Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Started Jul 13, 2009 | Discussions
ianbramham
ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

'KISS' is a well known acronym which stands for 'Keep It Simple, Stupid' and is a guiding principle used in many branches of art and design.

Most photographers agree that one of the main keys to producing good photos is strong composition yet it seems to be an area where many beginners struggle.

Great light helps, as does an interesting subject, but I really believe that the foundation of a good photo is a balanced and simple composition.

A while ago here I started a thread here on the issue of balance in composition: http://forums.dpreview.com/forums/readflat.asp?forum=1034&thread=28879231 and I thought It would be interesting to follow it up with one one the subject of simplicity in composition.

What I'm going to be discussing will be obvious to all you experienced photographers who participate here on the forum but with the price of digital SLR cameras now being so affordable there are also many here for whom a Nikon DSLR will be their first camera - this thread is really intended for those of you who are beginners or those who may have had their camera for a while but who are still feeling frustrated with the quality of their photos.

I started using my first digital camera, a compact Fuji F31, in the spring of 2007 and spent the first 6 months or so taking photos that were little more than snapshots. I was really struggling to take any photos that had any artistic merit.

With the encouragement of some very kind people who participate on the Fujifilm Talk Forum here at DPR I gradually evolved a simpler and simpler approach to composing my photos in the viewfinder which had the effect of strengthening the impact of my photos by making them less cluttered and messy. It also had the happy side effect of making it easier to get good balance across the differing elements in the photo.

I've since come to the conclusion that simplicity in photographic composition is fundamentally a difficult concept to grasp for beginners. The reason for this is that many beginners to photography don't realise that the scene they are looking at through the viewfinder of their camera just before pressing the shutter button is NOT the same as the identical scene viewed without a camera just using our eyes.

The reason for this is that the visual signal picked up by our eyes is naturally filtered by our brain processes to remove most clutter and irrelevant distractions - it's just a natural part of the way that our eyes and brain work together to process information.

As well as a tendancy to ignore unwanted clutter our brains will also try and impose order into the visual signal being received via our eyes - an order that might not be at all obvious if we photographed the same scene and then looked at the resulting photograph.

A camera faced with the same view is undiscriminating and will record everything down to every last distracting and irrelevant bit of detail - the reult is a dissapointing photograph that never seems as powerful as our own memory of the scene.

What does this mean in practice and how can we use the knowledge to improve our photos?:

Well, one method that I find helps a lot is to think about photographic composition as an reductive process rather than one of addition.

What I mean by this is that it will help if you try and reduce the number of elements in your photo to as few as possible - to make it as minimal as possible if you like. A classic example of this in landscape photography is the one of the lone tree:

2 - "Overlooking the Bay"
Nikon D40
iso 200
f11 at 1/320th second
10mm on a Sigma 10-20 lens

So, to use landscape photography as an example, it might mean concentrating on a small part of the scene rather than trying to fit the whole panoramic view in.

Before pressing that shutter button make a conscious effort and say to yourself "how can I make this composition even simpler and stronger" rather than just standing there and pressing the shutter button.

You can even play a game where you take the KISS principle to the extreme and see how far you can go with the idea of simplicity before the photo goes too far and becomes too empty - I think you'll be surprised at how simple a photo can be yet still be powerful.

Here's an example which is simply a photo of some empty benches lining a pathway in a park in Paris - the only thing that moves it from being a boring photo to one that has interest is the idea of the curve. A simple idea that works best without a lot of extraneous clutter.

2 - "Curvy Benches"
Nikon D40 at iso 450 (auto iso)
f8 at 1/30th second
80mm on a Nikon 16-85vr lens

I'm sure you're all getting the idea now but I'd welcome your ideas and thoughts on this issue of simplicity in photographic composition.

I'm over the message limit for DPR now but to finish off here's a few more of my favourite photos that use this concept....what do you think?

By the way, the camera I've used for all these photos is the Nikon D40 which is the cheapest one Nikon makes - the complexity or otherwise of your camera has no bearing on whether the composition of your photos is any good or not!

