Simplicity in photography:
It’s the number one element of great compositions–and it’s also a key compositional element that beginners fail to take into account.
But if you want great photos, then you’ve got to learn to create simple compositions.
That’s why, in this article, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know about simplicity…
…so you can start creating gorgeous, simple compositions in no time at all.
Let’s get started.
What Is Simplicity in Photography?
Here’s an example of a simple photo:
And here’s another example of a very different, but still simple, photo:
Note that simple photos tend to only have a single subject, and they also tend to guide the viewer in a very clear direction. There are no distractions, no hiccups, and no tangents.
For this reason, simple photos are very easy to appreciate, and they’re also very compelling, as I discuss in the next section:
Why Should You Create Simple Photos?
Simpler photos tend to look really, really good.
First, the simpler the photo, the easier it is for the viewer to focus. When you have ten subjects and all of them are competing for attention, the viewer often becomes overwhelmed and moves on; when you have a single subject with a non-distracting background, the viewer knows exactly where to look and is able to fully appreciate the shot.
Second, simpler photos tend to be much clearer in their message. A simple photo can easily tell different stories, as well as different moods. For instance, this shot tells a story of sadness:
And this shot creates a sense of awe:
Plus, simpler photos are more impactful, because the subject matter just hits you in the face. There are no additional elements that the viewer has to consider. Instead, the viewer sees the photo, and is immediately struck by the content.
Of course, not all simple photos are good–you still have to arrange your compositions carefully, following guidelines such as the rule of thirds, the rule of space, the rule of odds, the golden ratio, and such.
But if you already have a good handle on these techniques, then aiming for simpler photos is going to be a big deal for your photography.
In fact, here’s an exercise that you can do to wrap your mind around the value of simplicity:
Head into your photo archives, and find a group of photos that you’re proud of.
Open up the photos, and ask yourself:
Is there a way to make these photos more simple? Did I include enough negative space? Did I eliminate all distractions?
And envision how the photos would look if slightly simplified.
That way, you can get a sense of how simplicity will affect your images, and how it can take a good image and turn it into a great image.
Techniques for Getting Simple Images
Now, creating simple images is all well and good.
But how do you put this advice into practice? How do you consistently create simple images that stun the viewer?
That’s what this next section is all about, where I take you through a series of techniques for producing clear, simple, powerful shots.
Include a Clear Main Subject
Whenever your goal is to make a simple photo, then I recommend starting here:
With a clear main subject.
In other words, find something in the scene that stands out, and that you want the viewer to focus on.
Then compose the rest of the shot around this main subject.
You see, a main subject is sort of your compositional anchor point. Without a main subject, your composition will seem aimless, and the viewer just won’t know how to handle it.
A main subject also helps you prioritize different aspects of your composition. Once you have your main subject, you know what matters and what doesn’t; as I said above, you must compose the rest of your shot in service to this main subject. So if you include lines, they should lead toward the main subject (or thereabouts). If you include a frame, the main subject should be given the best placement within that frame.
So begin by finding a main subject.
Remove Background Distractions
If you have a main subject, then you’re off to a great start. You already have a compositional focal point–so you now need to ensure that the focal point remains strong, and that the viewer’s eye doesn’t wander away from the focal point toward various distractions.
Here’s what you do:
Look all around your main subject.
Try to find anything that stands out. Anything that shines. Anything that draws the viewer away from the main subject.
Because anything that stands out?
That’s a distraction, and the simplest photos have zero distractions.
Distractions can be anything, from rocks on a beach to a sign behind a person’s head. It all depends on the type of photo you’re creating.
The key is to identify distractions in relation to your main subject–and do what you can to remove them.
I don’t necessarily mean that you must remove distractions physically; you also have the option to change your composition (walking a few steps to the right or the left can work wonders!), to go in tighter, to crop the image after the fact, or to change your perspective.
Just see what you can do to eliminate as many distractions as possible.
By the way, if you’re creating a composition and you notice lots of distractions that can’t easily be removed, then that’s a sign that you’d be better off completely changing your composition. Even if you’re main subject is deeply interesting, the shot won’t work if it’s surrounded by eye-catching objects.
Use a Wide Aperture
Here’s a simple tip for getting rid of distractions, fast:
Open up your lens’s aperture to its widest setting.
You see, the wider the lens’s aperture, the narrower your depth of field.
And a narrow depth of field gives you a blurred effect, like this:
Where the subject is sharp, but all the areas around it are soft.
