Strip it back: The art of simplicity
Simplify. Back to basics. Classic. Timeless.
You see, the biggest criticism I find myself offering to students and friends of mine is to simplify an image. Most importantly, the background. People seem to enter this state of mind where they lock a camera lens down to 1.2 or 1.4 etc and shoot the model or subject anywhere and everywhere as long as the light looks great on them.
“Once the background is blurry it’s all gravy!”, well, I disagree, and I disagree strongly.
Here is something I picked up from Roberto Valenzuela: The background of an image is easily just as important as the framing, subject, colour palette and clothing. You see, as human beings our eyes are drawn to a few major things: Movement, colours and bright stuff.
Since we’re talking photography here we can eliminate the motion and focus on colours and luminosity. It’s no secret to us that red offers a feeling of danger, orange / yellow a sense of warmth, blue a colder feeling, green more relaxed and serene etc…
But how does all this tie into a background and keeping it simple?
Well, start flicking through your pictures right now. Are your subjects the brightest thing in the frame (we’re not talking for contrast shots here, we’re talking generally speaking)? How many colours are in your scene? More than 3 colours? Are they from the same family of colours?
I recently got asked by my editor (Udi Tirosh) about why I bothered to take a backdrop into the woods for a shoot? (see opening photo). The answer is simple, when it comes to aesthetics: I wanted my subject to be one of the brightest things in the frame with minimal distractions behind her. BUT, I still wanted it to feel like I’d shot her in the woods.
For me, shooting a subject where you create a simple background and have the subject as the brightest part of it is one sure fire way to get your viewers eyes right where you’ll want them most of the time.
Take this image me and Clinton Lofthouse collaborated on in my living room:
The reason I included this one is to show you that you can still get away with subjects faces not being the brightest thing in a scene, providing that you set it up! In this shot you can see the window lines framing my face, as well as my coat collar, hat etc being dark around my face, so it still pops out.
It’s not a perfect text-book example, but it proves you can bend the rules and still make it work for you if you use them as a guideline etc.
If I would have shot my subject with the trees behind and the sky shining through you get these bright, distracting as hell light balls that subconsciously scream at you “LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME”.
That’s fine if you want that, but have you never noticed that generally speaking a great portrait shot focuses on the person in the frame first and foremost and the rest is there to compliment via colour, shape, leading lines, etc? Go look at some of your favourite images, I guarantee you most of them follow the rule of having the subject as one of the brightest, most in focus things in the shot.
Like everything there will ALWAYS be shots that completely break this rule and no doubt you guys will find them and post them below ;)
But we’re talking general guidelines to improving your go to techniques for portrait shots here, guidelines to shoot by if you will.
Here’s a shot with some sky in the background vs a shot where I cloned it out (just a quick-clone to illustrate a point), the difference is looking at the sky to looking at my subject.
Image before and after:
I made sure that my subjects face was the brightest thing in the scene and used toning to blend the different colours closer to a similar palette because.. SIMPLICITY.
Brightness is your friend, command it by putting your subjects where you want them, and make sure you scoop that light out of your backgrounds to keep them clean and focused. It’s just an opinion of mine and one I do feel strongly about, though of course photography is an art-form and there are no real “rules”.
I just think that really shooting your pictures with brighter spots taken out / avoided at source can REALLY help to get you a higher quality picture. As a test here’s what I suggest you try:
Go out side and shoot a test session with a toy / prop or a friend etc and shoot at f/16. Now force yourself to shoot so that the background complements the subject. It’s a hell of a lot harder now right (compared to shooting at 1.8 etc)?
Look for complimentary colours, repeating patterns, lines, solid colours, textures, reflections etc.. Once you nail a shot at f/16 with both the subject and background not competing and people look straight to your subject, you’re onto something.
Now shoot the same thing again at f/1.8 or whatever your fancy is.. I think you’ll start seeing a serious jump in composition and quality.
Let me know what you think! Do you agree? Have you tried it and compared? Share your images!
Til next week!
Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.