Simplify Your Compositions ...it’s simple!
Good photographs needn’t be complicated.
You can often make better pictures by thinking “simple.”
Instead of trying to get as much as possible into the shot, try to include as
little as possible. Ideally, you should include everything that adds to the
picture, and nothing else. But that’s a tall order for those new to photography
(and for a few “old hands.”). Thinking “simple” will
help you learn to do it.
If you include too much in the picture, the result is confusing. It gives the
viewer too much to think about. He or she probably won’t even be able
to figure out where to start.
A simple composition, on the other hand, allows the viewer to take it in quickly
and effortlessly. Then his or her mind can find a starting point for his or
her own “tour” of the picture, for their own questions: In the case
of the bench photo on the next page, Why is this bench empty? Who is the bench
for? What country is this? The viewer’s adventure begins.
space helps keep compositions simple, directing the viewer’s
attention to the subject—and providing room for heads and
body copy in shots for feature articles.
Photo by Mike Stensvold
The photographer came across a weathered bench in front of a building with
some shuttered windows. And that’s just what he shows the viewer. He didn’t
try to include the whole building, or its surroundings. He simplified the photo
by including only the bench and two shuttered windows. (He made this photo with
an Advanced Photo System point-and-shoot camera, by the way—you don’t
need fancy gear to get good shots.)
The photographer also composed with the bench to one side. Why? Because the
shot “felt” right composed that way. He could have done a symmetrical
composition, with the bench centered in the frame, and that might have worked,
too, depending on what was to the left of the bench. Perhaps there were distracting
elements just out of frame to the left. The shot works wonderfully well composed
just as it is.
Maybe there was a color just out of frame that didn’t “fit.”
The colors in the photo work very well together. The colors and the composition
give the shot a painterly effect.
Motion pictures are based on the fact that the moviegoer sees only what was
included by the director and cinematographer. Everything outside the frame is
irrelevant. In fact, if you saw what was just outside the frame in most movie
scenes, it would take the magic away. You’d see reflectors and scrims
and cue cards and lights and equipment....
One way to keep a composition simple is to use negative space. Negative space
is the portion of the composition not occupied by the subject, and as a photographer,
you ought to think about it when you shoot.
photographer was inspired to make this shot because he liked the
bench and two shuttered windows. So that’s just what he
shows the viewer. By simplifyng the scene to these few elements,
the photographer makes things easy for the viewer of the image.
Photo by Ron Leach
Most photographers tend to over-concentrate on their subject, to the detriment
of the rest of the image. When composing your images, consider first the subject’s
location in the frame. Then, examine the rest of the image area. Do the other
elements in the picture add to it or detract from it? Are there distracting
elements in the background? Perhaps moving the camera right or left (or up or
down) will give you a better background. (You can throw distracting background
elements out of focus by shooting with the lens set to its largest aperture,
but it’s better to eliminate the distracting elements from the background
if possible.) When shooting action subjects, check the background area before
the subjects arrives, and move to a better camera position if necessary to avoid
The photo of the white bird has lots of negative space to the right of the subject.
This photo could be run large over a spread in a magazine, since it provides
lots of room for a head, subhead and body copy (text). When you shoot photos
for publication, sometimes it’s a good idea to provide some negative space
for the art director to use.
When the subject is composed to one side of the image, it’s generally
best if it faces into the photo, to draw the viewer’s eye into the picture
rather than out of it. Of course, if this Great Egret were facing the other
way (or if the camera had been aimed slightly to the left, so the bird occupied
the right half of the image area), besides drawing the viewer’s eye out
of the picture, it could be construed as an editorial statement that the subject
is not interested in (or feels contempt for) the text information inserted into
the negative area.