Simplification

The subject for today’s lesson is « Simplification ». In my opinion, it’s the most fundamental « rule » of composition, and good photography in general. There’s a reason I didn’t choose it for my first lesson, though: in order to simplify successfully, you need some sort of framework to use for the simplification: just focusing on a detail of a scene while forgetting about the rest of the composition usually doesn’t work. The Rule of Thirds is one such a framework.

Simplification is about finding the salient thing about the picture about to be taken, taking out distracting details, and putting it into context. Decide what in the picture you want to be the main point of interest, and build the picture around that, removing or suppressing everything that would compete for attention with the point of interest.

Eye-catchers

When thinking about simplification and selecting your primary subject or focus of interest, it can be helpful to consider some of the ways we tend to perceive and « notice » things. Any of the following things are usually attention-catchers, and suitable as a focus for simplification, arranged roughly according to their strength:

  • Eyes
  • Faces
  • The human form in general
  • Animals
  • Light colored objects (against a dark background)
  • Dark objects (against a light background)
  • Warm-colored objects (against cool-colored or desaturated backgrounds: red on green, red on gray)
  • Objects with strong contrast

By « strength » I mean that a « stronger » attention-grabber tends to win out over a « weaker » one, in case of competition. The attention-grabbers can also be combined to great effect. For example, in a photograph of a group of people dressed in grayish clothes and looking away, an individual in bright-colored or white clothing and looking into the camera will stand out. Find some interesting way of positioning her, and you could have a pretty good picture!

Techniques and pitfalls

There are a quite a number of practical things you can do to simplify a picture, once you know what you’re trying to do. You can:

  • Zoom (or walk) in, to remove distracting detail from the frame
  • Zoom (or walk) out, to have distracting detail fade into a texture and let the big structure of the scene stand out
  • Pan
  • Walk left or right, kneel, lie down, climb up on an object, or raise the camera over your head, to remove distracting objects from the background
  • Use a large aperture for shallow depth of field, to blur a distracting background (unfortunately there’s not much room for this with small-sensor digicams)

Things to watch out for (to avoid):

  • Joins — having an in-focus background object merge with your subject, e.g., a tree « growing out of » your subject’s head
  • Competing focuses of attention — for example, two people both looking at the camera, but positioned so that they don’t form a pair (a single compositional element)
  • Chaotic backgrounds — a background with lots of detail and contrast tends to swamp your subject (the « zoom out » or shallow depth of field techniques work particularly well for this situation)
  • Truncations — half-people or half-objects generally don’t work well. If you want to include only part of a person in the frame, try not to crop at one of the joints — cropping at half-thigh is much better than the knee or the hip, for example