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Make the effort to create a meaningful body of work

Click Images To EnlargeThis Article Features Photo Zoom

fog trees
Contrast of the oak trees against a foggy background makes for a mysterious composition.

“What’s really important is to simplify. The work of most photographers would be improved immensely if they could do one thing: get rid of the extraneous. If you strive for simplicity, you are more likely to reach the viewer.”
—William Albert Allard

I know you’ve heard this before: Keep it simple. It’s a good adage for life in general, and it works well for me in photography. Regarding image design, it’s my mantra.

One key way to create simple images with strong impact is to choose simple backgrounds for your subjects. Finding good subjects is hard enough, but finding good backgrounds is still harder. When composing your photographs, look carefully throughout the frame, including the foreground, the edges and especially the background.

Dogwood Blossoms
The blurred river makes this blooming dogwood stand out.

Oaks In Fog. One often can use weather or lighting conditions in nature to set subjects apart from their backgrounds. Fog is one condition I love to use. In my Oaks in Fog image, I worked hard to create a balance of space between these tree trunks, but it’s the fog that gives the simple background.

Bridalveil Fall. Another type of lighting condition occurs when a subject is brightly lit and the background is in shadow. Here’s a photograph of Bridalveil Fall in Yosemite Valley. If you get there at the right time of day, you can catch the sunlight hitting the water before the light strikes the cliff as well. Given the bright white subject, the waterfall is dramatic when set off by the dark background. Still another advantage of this lighting is that the sidelighting brings out the textures of the water. Ansel Adams made this special lighting famous in his Bridalveil Fall from 1948 ( In situations like this, the light becomes a major component of the image design.

Sunlight hits Bridalveil Fall at just the right time of day.

Dogwood In Bloom. The Dogwood in Bloom photograph is greatly simplified by my choice of background. The river rapids were blurred by the long exposure, and the branch and flower graphics stand out clearly. Watch all parts of a scene as you compose, and look for simple and clean backgrounds. Make sure to make good use of your camera’s LCD to inspect your compositions. Even on the small screen, key factors that could be distracting can be spotted and corrected in the field. I stop periodically to scroll through my captures in order to check myself, and doing this often leads to ideas to improve a composition. It’s much easier to fix problems with composition at the location than in postprocessing!

I hope these ideas help you create clean compositions and greater impact for your photographs!

“Ultimately, simplicity is the goal in every art, and achieving simplicity is one of the hardest things to do. Yet it’s easily the most essential.”
—Pete Turner

To visit his Photo Blog or sign up for newsletter updates on his Landscape Essentials course with, visit William Neill’s website at

William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.