Simplicity in Photography: Why Simple Photos Are Usually Best

Simplicity is beautiful. It helps focus the viewer. And generally speaking, the simpler the composition, the better.

In my view, simplicity is the most essential element of great compositions. It’s also a key compositional element that beginners fail to take into account. Capturing messy, chaotic images is easy, but producing carefully constructed, minimalistic shots is much harder.

That’s why, in this article, I’m going to share with you everything you need to know about simplicity in photography, including a handful of top tips to take your compositions to the next level.

And here’s my guarantee: With my tips combined with a bit of practice, you’ll be creating gorgeous (and simple!) photos in no time at all.

Aerial landscape of a forest of green trees in the upper left and a sea of turquoise water in the lower right.

What Is Simplicity in Photography?

In the most basic sense, a simple photograph is one that includes only a few compositional shapes and only a few colors. Here’s an example of a 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. 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. Here’s why:

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:

Simpler photos are also 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 by following guidelines such as the rule of thirds, the rule of space, the rule of odds, and the golden ratio

But if you already have a good handle on these techniques, then aiming for simpler photos is going to make a big difference. 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 – how it can take a good image and turn it into a great image.

Techniques for Creating Simple Images

Knowing the value of simplicity is all well and good, but it’s also important to understand how you can apply it in your photography. In this next section, I share my best techniques for producing simple, powerful shots. 

1. Include a Clear Main Subject

Whenever your goal is to make a simple photo, I recommend starting with a clear main subject. 

In other words, find something in the scene that stands out. Then compose the rest of the shot around that element. 

Think of this main subject as a sort of compositional anchor point. Without the main subject, your composition will seem aimless, and the viewer just won’t know how to handle it. But once you add the subject to your composition, the viewer will know exactly where to look.

A main subject can also help you prioritize different aspects of your composition. Once you have your main subject, you know what matters and what doesn’t; you should then compose the rest of your shot in service to that subject. If you include lines, they should lead toward the main subject (or thereabouts). If you include a frame within a frame, the main subject should be given the best placement in that frame.

2. Remove Background Distractions

If your image features a main subject, then you’re off to a great start. You already have a compositional focal point, but you then need to ensure that the focal point remains strong. You don’t want the viewer’s eye to wander away toward various distractions!

So as you’re creating your composition, look all around your main subject. Try to find anything that stands out and draws the viewer’s eye. The goal here is to remove all distractions from the scene.

(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.)

Note: I don’t necessarily mean that you must remove distractions physically. You can also eliminate distractions by changing your composition (walking a few steps to the right or the left can work wonders!), moving closer to your subject, cropping the image after the fact, or adjusting your perspective. 

By the way, if you’re creating a composition and you notice lots of distractions that can’t easily be removed, that’s a sign that you’d be better off completely changing your shot. Even if your main subject is deeply interesting, the image won’t work if it’s surrounded by eye-catching objects.

3. Use a Wide Aperture

A simple way to get rid of background distractions is to 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 will give a blurry background effect:

In other words, the wide aperture blurs the distractions into oblivion, and you can take a shot that emphasizes your main subject. 

You do have to be careful when 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 in the areas that are meant to be sharp. 

Second, it’s easy to accidentally end up with a partially blurry shot. That’s because a wide aperture can give an ultra-narrow depth of field, which in turn makes it difficult to ensure that you’re actually getting your whole subject in focus. 

So feel free to use a wide aperture to simplify, but make sure that you’re careful to keep everything you want in sharp focus. 

4. Include Lots of Negative Space

Sufficient negative space is key to pretty much any photograph – but it’s especially important in simple photos.

Negative space refers to areas that are full of emptiness, such as a dark expanse of water or a cloudy sky:

Now, negative space serves to emphasize the subject while also providing 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:

That’s the power of negative space. Bottom line: Don’t be afraid to really let emptiness fill your image!

5. Fill the Frame

Another basic way to simplify your compositions is to 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. But remember: When you’re creating simple photos, you have to remove each and every distraction. 

That’s where filling the frame comes in. 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, or you can crop the shot tighter in post-processing.

6. Keep the Number of Colors to a Minimum

Photographers often forget that colors are compositional elements. And the more colors you have, the more chaotic your photos become.

That’s why you have to pay careful attention to all the colors in your photos – and work as hard as possible to keep the number to a minimum.

In other words, don’t include five, six, or seven main colors. Instead, I recommend using four noticeable colors at a maximum (and two or three colors are even better). That way, your viewer won’t get overwhelmed by a barrage of hues and can instead focus on the few colors that matter.

7. Convert to Black and White

When you’re trying to create simple images, don’t be afraid to convert to black and white.

As I mentioned above, you should limit the number of colors in your scene. But there are times when you’re not going to be able to carefully manage the colors. (After all, some scenes are just intrinsically colorful!) When that happens, black and white is a great option.

With the removal of color, images are instantly simplified. This can also look really, really stunning, especially if you’re willing to carefully capture light and shadow and tonal range. 

Plus, it’s not difficult to convert your images to black and white. So if you’re ever wondering if the colors in a photo are a bit too complex, just import the file into your favorite post-processing program and do a quick conversion. See what you think. You might be very pleased by the results!

Go Create Simple Compositions!

Now you know all about the importance of simplicity in photography, and you’re well-equipped to enhance your compositions.

So keep these tips for simplifying your images in mind. And the next time you’re out with your camera, try putting them into practice!

Simplicity in Photography FAQ

Why is simplicity in photography important?

Simplicity allows the viewer to really focus on the main subject without being distracted by other elements such as background objects.

How can you simplify photos?

Make sure you only have a single main subject and take steps to keep the background free of all distractions. You can also add negative (empty) space into the composition; more negative space often translates to increased simplicity.

Are simple photos always better than more complex photos?

That depends. Simplicity is generally better than complexity in photography, but there are some stunning photos that are highly complex! It just takes a lot of skill to create a beautiful yet complex composition.

Does negative space simplify photos?

Yes! By including negative space in your photos, you’ll immediately end up with simpler, more powerful compositions.

About the Author

jaymes dempsey author

Jaymes Dempsey

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. You can connect with Jaymes on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

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