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8 Ways to Keep Your Compositions Simple

Simplicity is memorable. Compositions are hard. Balance, shape, texture, rhythm, harmony, contrast, there are so many elements to think about when framing an image that you hope will be memorable and distinct … how can a beginner hope to get all of this under control?

Here we outline 8 simple steps to keep your compositions clean and simple, yet engaging and memorable to those who see your images.

Keep It Simple, Stupid – Keep Your Compositions Simple

Remember the K.I.S.S. principle… It needs no introduction. Then, why do we forget it when taking photographs? It’s all too easy to want to introduce more and more into a frame to ensure that nothing is left out. But we must resist this urge.

Why Must We Take Things Out of A Composition

Why would you want to leave things out of a frame? More the merrier, right? The bigger, the better, right? Umm… sometimes, yes… But not here. The more elements that we remove, the more our viewer’s eye can focus on what is important to your image.

You see, when people look at a photograph, they expect to understand what it is you’re trying to communicate right away, without having to wait.

Today, with a torrent of pictures being uploaded to social media every minute, you really do have to have an eye-catching photograph for it to stand out at all… you could do that by having a great subject, or by having a simple subject and simplifying it further. Remember, less is more!

How to Simplify Compositions:

1. Go In Close to the Subject

This could either mean moving closer physically or changing your lens to a longer focal length one or if it’s something small, it could mean changing to a macro setup. To expand on this… going closer to the subject fills the frame and makes the main subject of your image more prominent. This simplifies your message.

If you’re doing a portrait of a child, go down to her level and fill the frame with a tight close-up.

2. Cut the Clutter

Very often we fail to realise that there are elements inside the frame that are not really needed. Remove anything that does not ‘belong’ in the frame. It could be as simple as taking a step to the side to remove the intruding arm of a relative while photographing your nephew at Christmas, but it could make a vast difference in the final image. Be thoughtful and deliberate about what you include and what you exclude from your frame.

3. Keep an Eye on the Background

Backgrounds are very important. They contribute to the mood of a photograph no matter how out-of-focus they are. If your photograph has a background, make sure that it does not interfere with your foreground elements and distract the viewer from the experience that you’re trying to share. Hide busy backgrounds.

4. Fill the Frame

This is a corollary to the first point, but not quite the same. Filling your frame is a great way to get rid of an interfering background. Apart from going in close, you could also introduce more of the same element to fill the frame with your subject.

For example, if you’re photographing interesting pebbles, instead of using just one, fill the frame with many interesting pebbles.

5. Use Backgrounds to Your Advantage

This may sound like a contradiction to the previous two points, but let me assure you that it’s not. What I mean is that when you have a clean, clear background, make use of it… Show it off!

You can always use white space to de-clutter a photograph, bringing the subject into clear relief. When doing this, remember that if you can find a textured background without any distinguishing marks, it could add texture and meaning to your image… But be careful to not let it become too overpowering.

6. Use Simple Light

A couple of photographers have told me, “there’s only one sun, so why should I use 4 lights”. At face value, it seems old fashioned. What they mean is that when you have many directional lights, your image is likely to look more unrealistic.

While this is not always a bad thing, you may want to take simple photographs with clear cut lighting so that the lighting does not become more of the star than your subject themselves.

7. Use Simple Colors

Yes, even the hues and shades of a photograph can make it either complex or simple. Try to make sure that your compositions don’t have too many colors. Very often, a photograph can be sufficiently varied, yet simple, by simply having various shades of the same color. Learning color theory will help you understand the effective use of colors in your images.

8. Above All; Keep Your Equipment Simple

Very often we get carried away with all the lenses and gadgetry that we may own. I know that I do, but I try to remind myself to choose the lens that I’m most likely to use, with maximum advantage to me. That way, when there’s a challenging photograph to be taken, you know exactly how to make the best use of your equipment. It’s all too easy to find yourself changing lenses when you come across that rare tiger spotting… or while your child is taking her first few steps.

Remember, always breathe deeply and relax when you find that you’re not sure about what you’re going to do. Then, remember these 8 simple steps and you’re on your way to taking some remarkably simple, yet memorable pictures.

How do you keep your image compositions simple? Leave a comment below, or tweet your response to us.

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Published: July 10, 2007 | Last Updated: February 26, 2022

2 thoughts on “8 Ways to Keep Your Compositions Simple”

  1. Solid tips! I like it :)

    Filling the frame is a good one, particularly with kids. It can make them seem so large and different.

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