Composition in Photography - Simplicity and Complexity

Composition | How to Use Simplicity and Complexity in your Photographs

Photographing Simple Subjects

Simplicity itself can be a powerful compositional tool. It is often said that “less is more”. Simplicity often means taking photos with uncomplicated backgrounds that don’t distract from the main subject. Often the subjects themselves are quite simple too.

Photographing Simple Subjects - Water Droplet on a Leaf
Water Droplets on a Leaf

In this first photo, I zoomed in on some water droplets on a leaf in a garden. It’s such a simple subject but is also very beautiful because of that simplicity. A macro lens can be a very useful tool for creating these types of photos.

Photographing Simple Subjects - Park Bench
Bench in Golesti – Romania

As with the water droplets photograph, a simple subject can make for a very pleasing composition. I this case, I noticed a simple bench at an outdoor museum in Golesti, Romania. I set up a very straightforward composition with the two trees on either side to frame the subject.

Using Black and White to Add Simplicity

Converting a photograph to black and white can be a very effective method of simplifying your composition. In some ways, colour itself can be a distraction. Black and white photography often allows us to focus on the textures, light and shapes in the frame. Take a look at the following photographs taken along the Copper Coast in County Waterford, Ireland.

Copper Coast, County Waterford – Colour Version

The light in this version actually isn’t all that interesting. It’s that harsh daytime light that is rarely conducive to spectacular landscape photography. The location itself has potential though. Let’s see what happens when we convert this image to black and white.

Copper Coast, County Waterford – Black and White Version

With the “distraction” of colour removed, I think this becomes a much stronger shot. That harsh light now helps to show of the textures on the tree, in the grass, on the cliffs and in the sky. The bold shape of the tree stands out against the sky and the scattered clouds in the sky look more dramatic. The colour was hiding much of this in my opinion. Not every shot is suited to a black and white conversion but in this case I think it was.

Add Simplicity by Isolating the Subject with a Shallow Depth of Field

Using a shallow depth of field to isolate your subject is a very effective way of simplifying your composition and letting your subject stand out.

Add Simplicity by Isolating the Subject with a Shallow Depth of Field
Curious Cat

For this photo, I set an aperture of f3.5 which is very wide and results in a blurred background. This focuses attention on the cat as the background is now less distracting. This technique is an excellent way to simplify a composition. You can learn about how to set a wide aperture to achieve this effect in the tutorial on aperture and depth of field.

Add Complexity by Letting the Background Add Context to the Subject

The background in your frame does not always act as a distraction. Often, it can provide context to the main subjects.

Add Complexity by Letting the Background Add Context to the Subject - Seagull in Dublin
Seagull in Dublin

This photograph doesn’t contain any old seagull. This is a Dublin seagull! The slightly blurred O’Connell Street in the background gives the subject some context. The fact that he was eating a bowl of coddle and drinking Lyons Tea when I spotted him also lets me know that he was indeed a Dublin seagull.

Add Complexity by Letting the Background Add Context to the Subject - Rose by a Shrine
Dealul Mitropoliei – Bucharest

I took this photograph of a rose at a monastery complex on the outskirts of Bucharest. Once again I blurred the background slightly but there is still enough detail to show the viewer the context that the rose was photographed in. This is a variation of the “isolating the subject” guideline. In this case, we also blur the background to make the subject stand out but not so much that we completely obscure the context.

Add Complexity by Letting the Eye Wander Around the Frame

This is the antithesis to the concept of simplicity and minimalism. There are occasions I like to take photographs with plenty happening in the frame. Take a look at the paintings of Pieter Bruegel to see an excellent example of art with plenty of different characters and activities going on in the frame.

Add Complexity by Letting the Eye Wander Around the Frame - Busy Street in Temple Bar, Dublin
Temple Lane – Dublin

This photograph taken in Temple Bar is full of different characters and activity. In this case, the eye can wander around the frame noticing all the little details such as the flowers, the building details and various people walking, exiting a building or checking their phone outside a pub.

It is not a question of simplicity being preferable to complexity. One isn’t inherently “better” than the other. In fact many of the composition ideas in these tutorials seem to completely contradict each other. It all depends on what works best for the particular scene you are capturing or what you are looking to achieve in the final photograph.

In our next tutorial, we look at capturing subjects with visual impact and interest.

Subscribe to the Blog

If you have enjoyed this post, you can subscribe by entering your email below. You will receive notifications when new posts are published. No spam.

Outdoor Photography Essentials - Kindle E-book by Barry O'Carroll

Improve your Photography Skills

The full collection of my photography tutorials covering exposure, camera settings, composition and light can be found in my Kindle e-book: Outdoor Photography Essentials. This e-book can be read on most Kindles or any tablet or smart phone with the Kindle app installed (€7.06 / $7.00 / £6.34).

Purchase from Amazon UK | Purchase from Amazon US


I am a travel photographer from Dublin, Ireland. I specialise in urban, street, architecture and landscape photography. One of my favourite activities is wandering around a new and unfamiliar location with my camera at the ready. In the blog section, I share photography tutorials and tips as well as some of the stories behind my photographs and travels.

View stories

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *