Do you struggle to simplify a photo? If your nature photography composition feels a bit cluttered, you are not alone. Because there is no single cookie cutter approach to follow, learning to simplify a nature photography composition is not easy. Every situation is different from the last.
Before we can discuss how to simplify a photo, we need to define what is a simple photo? A simple photo is the one that is easy for our brains to process… one in which the subject clearly stands out from the background.
There are several advantages of a simple nature photography composition. For one thing, it allows our brains to focus on our subject without getting distracted by the background elements. This creates a strong visual impact by drawing the viewer’s attention to important elements in your nature photography composition. By eliminating distractions, a simple nature photography composition is highly effective in focusing a viewer’s attention on elements such as color, mood, drama, weather, and more.
Here are some highly effective ideas that I use to simplify my nature photography compositions:
Learn to Organize Your Nature Photography Composition
Rules of photography composition often makes the aesthetics of a photo better, but they do not make the photos simpler. To make the photo simple, you must know how our brain categorizes and organizes information. Gestalt principles describe how we group similar elements, recognize patterns, and simplify complex images when we perceive objects. By using this knowledge, we are able to simplify our nature photography composition and separate our subject from its background which makes the photo more visually appealing.
In the image #1 above the elements seem randomly organized with no clear point of interest. However, when the same elements are organized in image #2, we can see a sun created by similar objects and an eagle in the center. Clearly the second image is simpler than the first which seems to be unorganized and chaotic.
Take a look at the photo above. By placing the similar object close together, I have organized all the elements in their distinct groups – the windows at the top, parallels in the middle, and the leading line formed by the mud at the bottom. Even though this image is made up of several hundred elements, it is simple for our brains to categorize. Similarly, you can use concepts such as continuity, proximity, common fate, and others to group your compositional elements together to create a strong visual appeal.
Use Camera Setting to Highlight Your Subject
Another straight-forward method to simplify a photo is to use proper camera settings. Both aperture and shutter speed are good examples of this. Aperture works by separating out a figure from its background using shallow depth of field. You can use shutter speed to eliminate or freeze the motion, thus simplifying a photo.
In the photo above, I wanted to eliminate the distracting dark streaks caused by the motion of floating vegetation in the ocean. To do this, I used 8 f-stop neutral density filters to reduce the light entering the camera. This allowed me to use the 53-second shutter speed which averaged out the light and eliminated the motion of the dark vegetation.
Camera lenses can also be used to simplify your nature photography composition. We often use a telephoto lens to compress the background and eliminate distracting elements in our photos. I captured the image below with a focal length of 110 mm to focus the viewer’s attention on these beautiful patterns in the Seljalandsfoss in Iceland.
Use Local Adjustments in Photoshop and Lightroom
Post-processing plays an important role to simplify your nature photography composition. One of the easiest things you can do is to crop out the distracting elements. It is also important to remember that nature does not always adhere to the 3×2 format. When 3×2 format for nature photography does not cut it, we use a different format or create a simple nature photography composition using a panorama to highlight our subject. I used four images to create the following fantastic panorama from a volcanic crater in Iceland.
You can also use local adjustment in Photoshop and Lightroom to simplify your photos. We use local adjustment to emphasis or de-emphasize part of the image to make your subject stand out from the background. We use Photoshop Layers and Masks and Lightroom filters to control sharpness, tonal range, colors, contrast, textures, blur, and more.
Take a look at the photo above from the Wahweap Hoodoos. I used textures and clarity settings to reduce the contrast in the background. This allowed the tall hoodoo – which was my subject – to stand out from the background.
It is important to note that, more often than not, you will need more than one technique to simplify your nature photography composition. In the above image from White Hoodoo, I used a telephoto lens to create a background with uniform textures. This allows our brains to interpret the background with similar textures as a single object. I also chose the location of my camera such that one of distracting hoods was completely hidden behind the large white hoodoo. This allowed me to highlight my subject with the least amount of distractions possible.
Remember, the simplification of your nature photography composition is a workflow that starts in the field and carries on to post-processing. This workflow requires you to think about post-processing when you are trying to capture breathtaking photos on location. It is important to master camera settings and learn principles of perceptions. Knowing this, you will be able to come away with the best possible nature photography compositions.
Learning to simplify a photo in nature is not easy. However, a little bit of knowledge about how our brains interpret visual stimuli can help you organize composition elements to create strong photography compositions.