Simplifying Images

I create my favorite photographs when I abide by two related precepts. One is that, although photographs don't all have to be simple, they should all be as simple as possible. The other is that I should be steering the viewer's eye towards what matters, and away from what doesn't, at every opportunity. 

These aren't "rules." If there are any rules, I'm not qualified to articulate them. I'm no expert—I'm an amateur who's still trying to figure out how to take good photographs. I find these notions helpful, though, and some of you may as well.

Whether consciously or not, we all try to eliminate unnecessary detail in our images, at least to some extent. Here's a situation: if we're taking a portrait of a loved one outdoors, we'll fill most of the viewfinder with the loved one to exclude extraneous distractions. Most of us will also opt for a shallow depth of field to eliminate irrelevant background detail.

Opportunities for eliminating unnecessary detail extend far beyond framing the shot and choosing a depth of field. They arise at every step of taking and processing a photograph.

Simplifying an image can begin with the choice of subject matter and conditions. Expanses of snow, water and sky all tend to simplify a shot. The same is true of fog, mist and low light. The following image makes use of a couple of these simplifiers.

The foreground was simpler and less distracting when covered with snow than it was when bare. There was a bit of low mist that obscured some of the irrelevant background, which included some buildings that would have been very distracting. The resulting photograph is fairly simple and steers the eye towards what I liked in the scene.

Eliminating unnecessary detail presupposes, of course, that we've made some judgment about what's necessary and what isn't. For me, that judgment comes from asking:

- What drew my eye to the scene? 

- What is it about the scene that makes the photograph worth taking? 

We all make such judgments when we point a camera towards one thing and not another. In my experience, the more consciously and deliberately the judgment is made, the better the resulting photograph is likely to be. In the scene that prompted the previous photograph, what first caught my eye was the tree. The next thing I noticed was the mountainous ridge. The shadows on the snow in the foreground were in third place for drawing my attention. These were the elements that mattered. I was quite conscious of all this when I composed and took the shot.

One day I found myself looking at two white flowers we had in a vase in our house. 

What caught my eye was the center of the flower on the left and the subtle tonal gradations in the petals. I moved the vase near a window and tinkered with its position until the lighting brought ought those elements. 

The first obvious step in simplifying this image was to frame the shot to exclude almost everything but the two flowers. The second step was to simplify the irrelevant background. I first tried placing a sheet of black posterboard in the background to emphasize the petals but was unhappy with the results. Next, I switched to a sheet of white posterboard, and that brought the attention back to where I wanted it. 

The key elements in this flower shot were in the darker tones. The image is somewhat high-key, which tends to emphasize darker tones, and I overexposed the shot to make it even more high-key. That left detail only where I wanted it and steered the viewer's eye towards what the image was really about. 

Over exposing and under exposing to produce high--key and low-key shots is an effective way to simplify images. When I saw these backlit cactus spines one morning in the desert, I opted for a low-key approach. I exposed for the highlights. That underexposed the overall image and let the irrelevant detail go dark.

If you haven't tried low-key and high-key photography, you might want to. If what matters about a scene is all in the brightest tones, spot-meter those and expose accordingly. The irrelevant detail in the darker areas will disappear in the shadows. Conversely, where the visual elements that matter are in the darker tones, spot-meter those and expose accordingly. The irrelevant details will tend to go white. Either approach is much easier if you shoot in manual mode. With either approach, you'll probably need to massage the results during processing. 

Processing offers many ways of minimizing or eliminating unnecessary detail, each of which is a subject unto itself. My favorite is simply converting to black and white when color isn't essential to the image. Black and white is simpler, yet can provide an abstractness that color can't.

This next photograph of a zoo lion made use of several other ways of reducing or eliminating detail during processing.

I took a number of photographs of this lion. The expression on his face in this particular image, was what mattered to me. I first edited the shot in a fairly orthodox way so that the lion was sharply detailed, colorful and well lighted throughout the image, but I didn't like the results. The sharp detail and color were drawing attention away from the lion's face, where I wanted it.

The solution required a combination of steps. Adobe's Lightroom allows us to reduce clarity selectively or globally. Clarity controls local contrast. I reduced clarity in this photograph almost everywhere, with less reduction in the lion's face and no reduction in the eyes. Since reducing clarity softens an image, I had to do some strategic sharpening to limit the softening. The saturation in this image was reduced until the color no longer seemed intrusive and distracting to me. Each of these adjustments was controlled by my judgment concerning what mattered in the shot and what didn't. I like the result much better than I liked the very detailed and colorful initial version.

The gradient tool in Lightroom can be very helpful in focusing a viewer's attention on what matters in a photograph. When processing the shot of the lion, I used the gradient tool to reduce exposure and darken everything but the lion's face. I also used the gradient tool to reduce contrast and sharpness in the areas I wanted to deemphasize. In most shots, a viewer's attention will tend to be drawn towards brighter areas. We can accordingly direct the viewer's attention by making the areas that matter lighter than the remainder of the shot. With high-key images, where highlight detail can be slight or nonexistent, the viewer's attention will be drawn to the darker tones. With that sort of image, the gradient tool can be used to brighten the irrelevant areas so that they dissolve into white.

As I've said before, my preference for as much simplicity as possible is just a matter of taste. Tastes vary. My idea of the ideal image is one that is simple yet resonant, and sets off sympathetic vibrations in a viewer's mind. It is tethered to consensual reality, but not too firmly. I've never taken that photograph, or even come close, but I plan to keep trying.

Don Peters' gallery can be found at

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 Thank you for this article.  Sometimes I get photography advice that is so bogged down with "rules" that I forget why I'm actually taking pictures. Thank you for pointing out that tastes and ideas vary from person to person.

Thanks for the comment, Sharon.


Thanks for another thoughtful moment regarding the way you perceive photography and the world around you. It's a pleasure to read your posts and admire your photographs.


Rules were made to be broken.

Thanks, Howard.