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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 composition?
  • How to achieve simplicity in composition

What is simplicity in composition?

Simplicity is the photography equivalent of minimalism. A photography composition technique that concentrates on keeping only the absolutely necessary information is in frame. 

It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that simple composition is simple and not thought out. However, because you choose to 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 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 minimise it.

Let’s take a look at:

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

1. Backgrounds in simple 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.

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

More reading on depth of field:  Using depth of field for gorgeous photography composition

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

Great if it is moveable! If not, try to change your position or crop tighter so that they are no longer in frame.

3. Fill the frame for simplicity in composition

I’ve mentioned getting in closer to cut out elements, 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”.

Filling the frame is one element of simplicity in composition. Read more about it here: Fill the frame for photos with impact – how, when, why

Baby elephant suckling

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

Extreme close up baby elephant suckling

4. Color in composition

We can consider color in two ways – one as 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.

However, the other way to consider color when aiming for simplicity in composition is to concentrate on the colors you choose to include.

You could use just one color palette in the 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, or purple and yellow, red and green.

Get more info on colors here: How to use color for eye catching photography composition

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.

Quiver tree against a blue sky

5. Lighting for simplicity in composition

Light is the basis of all photos, therefore light is also a big decision when it comes to composition. Consider flat light, versus directional light.

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

Here’s a detailed look at lighting:

Angles of light – how to use backlight

Angles of light – how to use side light

Minimalist bump photo black on black composition

In both images the subjects are lit from behind to camera left so that the 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.

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

Silhouettes are a prime example of simplicity in 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

Simplicity summary

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

  • It is in black and white to highlight the shadows and the difference between the texture of the father’s skin against the newborn’s skin.
  • This is enhanced by the angle of light, which is coming from above and to camera right.
  • The fragility and size of the newborn is highlighted because his feet are tiny in his dad’s hand.
  • Using the father’s hand instead of the mother’s adds to it – her hands would be smaller and smoother.
  • The black background removes any potential distraction.

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