in a simplified setting. Compare. Which one will you like best? I think you already know the answer.
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