Strip it back: The art of simplicity

May 4, 2016

Joseph Parry

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.

Strip it back: The art of simplicity

May 4, 2016

Joseph Parry

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.

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Image 01

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:

Image 02
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!

-JP

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Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry

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.

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17 responses to “Strip it back: The art of simplicity”

  1. Ryan Poorman Avatar
    Ryan Poorman

    Some people just prefer a shallow depth of field over a detailed background. The author just needs to get over it.

    1. Aleksandar Beserminji Avatar
      Aleksandar Beserminji

      You missed the point so much. And I wouldn’t tell that if I didn’t go to some art classes couple days ago, just out of curiosity. And then professor started talking about background and why it is important, how to use it to pop out the subject, and he always insisted that background should be darked.. So for me this post does have sense.

      1. Flodder Avatar
        Flodder

        is the prof a known artist… or just someone who teaches what he can´t master?

        1. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          There are very few masters of any art form, does this mean we shouldn’t convey information or share what we know in order to help spark interest or pass on knowledge?

          Perhaps you could write a guest article for us on the subject of simplicity to really help clean up the points you felt I missed or didn’t convey clearly?

          I’m sorry the article was of no value to you, I hate wasting people’s time.

          Have a great day Flodder!

      2. Joseph Parry Avatar
        Joseph Parry

        Thanks for reading the article! It helps when people read the entire thing like you have :D

        As you said, the article was about separating the subject from the background by removing distractions.

  2. Cam-Fi Avatar
    Cam-Fi

    There is something beautiful in simplicity if captured right.

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      I completely agree, though capturing it right is a hard one ;)

  3. Flodder Avatar
    Flodder

    why do you have to go into the wood for that first photo?

    the second example loosk crappy compared to the “before”

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      The first question was answered within the article, and as for the rest, I’m sorry the article was of no value to you.

      1. John H Avatar
        John H

        Kudos to you for giving up your time to reply to someone who has nothing to add to the conversation. Great article by the way. The f16 exercise would be a challenging but enlightening experience.

        1. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          Well, I’m a firm believer in “everything has value”, sometimes it’s in breaking apart others comments positive or negative in order to understand and take from it what we can.

          Other times we can see that it’s simply people expressing because they can.

          I appreciate your time reading the article!

  4. Steve Duffey Avatar
    Steve Duffey

    Ok, I’m nitpicking but it would be nice if someone (editor, author) proofread the piece before posting and not just rely on auto correct to choose the right word.
    “You see, the biggest criticism I find myself offering to students and friends of mine is to simply an image.”
    How do you “simply” an image?

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      I’m terribly sorry about this Steve, I typed it on a borrowed MBP and it really likes to “autocorrect”. I take pride in making sure my writing is coherent and correct, so I can only apologise it got through.

      Cheers!

      1. Timothyf7 Avatar
        Timothyf7

        No worries… There’s one in every comment section. Great article!

        1. Joseph Parry Avatar
          Joseph Parry

          Appreciate that!

  5. Doug Stewart Avatar
    Doug Stewart

    Enjoyed the article – where can I find more like this?
    Loved the first two pics – great idea of dragging a canvas into the middle of the woods.
    I dread the thought of shooting a portrait as f16 unless I want everything absolutely pin sharp!

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      Thanks Doug!!!