Less Can Be More

It can be instructive to remember that sometimes less can be more when it comes to how we compose an image. In my last article I mentioned that we can learn a great deal by going through old images and thinking about how we could improve them. This posting discusses lessons that I learned from reviewing three old photographs captured back in the fall of 2014.

NOTE: Click on images to enlarge.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/3.5, 1/1250, ISO-160

Our first sample image illustrates a classic case of poor composition and an obvious lack of clear photographic intention. The eye flow, or lack of it, does not help direct a viewer’s eye. It is basically a jumble of competing lines and shapes that creates confusion and keeps the reader’s eye stuck in the foreground. Changes were needed.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 6.7 mm, efov 18 mm, f/3.5, 1/1250, ISO-160

Above you’ll find the exact same image after some simple adjustments were done in post to create more balance, eye flow and visual focus.

The first thing you may notice is that I used some perspective control adjustments to make the vertical lines perpendicular. These lines create a feeling of balance and order.

The second change was to crop off about 20% of the right hand side of the photograph. I used the shadow on the post of the extreme right hand side as an image bleed. This forces a reader’s eye towards the left.

I maintained the original 3 X 2 ratio when I did my crop. This was purposely done so I could remove the puffy, white cloud in the sky. This cloud was a visual distraction that was hurting eye flow by pulling a viewer’s eye upward, rather than to the horizon.

You’ll also notice that maintaining the same 3 X 2 ratio when doing the crop on the right hand side has created a balanced ‘rule of thirds’ composition. 

There is now a triplet of vertical shadows that also help to create balance. The reader’s eye is now directed out past the balcony and towards the horizon. The small slice of the scene that is visible between the columns on the right hand side gently bend a viewer’s eye towards the right after it has gone out towards the horizon.

Obviously I could have composed this photograph much better at the point of capture. The lesson learned was to pay more attention to competing angles and to reduce the number of elements in a photograph to help create stronger eye flow. As you can see in the two versions of the photograph that less can be more.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 18 mm, efov 35 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-160

The photograph above is another one that needs to be simplified. What caught my eye was the simple combinations of three colours, orange, blue and white. As I reviewed this image it became clear that it lacked eye flow and focus… and should have been originally composed as a vertical image.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 18 mm, efov 35 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-160

I cropped the original image into more of a vertical composition, leaving blue posts on either side of the revised composition in an attempt to direct a viewer’s eye back towards the orange sculpture. This proved to be a mistake.

The real drama of this image is not created by the orange sculpture, but rather by the blue geometric shapes that flow from left to right. The orange sculpture establishes a visual starting point but it should not be the primary focus of the photograph. So, I did a couple of additional changes.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 6.7-13 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 18 mm, efov 35 mm, f/6.3, 1/60, ISO-160

By removing the blue bar on the right hand side, the image now has a clear visual starting point and much better eye flow. The geometric shapes now guide the viewer’s eye comfortably off the photograph on the right hand side. I don’t normally do any spot adjustments with my images. In this case the removal of a competing detail was needed. All of the changes demonstrate, once again, that less can be more

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 10-30 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5, 1/500, ISO-160

The various angles and geometric shapes of this building on the Greek island of Santorini intrigued me. At the time when I composed this image my thinking was that showing some bright blue sky, as well as a few details of the building, would provide context for photograph.

When I went over this photograph again today, I realized that what had really struck me about the building when I first viewed it, were the lines of the staircase. The other elements in the photograph were just visual clutter. So I made some adjustments in post by cropping the photograph to bring more focus to the staircase and the stucco half walls.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 10-30 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5, 1/500, ISO-160

My first cropping attempt made the image more focused, but still missed the mark and needed a bit more intensity and focus.

Nikon 1 V2 + 1 Nikkor 10-30 mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 10 mm, efov 27 mm, f/5, 1/500, ISO-160

By changing the ratio of the image with an additional crop along the top edge of the photograph, I was able to create a corner exit. 

Changing the shape of the image also had the effect of giving it more visual depth and created more of a 3-D effect. To my eye the additional cropping gave the image significantly more eye flow and more of a minimalist approach in terms of the overall composition. Our final example of less can be more.

Technical Note

Photographs were captured hand-held using camera gear and technology as noted in the EXIF data. Images were produced from RAW files using my standard process.

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4 thoughts on “Less Can Be More”

  1. Thanks for the different perspective Tom. With your comments, as I look at landscapes in the future I will also try to look more closely initially for those key elements. I alway look for things like lines, S-Curves, etc, but I definitely have not focused on them as you have done and it gives me another way to work on continuous improvement.

  2. Hey Tom
    I understand photos 1 and 3 but am confused on photo 2. It seems to me that the orange sculpture is so noticeable that it is going to be viewed as the subject no matter what you do. I agree that the changes improved the photo but my eye is going to that orange first. Do you intend for the sculpture to be the subject?

    1. Hi Joel,

      Thanks for your comment and sharing your experience of the second image! I had another look at the revised versions of image 2 after I read your comment, and I can certainly understand your point of view. This is one of the wonderful things about photography. As individuals we can have different experiences of the same image! At least we both agree that the revisions are improvements over the original composition. 🙂

      I see the orange sculpture in image 2 as an initial visual attraction point. My fundamental experience of the orange sculpture is as a colour highlight that captures my attention. What it actually is, doesn’t register all that strongly with me. Then, my eye slides to the right down the geometric triangular patterns of the railing and exits the composition on the right hand side. So, I have a ‘stop and go’ experience of the orange sculpture. Your experience is one that seems to stop for a longer time frame on the sculpture… or perhaps may not leave it.

      It doesn’t surprise me that we have different experiences with this particular image. I regularly see and experience things around me very differently than most other folks, since I my perceptions are heavily skewed towards patterns and shapes.

      For example, when composing a landscape image I don’t initially see any of the details that may be present in the landscape scene. Instead, I look out over the area and immediately perceive shapes, lines, angles, intersections, colour blocks, areas of contrast, and visual flows. My eye forms a basic composition and seems to imprint that in my mind. It isn’t until after that happens that my brain switches over and begins to recognize and label those geometric shapes etc. as ‘real’ things like rocks, trees, streams etc. The same thing happens when I compose all kinds of other subject matter. I initially experience all of them as patterns, shapes, angles, lines, colour blocks, etc… not as discernible things that have defined names.


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