Simplicity in photography, part 1

December 18, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

I have been asked by a local camera club to give a presentation at a local camera club in January, to cover the various topics of their competitions for the year.  Over the next few weeks, I will be covering most of those topics here.  Today, we look at the concept of simplicity.

 

What is simplicity and what does it mean in photography?  It is such a nebulous term, it can be daunting to capture in a single image.  In a sense, all photographs attempt to capture simplicity, in that, when they succeed, they distill a scene down to its most basic elements (more on that in another post).

 

As a competition topic, however, simplicity is often (and most easily) associated with minimalism.  While all minimalism is necessarily simple, the reverse is not necessarily true.  The term simplicity encompasses much more than that.  An easier way to think of simplicity in photography is not to get hung up on the physical elements in a scene in and of themselves, but to think of the elements in a scene can be distilled to the simplest level of recognition or understanding.  For instance, an image of a butterfly on a bush is one thing – but a close-up of a butterfly wing is a simpler portrayal of the same concept.  We recognize the wing as an object associated with a living thing – a butterfly – but we don’t have to include the whole insect and all of its surroundings to illustrate the concept we are trying to capture.

 

Simplifying the detail of a subject only make sense when it captures the message you are trying to convey.  In the series of images below portraying Monhegan Island Light in Maine, the first image of the lighthouse and dory is simple enough.  The silhouette of the lighthouse at dawn simplifies the image further, while preserving the concept of the lighthouse.  But if the story we are trying to tell is the simplicity and perhaps the hardship of island life itself, we might isolate the details further as in the third image.  In this image, without context, we don’t know that this is a lighthouse, but we get a sense of the lifestyle of the owner.

 

The key to demonstrating simplicity effectively in an image lies in the preservation of context.  As I stated above, all photographs attempt to distill a scene to the simplest elements, so that it can be interpreted accordingly.  But when we lose the context of the original scene, the story changes.

 

Take a look at one of my earlier postings here, where I took an image of sunlight filtering through trees.  The image was simple enough, but the application of a motion blur effect to it distilled the image further into a simpler representation.  The abstract created still carried the vital information of the original – most would recognize it as sunlit forest scene, though the colors and lines were greatly simplified.

 

When trying to capture simplicity in a photo, try to keep this in mind.  Simplicity in photography is more than a reduction of detail – it is an ironically complex calculation.


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