Recently, I was cleaning out years of accumulation in my childhood home after my father’s passing and I stumbled upon report cards from my early years in elementary school. Year after year they all said roughly the same thing: “Tony is a smart kid but he just doesn’t apply himself.” “Tony needs to work harder.” “Tony is lazy.” “Tony does just enough to get by.”
In my last post on simplicity, I suggested that the best way to create better photographs was to be intentional and methodical about removing elements from your composition.
Being ruthless about what is and isn’t your photo is the key to becoming a more effective visual artist. Time and thought should be spent on what goes into your photo and a great approach is to examine what doesn’t belong and then remove it.
As Antoine de Saint-Exupery said:
“Perfection is achieved, not when there’s nothing more to add but when there’s nothing left to take away.”
You’re probably saying, “I already do that” and I’m sure you’re right…but then why do your photos still miss the mark? I’ve got a hint for you and it’s in your report card.
Think about it. When you have a bunch of extraneous stuff in your composition what do you do? You take some stuff out and it feels better so you stop taking things out.
You’ve fallen into the trap of the subtractive process and you need to revisit the scene from A River Runs Through It. Norman is told multiple times to edit his essay and we must do the same when considering what truly belongs in our compositions. Taking some stuff out will give us a sense that we’re communicating more clearly but that doesn’t mean that we’ve gone far enough.
Now, I’m going to tell you something that you need to hear. It’s just you and me talking here so take this the way it’s intended. “You’re lazy!” and “You’re doing just enough to get by.”
No, this isn’t me trying to settle the score from elementary school, I’m trying to get your attention. Once I got to high school I discovered ways around the traditional methods of approaching problems and I became fond of finding shortcuts whenever possible. I guess you could say that I learned to “work smarter not harder.”
When you’re out photographing you can go about creating simplicity in your images the hard way or the smart way.
You can follow the school of the Reverend Maclean and continually refine your compositions, carefully examining each element and eliminating some, then taking a photograph and repeating the process over and over. Examine, eliminate, shoot, examine, eliminate, shoot, examine, eliminate….UGH. If you do it enough you may get the perfect shot but I would bet that, in most cases, you’ll stop short of where you should. It’ll be better than when you started but it won’t be perfect.
Or you can do it a smarter way. Instead of eliminating a few things and accepting it as better I’d like you to start by eliminating EVERYTHING. That’s right, everything.
Here’s the process: Identify the most important part of the subject or scene. It could be a small area of detail or color it could be a person or the light for that matter. Once you’ve answered that question create a composition with only the most important thing in it. Don’t take a photo yet, it will most likely be uninteresting.
Now, slowly expand the frame, adding a little at a time and ask yourself if those things add important ideas or interest or if they distract or add redundant information. Unlike the subtractive method it will be easy to tell if something works or doesn’t once it’s added to a relatively blank canvas. If something doesn’t add to your composition in a way which is positive or complimentary then remove it. Change your focal length, your angle your camera height. Hide it, remove it or diminish it and then keep adding more until you have what you need in the frame and there’s nothing more to add.
Try this next time you’re shooting. You’ll thank me, your photographs will improve and you’ll be able to look forward to your next report card.
Want more? Check out THESE past Finding Focus posts.