Ian
http://ianbramham.com/
http://ianbramham.aminus3.com/ (Photoblog)

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
ianbramham
OP ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

3 - "The Dying of the Light"
Photographed at dusk on a Nikon D40
iso200
19mm on a Nikon 16-85vr lens
f8 and 543 second exposure using a 10 stop nd filter

4 - "Windworn"
Nikon D40
f8 at 1/60th second
iso200
10mm on a Sigma 10-20

5 - "Blue Boat"
Nikon D40
f8 at 1/160th
iso200
16mm on a Nikon 16-85vr lens

6 - "Another Place"

One of Antony Gormley's famous life size cast iron statues on Crosby Beach at sunset.
Nikon D40
f8 at 1/80th
iso200
10mm on a Sigma 10-20

7 - "Storm Warning"
Cockle fishermen at work on the dangerous sands of Morecambe Bay
Nikon D40
f4.8 at 1/800th
iso200
13mm on a Sigma 10-20

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
Punctu Contributing Member • Posts: 807
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

How are these?

-- hide signature --

Pushed the button and the world stood still.

ianbramham
OP ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Well, you are definitely on the right lines with your photography in your approach to composition. What you've also got to remember with the KISS technique is that the simpler your composition becomes the more importance it places on the subject of your photo and on the lighting/weather.

I really like your recent entry into the DPR challenge "Rain" and I think it's a stronger photo than either of these two mainly because as well as keeping the composition simple you also had dramatic weather interacting with the subject of your photo which is the figure on rollerblades in the city.

I hope you don't mind but I though it was a great photo and should be used an example.

All the best,

Ian
http://ianbramham.com/
http://ianbramham.aminus3.com/ (Photoblog)

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
Supr X
Supr X Veteran Member • Posts: 4,956
Excellent, Ian!

Cool and Thanks!
--
David~
WSSA Member #90

. . . shoot like there's no film in the thing!

ianbramham
OP ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Re: Excellent, Ian!

Supr X wrote:

Cool and Thanks!

Cheers David.....I'm pleased that you thought it's useful!

Ian
http://ianbramham.com/
http://ianbramham.aminus3.com/ (Photoblog)

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
Punctu Contributing Member • Posts: 807
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Thanks, I guess this is why this entry only managed the 194th place lol

-- hide signature --

Pushed the button and the world stood still.

couman Regular Member • Posts: 366
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Excellent, Ian.

Of course, at some point, there needs to be a distinction between KISS and extreme minimalism. While the latter can be artistically pleasing, the chances for achieving that state diminish rapidly with decreasing image content. In my opinion, KISS should be mastered before pushing the boundaries of minimalism.

-- hide signature --

-Bob C.

'If someone gives a complex answer to your question, he probably doesn't understand what he's talking about' H.C. Brown (1912-2004)

wdenies Senior Member • Posts: 1,142
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Ian,
I agree 100% with your statements.
You could expand KISS with "less is more"
This is why I am against all those "landscape" recommendations

  • one needs an extreme WA lens

  • decent DOF starts at f/16

Of course nice landscapes can be made with a WA but one has to learn how to master it.
Wim

Soba1 Forum Member • Posts: 99
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Thanks.........................

ianbramham
OP ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

couman wrote:

Excellent, Ian.

Of course, at some point, there needs to be a distinction between KISS and extreme minimalism. While the latter can be artistically pleasing, the chances for achieving that state diminish rapidly with decreasing image content. In my opinion, KISS should be mastered before pushing the boundaries of minimalism.

Hi Bob,

Yes, finding where the boundary is between KISS and extreme minimalism is the real trick but I reckon most beginners don't push the boundaries of minimalism nearly enough.

Personally, I'd rather see a beginner erring on the side of having photos that were too empty than ones that were still too cluttered. It's easy enough to recognise when you've gone too far and back it off a little next time.

I'm still exploring the boundaries myself - it's a lot of fun. I produced this one recently that went a bit too far but I still like it even though I realise it's probably too minimal for many people's taste:

Ian
http://ianbramham.com/
http://ianbramham.aminus3.com/ (Photoblog)

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
ianbramham
OP ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

wdenies wrote:

Ian,
I agree 100% with your statements.
You could expand KISS with "less is more"
This is why I am against all those "landscape" recommendations

  • one needs an extreme WA lens

  • decent DOF starts at f/16

Of course nice landscapes can be made with a WA but one has to learn how to master it.

