Why simplifying your composition is important

This is the fourth post of a series of publications in which — from different angles and perspectives — I’m addressing the topic of composition.  

This series includes posts and videos that can be easily located by using the tag “learning-composition” either in the search box above or by directly clicking on the tag name at the bottom of this post.  Also, here is a link to the entire series so far.

In the first post of this series I in introduced the concept of composition, then in the second and third post I talked about using lines and forms as actual elements of the composition. In this fourth post I’ll explain why simplifying your composition is so important in order to really convey your vision.

First of all it’s important to understand that trying to include too much information into a photographs could be really annoying to the viewer, personally nothing can make me angrier than watching a photograph and really don’t know where to put my eyes on because there many things on it, all of them struggling for my attention.  

Figure 1. “New York Streets” series. © Enrique Peláez

So, in photography it’s very important to stick to the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!) principle in order to eliminate from the frame all those elements that distract the viewer from the image subject.

The simplification process starts by defining what your photograph is about in other words you need to visualize the image you are about to create.  Once you did so, you need to start stripping your subject away from everything that is not supporting your vision.  This sounds simple, however in certain photography genres like street photography, landscape, wildlife just to mention some of them you don’t have control over all the elements that can eventually get into the frame, so you need to use some techniques such as zooming-in or zooming-out using your lens, open the aperture of your lens in order to blur the background and focus on the subject, physically move to recompose your image getting distracting elements out of the frame, change your vantage point by physically moving.

Figure 2. “New York Streets” series. © Enrique Peláez

Now, many times when you click a photograph some distracting elements get into the frame whether you did it consciously or not, as I said before, many times those elements are out of our control.  In those cases we still have a chance to simplify the photograph composition in post-production.  

My favorite post-production simplification technique is cropping which in my opinion is a powerful tool, so don’t underestimate the power of cropping. In the next post I will go into more details about cropping techniques, for now probably my only recommendation is to be mindful with the size (pixels) of your image, so extreme cropping can result on unusable images.

Another effective simplification approach in post-production  is to either burn or dodge those elements that are distracting from the main subject. For example, the image in figure 1 was first of all cropped in order to focus on the main subject (the man in the little food cart) and then in order to emphasize the subject even more I used the burn tool in Photoshop to blacken areas around the cart.  The same approach was used in figure 2 but as this is a high-key image I used the dodge tool to whiten distracting areas around the subject.

Finally, I’d like to mention that there exist other methods to simplify images in post-production such as using Photoshop to clone-out distracting elements assuming you have the skills to do so however not all photographers believe doing this is ethically correct, my position is that as long as you’re honest with you audience, you can do whatever you need to in order to convey your artistic vision, but do not pretend that something you clone-out in post-production is the image you clicked, eventually someone will discover it’s not.  

The next post I’ll discuss more about the most common rules of composition. So, keep in touch.

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