The best compositions are simple; they present only the essentials, and leave out extraneous clutter. The most common mistake in photography – by far – is including too much in the frame. Anything that’s not adding to the photograph’s message is detracting from it.
To help simplify your compositions, ask yourself, before you press the shutter, “What’s the least interesting part of this photograph?” Try to identify the weakest area of your composition, and find a way to get rid of it. Then, once you’ve done that, ask the same question again: “Now, what’s the least interesting part of this image?” And get rid of that. And keep doing that until there’s nothing left that you could possibly cut out without losing something vital.
To give you some practice, look at the photograph above. What’s the least interesting part of that image? And if you got rid of that, what would be next – what’s the next least interesting part of the photograph?
I’ll give you a minute to think about it. When you’re ready, take a look at this next photograph, and answer the same question: what’s the least interesting part of this image?
Okay, let’s go back to the first image. To me, the least interesting parts of that photograph are the dark trees on the left side, the dark cliffs on the right side, the slightly-distracting log near the right edge, and the featureless water in the lower-right corner. Since these areas are all on the left or right sides, and the most interesting things – the snow-covered rocks in the foreground, the gold reflection, sunlit El Capitan, and the moon – are all in the middle, this seems like a natural candidate for a vertical orientation, something like this:
I think this is cleaner, simpler, and stronger than the horizontal version. There’s no extraneous clutter, and the most compelling objects dominate the frame.
In the second photograph, I’d say the least interesting parts are the dark trees and cliffs in the lower-right and upper-right corners. The tall, prominent tree on the right side is fairly interesting, but not as compelling as the mist, the more distant trees poking up through the mist, and the waterfall. So I took a couple of steps to the left, zoomed in, and made this version:
Again, I think this is cleaner, simpler, and stronger than the wider view.
So the next time you compose a photograph, ask yourself what’s the least interesting part of the frame, and get rid of it. Then look at the new composition, and ask yourself again what’s the least interesting part of the frame, and get rid of that. Keep going until there’s nothing left but the essentials.
I show more examples of simplifying compositions in some of my photo critiques, including this one with a fall color scene from Florida (believe it or not), and this sunset scene from a California Lake.
— Michael Frye
Related Posts: When Separation is a Good Thing; Simplicity vs. Complexity in Photography; Weekly Photo Critique: “Odgen Lake II” by Joe Hablas; Photo Critique Series: “Red Sky at Night” by Ellie Stone
Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.