I remember the day when I got my Nikon 14 to 24 mm lens. I could not wait to head out to the mountains to use it. I said to myself, wow, now I can get so much more in my photos. Fast forward to now, I have learned that more in photography is not always better. At the beginning of this year, after reflecting on my photos and getting feedback, I set a goal to simplify, simplify and oh did I say simplify.
Here is an example of an image where I recognized the need to simplify. When I shot this image, I was quite excited by it. The shadows and the light on the lake were what first caught my eye. I thought wow, this would be a great black and white image. My second reaction was hey, I’ll use the creek as a leading line into the lake. So, I set up, took the photo, got home and like a robot, processed it and posted it on FaceBook. The reaction was muted. Why? I did not take the time to actually look at it with a critical eye and decide whether it actually captured what I wanted.
Now looking at this image, my reaction is what the heck was I thinking? There is so much detail and chaos in the foreground of this image, it is hard for anyone but me to understand the story I was trying to tell. What is the story – the many many rocks, the little tree growing out of the stump, the light on the lake, clouds in the sky?
With the goal of simplifying in mind, here are a few techniques on how I K.I.S.S (Keep It Simple Sexy – never liked the word stupid) in photography.
- Focal Length – Mountain scenes, although very beautiful, are very hard to keep simply because there is so much going on – tall rugged majestic mountains, beautiful blue skies with white fluffy clouds, trees, water, flowers, etc. How does one capture a simple yet powerful image of these super detailed scenes? I have found that zooming in on the key element of the scene really helped me to simplify mountain scenes. Below are a couple of examples
Now I wish I could say that simply carrying and using my telephoto lenses was all it took to capture these scenes. Instead, I have had to retrain my brain and eyes to look for these story lines. Our eyesight is set at roughly 50 mm so capturing anything with a focal length of greater than 50 mm requires your brain and eyes to eliminate all the clutter and quickly zoom in on a scene to focus on what makes you excited. To achieve this, I find myself looking high, looking low to the ground, pausing and looking around, taking shots and then looking at component parts within the scene to see what I like, etc. While I am doing this, I am asking, what really excites me about this scene and then targeting only that piece. Everything else is redundant and therefore eliminated where at all possible.
2. Post processing – There are times when I return home and look at my images still needing to simplify more so I can really draw the viewer’s attention to the main point of interest. I achieve this through a couple of post processing techniques of which I use in isolation or together.
In the example below, I cropped the photo because this scene was a long way away so that even at 300 mm (I can crop my sensor to make my 200 mm equivalent to 300 mm) I did not eliminate enough of the mountain. I also made a few other smaller edits to highlight the light.
The photo below is an example of post processing to simplify the image to create the mood and focus for the viewer. In this photo, I dropped the exposure to black out the trees and to accentuate the highlights from the wind on the mountains. I blacked out the trees vs. cropping them out because I thought they added a nice border and that the cropped version was not going to give me the feel I wanted. I also cranked up the contrasts, clarity, shadows and highlights again to further accentuate the stormy feel that I wanted.
3. Changing perspective
a. Getting lower to the ground – Getting low will help eliminate details that you do not want or may not need in the mid ground of the photo. In shooting the scene below at Bow Lake, the image was about the cool frost flowers on the lake and fiery sunrise. The blank boring white snow covered lake would not add anything to the scene. If anything it would create a blank space that would detract. So I got low to the frost flowers, which accentuated them and eliminated most of the middle of the lake. Shooting wide put the firey sunrise in the background.
In getting low, you could end up getting so close to your objects in the foreground that getting everything sharp from foreground to background will not be possible. If this is the case, you will likely need to focus stack your photos to get everything sharp. You can google focus stacking to learn more about how to do this. I had to focus stack this photo as I was only inches away from the frost flowers.
b. Getting closer to your main object in the foreground – where possible, you can eliminate a lot of detail and keep a wider angle focal length by simply picking up your tripod and walking closer to your main object in the foreground, where it is safe to do so. The thing to watch when doing this is foreground objects can become distorted when you are shooting at really wide angles. Some of this distortion may be corrected in post processing. But while in field keep an eye open for this distortion and minimize as much as possible.
In this shot of Troll Falls, I wanted to get the frozen lit up falls in the shot as well as much of the sky as possible. To keep this as simple as possible I picked up my tripod and walked to where I could safely take the photo without slipping on the ice. By doing this I eliminated a bunch of unnecessary messy fallen trees that would have otherwise been in the foreground and I was able to get the sky in the photo by shooting at a wide angle.
In summary, improving your photography is a never ending journey, but I believe that my focus on simplifying my images has really helped me in my journey. My next step in simplifying will be to train my brain and eyes to see simple images at all focal lengths from 14 mm to 300 mm.
Whether you are trying to simplify your images or something else, I really encourage you to get out and try something completely different in your photography. It is a lot fun and you can end up with some very very cool results.