Simplicity in Composition

“The landscape is a complex subject but understanding that something is complex doesn’t mean that one must necessarily present the subject in a complex manner”. David Ward, Landscape Beyond – A Journey into Photography. (p.33)

In landscape photography, photographers are often confronted with the need to take a complex composition, and extract a clearer and easier to understand composition from it. The difficulty lies in determining which elements enhance, and which elements distract. This simplification is the key, however, to achieving meaningful results. There are three main aspects of simplification to consider.

1. Simplify by removing unwanted clutter from the frame. Begin by looking not at the subject, but at the frame around the subject. Remove any unnecessary clutter from the composition that may lead the viewer’s eye outside the composition, or away from the subject itself.

The subject, or the essential element, of the composition, may, at times, be the tiniest of details. In those cases, the composition isn’t necessarily of that element, but of the other elements of the composition that revolve around and give context to it. For example, in the following image, that tiny, essential, element was the small island named “Chinaman’s Hat.” The surrounding water served to show the environment where it is located. It provides a scene of solitude, peace and tranquility.

Chinaman’s Hat at Sunrise

Chinaman’s Hat at Sunrise. Kahaluu Bay, Oahu. Hawaii. Chamonix 45N-1 Camera, Schneider APO Symmar 210mm f5.6 lens on Fuji Velvia 50, using a Horseman 6×12 roll film back.

However, including the beach in the foreground (where I was standing to make the composition) would have served to pull the eye away from the tiny island as it woke to the rising sun, and destroyed its simplicity.

2. Simplify to concentrate the viewer’s attention on the subject. Secondly, what is it about the subject that stirs your emotions and ignites your desire to photograph it? That is the element  that the composition should emphasize.

Try “seeing” the underlying elements that caught your attention in the first place, and then exclude, or minimize, those elements that distract from your feelings toward the subject. One way to do that is to close one eye when looking at the composition. This gives a feeling for how the subject will appear in the photograph, and will help to determine what should be included or excluded. Remember, what you omit from the composition is just as important as what you include.

What ways can we use to capture the viewer’s attention and at the same time simplify the composition? One way is through the use of careful framing, or simply moving closer to the subject. Too many elements in the composition confuse the viewer, obscuring those elements which ignited the photographer’s emotions in the first place.

3. Simplify by not using gimmicks or unnatural tools. Finally, let the subject speak for itself without adding unnecessary embellishments. Gimmicks such as the use of the star or fog filters signify to the viewer the presence of the photographer; unconsciously making the photographer’s tools the subject rather than the landscape.

Likewise, avoid overusing filters, such as the warming and polarizing filter. Their use should be restricted to overcoming the limitations imposed by the photographic medium itself, be it film or a digital sensor, or when highlighting an essential element of the composition. Make sure their use doesn’t overpower the subject itself. The subject should appear as it would naturally.

Aboriginal Artwork in the Making. Ochre Pits, Western MacDonnell Range National Park

Aboriginal Artwork in the Making. Ochre Pits, Western MacDonnell Range National Park, Northern Territory, Australia. Toyo 45AII, Schneider Symmar-S 135mm f5.6 lens on Fuji Velvia 50, using a Horseman 6×12 roll film back.

Not every composition benefits from simplification to the utmost degree, but all compositions benefit from some type of simplification to be effective, and pleasing to the viewer. The key is learning how to simplify the composition, by learning which elements to include or exclude.

“Great artists are able to present complex things in a simple fashion because they have feeling for the essence of what they are trying to explain or portray.” David Ward (p.33).

For more information, see the following photographers whose work exemplifies simplicity:


About roteague
I’m a landscape photographer, residing on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. I love large format photography, in fact, I love any kind of photography involving film.

One Response to Simplicity in Composition

  1. Your photos and blog are just fantastic. As a wedding and portrait photographer in San Jose, I know that it’s challenging photographing outstanding pictures. I’ll be keeping an eye on your blog to get some inspiration.

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