In continuing with my New Year's resolution of keeping life simple, it would seem a shame to pass up the opportunity to revisit one of the most important elements of a good photograph. While it seems almost elementary to some advanced photographers, it still amazes me how many people go about the world with their cameras creating snapshots rather than good photographs.
Our eyes and brains have the ability to focus on our subject in a way that diminishes the background because our eyes and brains know what the subject is. Your camera does not have the same ability. If there is too much detail in the background, your viewer will also not be able to focus on the subject when you show them the final image. Photographs that contain too much information draw attention away from the subject and leave the viewer searching the image for the intended subject or theme.
So how can you make sure that your camera is seeing what you see? The first thing is to know exactly what it is that you want to capture. Then look around the subject (through the viewfinder) to see if everything inside those four corners focuses attention on your subject. Simplification doesn't necessarily mean eliminating all of the background either. Sometimes the information adds to the overall theme or message that the photographer is trying to communicate. If you are not sure whether something adds or distracts, close your eyes for a second and then open them and review the scene again. Then press the shutter only when you are certain you have included those things that complement the subject or theme.
Let's review a few sample images to understand it better.
This image focuses attention on the tree because the photographer utilized the fog to simplify the background. What we see is an image that shows us the form of a tree. Could the photographer have eliminated the background all together? Cover that side of the image with your hand and decide if it looks better with it or without. Both can be pleasing compositions, but the one including the background gives us more of the sense of place. In this case, it adds to the image.
This image shows that it is not always necessary to include full details of an object for us to know what it is. We can figure out that this is a photo of a windmill with just the information the photographer has provided. Shown against the blue sky backdrop, the subject is clear.
Here is a photograph that shows more details yet we can still make out the theme of it. Do you think the image would have been more successful if the notebook or pencil were eliminated from the composition? Perhaps, but it is solely the photographer's decision to decide what information to include in the final image.
I have included this image because simplicity can be influenced by color as well. When you look at this photo, you first notice the photographer's creative use of framing. Ask yourself a question: is that the subject of the image? Look again. What you see is that the framing focuses your attention to the walkway and the architecture beyond it. While we cannot see the entirety of the building, we can understand from the detail provided that this is some sort of castle entrance.
These principles of simplicity apply to human photography as well. Take for example the image of this woman. Notice how the photographer used the darkness of the room she is standing in to draw our attention to her. She is clearly the subject. What details has the photographer included to tell us more about her? Do you think it would be as visually appealing if the photographer had used a wider lens to capture more of the building and perhaps the sidewalk below her? With only a few details provided, the viewers have to use their own imaginations to fill in the rest. Simple photos like this have a greater visual impact because there is less information for our brains to process.
Keeping your photographs simple is not hard. Once you know what your subject is, you need to ask yourself a few questions before pressing the shutter. Have I focused attention on my subject? Have I eliminated the distracting and unnecessary elements? Do all the things that remain in the frame support the subject or theme?
You should do this for every photo that you take. You will find that the less cluttered your photos become, the more powerful the images are that you create.
All images provided by morguefile.com. Used with permission.