Friday Foto Talk: Simple vs. Complex   5 comments

My girl in the late afternoon sun:  it doesn't get much simpler than that.

My girl in the late afternoon sun: doesn’t get much simpler than that!

A lot of my Friday Foto Talk posts have been quite long and involved, so much so that I’ve had to split them up into parts, or installments.  In keeping with the week’s topic, this one will be as short and simple as I can make it.

Many people recommend keeping your photographs as simple as possible.  Pick a strong subject and exclude everything else.  It’s good advice, but as usual only as far as it goes.  In other words, you won’t be doing a great deal of shooting if you strictly follow that.  There’s more out there than just single-subject compositions.

A young Himba woman in northern Namibia is more than ready for her closeup.

A young Himba woman in northern Namibia is way too beautiful to include much of her surroundings.

My approach is this:

  • I look for cool stuff in places I like to be.
  • I try to time it so that I’m out there shooting that cool stuff in great light.
  • I frame that stuff in my viewfinder in a way that looks cool (shows it to its best advantage).  The only rule I tend to follow when photographing is the rule of thirds, and there are exceptions to that.  All else is situation dependent (and thus not a rule).
  • Before I press the shutter I zoom (with either the lens or my feet) so as to exclude anything that seems extraneous.  Sometimes I zoom in with my feet and zoom out with focal length.
  • I shoot.
  • If the light is still there, I work the subject some.   Most of the time this results in a picture (or three) within the picture, a composition that is narrower than the original.  Usually the effect is to simplify the composition.
  • Later, behind the computer, I will crop down if I change my mind about the composition.  This also simplifies, but at a cost to file size.


A landscape that has its focus the Columbia River, but also includes plenty of tangled forest and other Oregon vegetation.

A landscape that has its focus on the Columbia River, but also includes plenty of forest and other typical Oregon springtime vegetation.

A word about cropping.  Normally I don’t crop much if at all, but that wasn’t the case when I was less experienced.  You have to crop on the computer for awhile before you start cropping in camera; it’s a normal part of learning.  And you don’t want to start cropping in camera because some ‘expert’ said you should, then get back in front of the computer and realize you should have included more in the frame.  Take your time and let it develop naturally.  Instead, just work the subject (see below).

A composition of medium complexity, and the kind of scene you’ll find while hiking above the Columbia River Gorge in Oregon, captured in everyday mid-afternoon light.

Now the question is this:  what compositions end up being “better”, the wider angle more complex ones or the zoomed in simpler ones?  It’s one of those loaded questions in photography, the kind you find people answering with way too much certainty.  In fact, you have to answer it when you’re rating your shots.  But I believe, like much else in photography, that it is purely subjective.

There's a lot going on in this image from Death Valley, California too:  the limestones of Rainbow Canyon in the foreground, Panamint Valley with its dunes, and distant Grapevine Mountains.

There’s a lot going on in this image from Death Valley, California: the compressed limestones of Rainbow Canyon in the foreground, Panamint Valley with its dunes, the Panamints and dark Grapevine Mtns.  beyond.

I probably have more keepers that are simple than complex, but that doesn’t mean some of my all time favorite shots aren’t complex.  Complex can be awesome!  But if you have a strong subject, you should try to get a few shots where it is isolated, where anything around it is so out of focus (or vignetted) that anything outside of the subject is unrecognizable.  The subject alone is the picture.

Then go ahead (quickly while the light is good!) and work it so that you get some shots with just a little bit of the subject’s surroundings, whether in soft focus or sharp.  And if it seems right, and especially if the light is great, get some shots where a lot of your subject’s surroundings are included.  Later you can decide which (if any) you like best.

Cactus flowers blooming recently in the desert of southern Utah.

Cactus flowers in bloom recently in the  southern Utah desert.

Keyword all those different compositions, using the same search terms so they will all come up when you’re looking for something.  Later on you may have a use for a shot you didn’t particularly like at first.  I’ve even sold pictures this way, shots that weren’t on my website, even those that didn’t show up here on the blog.

Ooh darn, I think this may be a bit too long and complex.  Oh well…Everybody have a simply fun weekend!

A leafless tree in southern Laos lies in a remote area that was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War.

A bare tree holds on in a remote area of southern Laos that was bombed heavily during the Vietnam War.

5 responses to “Friday Foto Talk: Simple vs. Complex

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  1. Beautiful shots.

  2. Good short-ish essay, and some stunning shots to go with it. As you point out, each location and lighting situation calls for some snap decisions, and your decision making gets better with practice. Thanks!

    Melissa Shaw-Smith
  3. Thank you! I loved all the photos especially the girl and the horse.

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