Composition – Simplicity

Written by:

By Steve Russell.

Although simplicity in photographic composition tends to be discussed as a broad category that includes the complete image, I’m going to divide the subject into two categories – simplicity in subject and simplicity in background. Today I’m going to focus on simplicity in subject. When someone looks at one of your photographs you want the subject of the photo to be clear to the viewer

A note about the images used in this article. For the most part they’re photos that I would normally trash or delete so they’re not intended to be examples of great or good photography. They’re used as examples. Also, if they’re images that were captured by someone else, the inclusion here is not intended to criticize or suggest they aren’t worthy photographs. Again, the purpose is just to illustrate a point.

“Rule” number one is that you have to have a subject. What’s the subject in this photo? It isn’t the clump of brush/trees in the center and it isn’t the brush in the bottom foreground. Unless you know that the photo was taken in Everglades National Park and that the Everglades is also known as the River of Grass or the Sea of Grass there isn’t an apparent subject. In other words, if the photographer has to explain what the subject is then it really isn’t a good photograph. It’s like when you have to explain a joke, it’s no longer funny.

Here’s another photograph that doesn’t have an obvious subject. You can guess that the photographer was trying to photograph the ducks but he (me in this case) did a pretty lousy job of it. One way to “fix” the photo is to get closer to the subject, zoom in if you’re using a zoom lens or crop the photo to isolate the subject.

I was actually able to move closer to the ducks to capture this photo. This image is like portrait photography. There isn’t any doubt about the subject because it fills the majority of the frame. Although studio portrait photographers will use props at times, there is rarely any question about the subject in portraits.

“Rule” number two is you really want the subject to pop-out. If the subject isn’t apparent it’s like the children’s books where you’re trying to find the guy with the striped shirt and ski-cap.

Here’s an image where no subject really “pops” out. Is the subject the buildings in the background, one of the people in the foreground or something else? In fairness to the photographer, he was photographing a crowded beach and the image actually shows that. However, if you look hard enough you can find similar photos where the crowd wasn’t really the subject. Beach scenes are notorious for this kind of result.

A better way to photograph beach scenes is to isolate your subject like this one. The subject is clear and it’s clear that the subject is at the beach.

Landscapes can be especially difficult to make the subject “pop” out unless the complete image is the subject. For example, this photo of the Grand Canyon makes the subject clear primarily because there isn’t anything else in the image to draw the viewer’s eye away from the canyon.

Another way to make the subject to “pop” out or to make sure there isn’t any confusion on the part of the viewer is to use other composition techniques like the rule of thirds and/or leading lines.

When you’re photographing various subjects, try to visualize how the finished image is going to look before you press the shutter release. This will help you feature the subject in the photograph instead of a mishmash of things that the viewer has to sift through to determine the subject.

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  • Christy

    wonderful article!! Thanks for sharing 

  • Clippin Path

    Wonderful set of photographs and i like to read your article very much. Thanks a lot for sharing !!