Some concepts are most easily defined by what they are not. Simplicity may be one of those.
Simplicity is not confusing, complicated, intricate or ostentatious. But neither is it plain or boring. Perhaps, instead, it is just enough. Just enough to tell the story. Just enough to catch your eye or take your breath away. Simplicity done right can leave a lasting memory.
Simplicity is not the same as minimalism, though minimalism may be a form of simplicity. Simplicity is a way of seeing and communicating. Minimalism is a style. Simplicity has more to do with capturing the essence of your subject than minimizing design elements, though it may do both. Achieving simplicity should look effortless (though it often is not).
In a world that has grown highly complex, simplicity appeals to our soul, as well as our senses. It has the power to give our eyes, minds and hearts a moment of pause. It has to do with clarity of thought, vision or emotion. You know immediately where to look in the image. Distractions have been eliminated and the composition leads you right to the point. To create a simple photograph is to remove the clutter and confusion—to edit out everything that isn’t essential to the message.
There is no one way to achieve simplicity in photography. In fact, the various ways in which photographers do this tends to be one of the key elements of their style. But if you are struggling to simplify your images, just as most photographers do when learning their their craft, here are a few strategies to help along the way:
- Know what compels you. Make that the clear focus of your image.
- Clarify your message. Edit out everything that doesn’t contribute meaningfully to that message.
- Seek out what Edward Weston called the strongest way of seeing. Change your perspective Explore different points of view. Move around your subject. What works best?
- Search for simple scenes with fewer elements—more masses, fewer points and lines.
- Move in closer. In complex or chaotic scenes, focus on details rather than the big picture.
- Move back to give your subject breathing room. This can be especially effective if you have clear blue skies, a field of green, a sea of water or a solid wall as a backdrop. It's a great way to work with fog.
- Minimize your depth of field, blurring undesirable or distracting backgrounds.
- Simplify your color palette. Soft color harmonies, a single spot of color in an otherwise neutral scene, or bold color contrast can make a greater impact than a rainbow of colors.
- Shoot in black and white. It eliminates color as a distraction and allows forms, shadows, strong lines or tones to shine instead.
- Clean up your edges. Look around the frame before you click the shutter and again when you are editing the image. Make sure there is nothing there to pull your eye back out of the image. Keep your focus where it matters most.
Do you have other strategies for achieving simplicity and clarity of vision in your photographs? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the subject.