This is a fantastic way to eliminate background distractions; the wide aperture blurs them into oblivion, and you can take a shot that emphasizes your main subject.
You do have to be careful with using a wide aperture, though, for a couple of reasons.
First, wider apertures tend to be optically inferior to narrower apertures. So if you widen your lens to f/2.8, you’ll get an image that has a pleasing blur effect, but you’ll also get less sharpness on the areas that are meant to be sharp.
It’s easy to accidentally end up with a partially blurry subject.
This is because a wide aperture gives such a narrow depth of field, which in turn makes it difficult to ensure that you’re actually getting your whole subject tack-sharp.
So feel free to use a wide aperture to simplify, but make sure that you still keep everything you want in sharp focus.
Include Lots of Negative Space
Sufficient negative space is key to pretty much any photograph–but simple photos, in particular, tend to pack a lot of negative space.
Negative space refers to areas that are full of emptiness, such as a cloudy sky:
Or an empty expanse of water.
And negative space serves to emphasize the subject, while also giving the subject space to breathe.
In fact, because negative space includes nothing at all, the simplest photos are often shot in a minimalistic style and are brimming with negative space, like this:
Doesn’t that image feel so simple?
That’s the power of negative space!
So don’t be afraid to really let negative space fill up your image.
Fill the Frame
This is another basic way of making your compositions more simple:
Fill the frame with your subject.
Photographers often have a tendency to frame very loosely, in an effort to include everything of value in the shot.
When you’re creating simple photos, you have to remove each and every distraction.
That’s where filling the frame comes in–because it ensures you get rid of all distractions, no matter how small.
Plus, frame-filling compositions tend to be very powerful and intense, which can make for a very cool effect, like this:
Note that you can fill the frame in a few ways. For instance, you can get closer to your subject, which is often the best way to really fill up the composition–but you can also use a longer lens, and you can even crop the shot tighter after the fact.
Keep the Number of Colors to a Minimum
Photographers often forget that colors are essentially compositional elements of their own.
And the more colors you have, the more chaotic your photos become.
That’s why you have to pay careful attention to the colors in your photos–and work as hard as possible to keep the number of colors to a minimum.
In other words:
Don’t include five, six, or seven colors.
Instead, I recommend using four noticeable colors at a maximum (and two or three colors is even better).
That way, your viewer won’t get overwhelmed by color–but can instead focus on the few colors that matter.
Convert to Black and White
This is your final tip for creating simple images:
Don’t be afraid to convert to black and white.
As I mentioned above, you should try to keep the number of colors in your scene in the area of one to four.
But there are times when you’re not going to be able to carefully manage the colors.
In which case, you have another great option:
Converting to black and white.
You see, black and white images instantly become more simple, thanks to the loss of color.
And they can be really, really stunning, especially if you’re willing to look carefully for light and shadow and tonal range.
(These are three elements that work well in black and white!)
Plus, it’s not difficult to convert your images to black and white.
So if you’re ever wondering if your colors are a bit too complex…
…just try switching to black and white. See what you think.
My guess is that you’ll be very pleased!
Simplicity in Photography: The Next Step
Now you know all about the importance of simplicity in photography.
And you’re well-equipped to keep your photos simple…
…and therefore powerful.
So keep these tips for simplifying in mind.
That way, you’ll be able to create consistently gorgeous compositions!
Simplicity allows the viewer to really focus on your main subject, without being distracted by other elements–such as unnecessary background elements, or other subjects that detract from the main subject. That’s why I recommend you improve your compositions by keeping things simple whenever possible.
There are a number of useful techniques for simplifying photos. First, make sure you only have a single main subject, and ensure that the background is clean and free of all distractions. You can also add negative (empty) space into the composition, with more negative space often translating to increased simplicity. Filling the frame is another useful technique for creating simpler compositions.
That depends. Generally speaking, simplicity is better than complexity in photography, because it’s much easier to manage simple scenes (whereas complex scenes can turn into a nightmare of shapes and lines). But there are some stunning photos that are very complex; it just takes a lot of skill to create a beautiful-yet-complex composition. That’s why I recommend you keep things simple whenever possible.
Yes! By including negative space in your photos, you’ll immediately end up with simpler, more powerful compositions. This is because negative space offers emptiness, which includes zero distractions and helps focus the eye on the main subject. Note that it’s possible to create simple photos without a lot of negative space, but that negative space is an easy way to get the simplest possible images.
Jaymes Dempsey is a professional macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan; his work is published across the web, from Digital Photography School to PetaPixel.