Simplifying a Cluttered Composition

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This beautiful place in Bisti Wilderness in New Mexico is absolutely bizarre. These rocks sit on a smooth stretch of white ash and clay. The rocks themselves show striking evidence of erosion in the patterns and layers on their surface. It’s totally cool!

The challenge is to find a composition that isn’t cluttered, and to show the incredible details in the rocks without losing that beauty in all that clutter. To do this, I chose a single rock as a point of interest, and moved my camera until the rocks behind it formed a smooth curve. I got as close as I could to the rock in the foreground. This serves a dual purpose. I fill the foreground with a single object – and in doing so, I simplify the composition. This gives the viewer as much information about the site as possible – so they feel as though they could walk right into the image. The rocks in the background seem smaller because of the wide-angle lens.

I used a Graduated Neutral Density filter to reduce the brightness of the sky so that the overall dynamic range was less extreme. In post processing, I was careful about setting my color balance correctly. The sky needed a slightly different setting than the foreground since they are lit differently. It’s critically important to realize that over or under exposure can actually be distracting – so getting the exposure right helps eliminate distractions too.

Also – be sure to keep your sensor and lenses clean. If you find yourself with dust spots, water droplets, or distracting elements (footprints?) don’t be afraid to clone them out. Content-aware is a great option for handling problems like these – and we use a Wacom tablet and stylus to make precise edits effortlessly.

Here are a few tips for simplifying a cluttered composition:

  • Eliminate distracting elements from the composition.
  • Determine your point of interest, and let it fill a large part of the frame.
  • Use a wide-angle lens to enhance the size of an object close to the lens – and the decrease the size of other objects within the frame.
  • Use a larger foreground object to hide smaller objects behind it.
  • Try using a narrow depth of field to blur background objects and keep your viewer’s attention on the most important objects in the frame.
  • Get your exposure right!
  • Keep your lens and sensor clean – dust, dirt, grease, water droplets, and condensation can add distractions.

Have you ever been in a cluttered location? Do you have any tips for simplifying a cluttered comp? It’s such a fantastic challenge to be out there shooting in a place like this!

Check out the following tutorials on Visual Wilderness:

About Author Varina Patel

There is nothing more remarkable to me than the power of nature. It is both cataclysmic and subtle. Slow and continuous erosion by water and wind can create landscapes every bit as astonishing as those shaped by catastrophic events – and minuscule details can be as breathtaking as grand vistas that stretch from one horizon to the other. Nature is incredibly diverse. Burning desert sands and mossy riverbanks… Brilliant sunbeams and fading alpenglow… Silent snowfall and raging summer storms… Each offers a unique opportunity. I am irresistibly drawn to the challenge of finding my next photograph, and mastering the skills required to capture it effectively.