October 27, 2021

What makes a photo composition successful? Part II: Simplification

By Lars Gesing
What makes a photo composition successful? Part II: Simplification

This is the second part in a six-part online photography tutorial and education series teaching you how to create great compositions with any camera and how to quickly start to improve your photography. Click here to read the first partWant more content like this? Click here to sign up for my free "Art of Seeing" newsletter.


Simplification is one of my favorite elements of what makes a successful composition in photography, and a concept I always try to draw on when I am out in the field.

You may have heard this line before: Painting is the art of addition, photography is the art of subtraction. In other words, choosing what to leave out of your frame when photographing on location is arguably more important in photography than what to include. 

The more simple a composition, the less anxiety-inducing it is, the more pleasing it is. Sure, certain scenes draw their power from their ability to so completely overwhelm the viewer that they just can’t turn away their gaze.

But the reality is that most times, if a viewer is overwhelmed by a photograph, they are going to tune out. We don’t need more stress in our life. We go out into nature, we look at art, as a mechanism of escape. Escape from to do lists, tasks, stress, whatever it is… Nature and art are happy places. And when it comes to photography, happiness can be found in simplicity.

A photograph of three bison in a snowstorm at Rocky Mountain Wildlife Arsenal near Denver, Colorado.

Why a zoom lens will help you learning to create better photography compositions

It’s not just photography, by the way. Why do you think the minimalism movement is so strong? Again, it is people shedding all the extra weight, all that overwhelms them. Creating pleasing, soothing compositions in photography can draw from the same technique.

So how do you do this? Here are two tips:

  1. Make use of negative space. Negative space in an image serves as a resting place for the eye without it exiting the frame altogether (like in the bison image in this post). It also will make sure that all the focus remains on the subject as there are no distractions included in negative space.
  2. Develop “70-200 Vision” — this is a very unscientific term that I have come up with to describe my affinity for shooting nature scenes with my 70-200mm lens. Using this lens forces me to isolate a subject rather than to take the easy way out and include the entire scene in a wide-angle image. Compare the two images at the end of this post that are both shot in the same spot, a popular waterfall in Colorado. Which is the more unique one?

    Remember: Photography is the art of subtraction. A zoom lens can do much of that work for you. Bonus tip: Don’t just practice this when you have your camera in front of you. Just like with practicing looking for photographs in general, when you are out and about, look for isolated subjects within a larger scene, whether you photograph them or not. 
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