The Beauty in Simplicity

In photography, as in any visual art, you will find that images, paintings or any other creative works, which are simple, yet evocative, can be particularly compelling. As photographers we are told to avoid including distracting elements, such as a tree branch sticking into the frame. But there is much more to that. An image should include only those elements that are essential for it to convey the desired message. One should practice a form of minimalism and in this short article I give a few tips with examples for how you can go about achieving this.


Recognize the essential, eliminate the unnecessary

When you compose your photograph, strive to include only those elements you consider essential for the image and avoid all those which don’t add and are distracting. Your final image should portray nothing more than those elements which you intended to include. This means that you have to analyze the scene as you compose your image. With practice this will become more intuitive and you will be able to focus on the essential quickly. My detailed article “Shadow Light” covers a type of light that is not only beautiful but also helps to simplify the scene.

For a short lived moment, the soft light of the morning sun draws beautiful, dreamy bands of satin across the tips of these otherwise somewhat inconspicuous dunes in Namibia’s Sossusvlei region. This image was all about the three bands of light and it was essential to combine them in a coherent and balanced whole. For this to work, I had to be at a precise vantage point. Just a few steps either way and the relative position of the line elements changed significantly, and I would include parts of the scene which would have distracted from the three bands of light playing the central role. When you photograph it is essential to WALK!


Think lines, shapes, textures

It is very useful to recognize and examine the graphical elements in the scene you are composing. In your mind’s eye, analyze the image in terms of its shapes, lines, textures and patterns and combine them into a coherent, harmonious whole. My article on my processing workflow outlines the methods I use and which I think are very useful for accentuating lines, textures and patterns in simple compositions.

Light is at its most powerful the moment it first breaks through the darkness. The mesmerizing shapes and textures of Namibia’s dunes come to life as they emerge out of darkness and are touched by the first light of day. This image was all about the simple lines and shapes and the subtle textures. It was very important for the lines and shapes to work together in a balanced, coherent composition. I felt the diagonal band of light in the top right of the image to be very important for balancing the image. As you can see, this image includes only the essential, everything else is excluded.



Use the Right Lens

In order to simplify a scene, it is very important that you use the right lens and focal length. The telephoto lens is spectacularly effective at zooming in, removing the clutter, and distilling the scene into its essential components. That being said, it also possible to capture beautifully simple images with wide angle lenses, given the right landscape and conditions. You can read more about using the telephoto lens in this article.

A beautifully shaped iceberg is framed by the burning morning light on a distant mountain range in Greenland’s Scoresby Sund. One of our most memorable moments, as we were floating in perfectly calm waters, surrounded by a sea of icebergs and distant mountain ranges. This image was all about the beautifully shaped iceberg contrasting against the diagonal bands of intense, warm light which, for a brief moment, were painted across the face of a distant mountain. The telephoto allowed me to exclude all the clutter and unnecessary elements which distract from a truly unique and compelling combination of features. The inclusion of anything else would have distracted from what this image is all about.


An example of a scene that is well suited for a wide angle lens and where the wide field of view did not include any extraneous elements. The three lakes with their beautiful reflections, converging towards the center, framed by the mountains on either side, form the essential graphical component of this image. It literally took my breath away when I stepped on the ledge and saw this mind blowing landscape expand in front of me. The magnificent mountain ranges of Yoho National Park in the Canadian Rockies cradle three turquoise blue lakes illuminated in intensely colorful light as the setting sun colors low lying clouds. On the left side of this image, note the peak color golden larches bordering otherwise green pine forests.


I hope you found these short tips for simplifying your image helpful. There is true beauty in simplicity and a simple image, done well, can be particularly evocative and compelling. Remember, practice makes perfect. At first this may seem like a daunting task, but with time things will become intuitive, and you will recognize the essential beauty of what surrounds you quickly and quite effortlessly. Good luck!

For a considerably more in depth treatment of composition, please have a look at our extensive, detailed ebook which discusses the art of composition and the principles of aesthetics. In particular, I explain the psychology behind aesthetics and image design, also known as visual thinking, which will enable and empower you to express your photographic vision powerfully and effectively.

Related articles:

Composition Tips

Telephoto for landscape photography

Processing Tips

Shadow Light