“Simplify, simplify, simplify.”
~ Henry David Thoreau
“One ‘simplify’ would have sufficed.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
It took me years to figure out that photographic composition is about organization of elements in the frame, that making a photograph has so much more to do with my decisions than it does with the scene in front of me.
Before that realization, I raised the camera to my face secure in my assumption that the subject of the scene was amazing enough to carry the photograph as long as I nailed my focus and exposure. I was OK with my photographs documenting what I saw, but had no idea that I was learning to speak a language that would allow me to interpret, and to comment upon, what I was seeing. And to do that I needed to compose intentionally.
Composition allows us to organize the photograph. My choice of lens, orientation of frame, where I place elements in that frame by my position relative to those elements (a little forward, to the left, or getting lower than) can change everything. It can make one thing important and another thing trivial, or vice versa. It can lead the eye into the frame or out of it. It can create a unified whole of the elements or make a jumbled mess of them. It all depends on my choices.
Because how we think about something determines our choices about what we do with it, I have three ideas about composition and the power of simplicity that can change the way you think about your craft.
Intent is Everything
Without vision, there’s no starting point from which to make our decisions about how we compose. I know, I know—I’ve gone on about this before. But unless you have a sense of your vision or intent, or are open to discovering it through the process of making your images, then you will have no direction and no sense of whether your efforts at simplifying are getting you closer to, or further from, “adding the meaningful,” to quote designer John Maeda.
“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious
and adding the meaningful.”
~ John Maeda
No one can do this for you, and it’s the hardest part of the art-making process. Making a choice. Being willing to try and fail and try again. Being willing, on some level, to be profoundly selfish about it: What do you want? What will please you? What do you want to say? How do you feel about this? Don’t look over your shoulder for the answers. Look within.
You. On some level art is first an act arising from the self. Only then can it be concerned about speaking to, engaging with, or pleasing others. The more clear you are about your intent (even if you have to explore with the camera to your face for a while before you find that clarity), the more simplified (not simplistic) your vision, the fewer barriers you’ll have to contend with as you figure out how to express that vision with your composition.
Think About Unity
Photographers don’t often talk about harmony, but that’s one of the touchstones of good composition. Do all the elements work together to support the image? Is there one unifying idea or theme? These are helpful questions because the answers help determine what you can exclude. The result of not considering the idea of harmony is a chaotic image that supports no one idea, intent, or vision.
“Three rules of work:
out of clutter find simplicity.
From discord find harmony.
In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”
~ Albert Einstein
Making sure the elements all work together doesn’t mean having a boring image; it means being intentional about creating contrasts that support the main idea, or a rhythm created with elements like shapes or colours that maintains the harmony but also giving variety; that’s what rhythm is.
An image can really only support one idea or theme well. It may touch on others, but we work with a very limited medium and trying to do too much with a photograph will usually result in the image doing very little. It will be diluted, its potential power lost to too many elements. The eye can only take in so much and assign meaning to so many elements in an image: 2 or 3 is usually the real limit; the rest is background.
“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add,but when there is nothing left to take away.”
~ Antoine de Sainte Exupery
Look at the best images—the ones you love the most from the history of photography—and I think you’ll see most have only one main subject expressed through one key element, a secondary element, and very few tertiary elements. Generally speaking, the more you cram into the frame, the less power each of those elements will exert in the frame.
“The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.”
~ Painter Hans Hofmann (1880-1966)
The take away? Simplicity is key. Identify your main idea and choose only as many elements as absolutely necessary to work in harmony and support or express that one main idea.
Find a way to cut the rest out. Be ruthless about it. There is power and elegance in simplicity.
Use whatever isolating device you need to do this to get me to the heart of the image in the simplest way possible, and your photographs will be more powerful than their cluttered, chaotic, or confusing alternate versions.