How to use simplicity in photography composition

We can overcomplicate things when trying to compose a great photo. So today we’re looking at simplicity in photography composition, specifically:

  • What is simplicity in photography composition?
  • How to achieve simplicity in photography composition?

At the end of this article I explain all the techniques I used to create the photo below, and what makes it a good example of simplicity in portrait photography composition.

Using simplicity in photography composition for dynamic photos

What is simplicity in photography composition?

Simplicity composition is the photography equivalent of minimalist design. It’s a photography composition technique that concentrates on keeping only the absolutely necessary information in frame. 

You could be easily fooled into thinking that simple composition is simple and not thought out.

However, when you make the composition simple, you actually need to consider many composition techniques to create a striking image that holds your viewer’s attention.


5 tips for achieving simplicity in photography composition

A great deal of thought goes into stripping out all unnecessary details to create simplicity in composition.

You need to ask yourself what you need in the photo to tell the story. If it doesn’t add to the message of your image, you need to figure out a way to remove it, or at least minimize it.

Let’s take a look at what affects simplicity in photography composition:

  1. Backgrounds
  2. Excluding elements
  3. Filling the frame
  4. Color
  5. Lighting

1. Backgrounds in simple photography composition

A busy or distracting background instantly reduces the simplicity of the composition and makes the photograph busy. To fix this, try changing your position, or getting in closer to cut out unnecessary detail by filling the frame.

If you can do neither of these, consider using a wide aperture to reduce the depth of field and blur the background.

2. Excluding elements from the composition

It’s not just a matter of thinking about what doesn’t work in an image, you also need to consider if everything you see in frame is serving a purpose. Is it adding to the image and does it need to be there?

What you can leave out? Would removing an element from the shot make it a stronger photo? If an element isn’t part of the story and doesn’t add to the message, exclude it from the image.

Of course that’s great if it’s moveable! If it’s not, try to change your position, or crop tighter so that the distracting elements are no longer in frame.

Photography composition ebook

3. Fill the frame for simplicity in composition

I’ve mentioned getting in closer to cut out distractions, but sometimes filling the frame is simply to make it all about your subject.

When you get in close and fill the frame, you focus the viewer’s attention on exactly what you want them to see. This strengthens your composition purely by being so focused and “in your face”.

Baby elephant suckling

Above is a fairly standard photo without much thought for composition. Once I had the basic image I wanted to create something that would stand out. So I zoomed in close for the image below and filled the frame to cut out all extra information. I converted to black and white in Lightroom and increased contrast to emphasize shadow and texture detail.

Extreme close up baby elephant suckling

4. Color in composition

We can consider color in two ways when aiming for simplicity in photography composition:

  • Color can be a choice between a color image or a black and white image. Sometimes removing all color also removes distractions and the image becomes more focused on form and light.
  • Or concentrate on the colors you choose to include. You could use just one color palette in the image for a monochrome image.

Alternatively, use complementary colors to create interesting photos. These are colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel, such as

  • Orange and blue
  • Purple and yellow
  • Red and green

Snapshot of man leaning against quiver tree

Above is a holiday snapshot, but also, by including my fella in the photo, it shows the size of the quiver tree. Below is a more eye catching photo of the same tree. I excluded surrounding distractions by standing below the tree and using the blue sky as a simple background. Plus, blue complements orange for eye catching composition in photos.

Quiver tree against a blue sky

5. Lighting for simplicity in photography composition

Light is the basis of all photos, therefore lighting is also a big decision when it comes to photography composition.

Let’s look at using directional light versus flat light for creating simple composition.

Directional light for simplicity in composition

Reducing an image to strong contrasts of light and dark with directional light removes distractions and concentrates on the form of the subject. Therefore it simplifies the image.

Minimalist bump photo black on black composition

In both images the subjects are lit from behind, to camera left, so light wraps around them, highlighting their baby bumps. Although in color, the above image is further simplified by the subject wearing black against a black background for a monochrome effect.

Flat light for simple composition

However, if all other factors have been considered, flat light, might also add to simplicity in photography composition. The very lack of shadows could simplify a scene.

Speaking of shadows, silhouette photographs are a prime example of simplicity in photography composition.

By exposing for the background and ensuring that the subject is no more than a shape, you remove all unnecessary clutter.

Silhouette of man fishing on the beach

Elements that make the top photo a good example of simplicity in photography composition:

The main photo of the newborn baby’s feet and his dad’s hand at the top of this article uses several composition techniques for simplicity in photography.

Here’s why I chose it as the main image for this article:

  • Because it’s a black and white image the difference between the texture of the father’s skin against the newborn’s skin is more obvious as it’s all about highlights and shadows
  • The texture is enhanced by the angle of light, which is side lighting coming from above and to camera right.
  • The fragility and size of the newborn is highlighted because of the juxtaposition of his tiny feet in his dad’s hand.
  • Using the father’s hand instead of the mother’s adds to to the juxtaposition in composition – her hands would be smaller and smoother.
  • The black background removes any potential distraction.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about simplicity in photography composition, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my tips have helped you to understand how to use simplicity in composition, share that too.

2 thoughts on “How to use simplicity in photography composition”

  1. Je m étais un peu entrainé a faire ce type de photo minimaliste mais je n avait pas saisi toutes les subtilités que vous montez dans cet article. Merci , je pourrai en faire de bien meilleur avec toutes ces techniques que vous montrez illustrer

  2. Very nice outline of simplicity in photographs. I agree with most everything you said except the parallel to minimalist. I would argue that a proper minimalistic image should employ simplicity, however a successful image using simplicity as a creative control could yet result in a very complex composition.
    Think of Steiglitz’s “Gossip – Katwyk” of 1894, or most any painting by Edward Hopper. There is most certainly compositional simplicity, but they are not minimalistic. They merely contain all and only those elements necessary to convey the idea. Whereas, a minimalistic image is one that by definition contains very limited elements to create a compelling composition.
    Thanks for the article.


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