Thanks Wim,

KISS is very similar in concept to Mies Van Der Rohe's 'Less is More' design statement - it's all part of the same modern design thinking which centers on the idea that simplicity can produce elegant and strong design.

I've mostly used photos of coastal landscapes to illustrate the principle because the uncluttered environment of the coast lends itself so well to the minimalist approach but I try and apply the principle in my other photos whenever I can although it's not quite as easy.

Here's a few that aren't landscapes:

Ian
http://ianbramham.com/
http://ianbramham.aminus3.com/ (Photoblog)

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
Holmes375
Holmes375 Veteran Member • Posts: 3,798
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

An excellent thread that most of us should find quite valuable.

Your examples made with the D40 are very good and show clearly that which you are trying to impart.

Bravo, sir!
--
-Holmes
http://holmes.zenfolio.com/

 Holmes375's gear list:Holmes375's gear list
Panasonic FZ1000
davidried Contributing Member • Posts: 700
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Very cool, very informative. Thank you.

AusyG Contributing Member • Posts: 541
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Absolutely brilliant! I love the one with the ND filter.

rama_g New Member • Posts: 21
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Very helpful, Ian. I liked how you have illustrated the principle so well. Inspiring.

thanks
--
http://lightandshadow.smugmug.com

prmass1 Contributing Member • Posts: 858
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Nice pictures. I get motivated when seeing pictures like these. B&W have a beauty of their own.

eNo
eNo Forum Pro • Posts: 11,744
But it depends...

I've tried my own bit of simplification with some gratifying results, so I agree with what you are saying. I am always on the look-out for what doesn't need to be in the image. But you can see from that last statement alone that your approach to simplification and mine may differ in emphasis.

For me the bottom line is whether my photo tells the story and portrays the subject. When the subject is a forest, as in my recent visit to Sequoia National Park and King's Canyon Park, you may have to include a lot (sky, trees, rocks, mountains) to tell the story. In particular, when shooting panoramas, simplification isn't as straight-forward to apply. Sure, one can spend all day photographing small sections of bark, mushrooms and small flowers, but if you want to show "the vista," look out, here comes the kitchen sink.

Then again, a viewer may enjoy a simpler vista like this one, though note that simplicity here was aided by lighting (under full sun, this would not be a simple image).

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
The Rule of Thirds is meant to be broken, but only 1/3 of the time.

D80/D90 photos: http://esfotoclix.com

Marriott
Marriott Senior Member • Posts: 1,750
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Hello Ian,

Your contributions here are a breath of fresh air: always cool and revitalizing to the clutter that can get in the way of clear thinking. As someone who remembers your first efforts on the Fuji forum, you may have started late, but you have passed most of us by. Great photography is in the seeing, and then having the experience and judgment to execute the image to its fullest effect. You have that ability. Thanks for all your efforts on this forum to share your insigts in such a lucid manner.

http://bezvadu.smugmug.com/
http://fotolat.blogspot.com/

 Marriott's gear list:Marriott's gear list
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7 Olympus OM-D E-M10 II Panasonic G85 Panasonic Lumix G X Vario PZ 45-175mm F4.0-5.6 ASPH OIS Nikon 85mm F1.8G +8 more
ianbramham
OP ianbramham Veteran Member • Posts: 4,316
Re: Simplicity in Composition - the KISS technique

Holmes375 wrote:

An excellent thread that most of us should find quite valuable.

Your examples made with the D40 are very good and show clearly that which you are trying to impart.

Bravo, sir!

Thanks very much Holmes....I'm really pleased that you thought the explanation and photos were clear and useful as it would indeed have been very embarrasing for me if a thread all about simplicity had proved to be too complex to be of any value

Regards,

Ian
http://ianbramham.com/
http://ianbramham.aminus3.com/ (Photoblog)

 ianbramham's gear list:ianbramham's gear list
Nikon D800
Keyboard shortcuts:
FForum MMy threads