Photography is all about what you leave out


How is everyone on this fine day? I hope life is good and your camera is getting to see some fascinating things.

I agree with the great writer E.B. White when he said  “Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.”

This is what we can use our cameras and photography for. To remind us to be always looking, seeking and searching for wonder, beauty and things that provoke in us a feeling of awe.

This week I was in a deep state of awe, watching the sunset from my apartment. The photo above displays my feelings 🙂 It’s hard not to be awed by views of the ocean. We all find ourselves standing and watching it at various times of the day, like magnets, drawn to its soothing sounds and beauty.

A gratuitous ocean shot 🙂 And it’s a full moon again this weekend. Get your cameras out if you like full moon scenes like I do. 

Today we have another brilliantly simple idea for your photography, with a myriad of tips, which we hope you find super useful.

So let’s get started.

Photography is a process of construction AND reduction. 

The construction part comes when you start composing well and placing elements in powerful places within the frame, but this comes after the phase of reduction – removing anything, if possible, from within the frame that does not compliment or support your subject.

When you are standing in front of a scene and wondering how to frame your shot, you are focused on the subject, but hopefully too you are thinking about the surrounding elements, and how to position yourself so you can create the most pleasing composition.

What I like to think of when I am composing is – what can I leave out?

What needs to be removed, what is unnecessary, what is irrelevant?

The more I remove the unnecessary, the more I am left with the very best elements with which to compose my shot.

Think of it this way – if it is not complementing my subject then what can I do to make its impact less – or even remove it completely?

Sounds simple right? Well it is, but sometimes it can be tricky to put into practise, so let’s expand on this idea.

As I explore this topic, I am going to use some image from the amazing late photographer – Bill Brandt. When I thought about this topic, I immediately thought of his photography.

And then I’ll be using some of my own photos to show you exactly what I mean.

Bill Brandt was a British-German photographer particularly famous for his black and white work. There is a simplicity and often stark beauty to his images that frequently came from working with a small number of elements, creating a strong feeling of atmosphere and the power of suggestion.

© Bill Brandt

“I am not very interested in extraordinary angles. They can be effective on certain occasions, but I do not feel the necessity for them in my own work. Indeed, I feel the simplest approach can often be most effective. A subject placed squarely in the centre of the frame, if attention is not distracted from it by fussy surroundings, has a simple dignity which makes it all the more impressive.” Bill Brandt

Why the process of reduction is important

There is a confidence in exclusion and reducing what is not needed in the photo. And the way you do that successfully is taking time with your position.

This is not the same as simplicity – which to me conjures up a specific aesthetic.

© Bill Brandt

But it’s about always asking yourself – what can we do without in this scene, even when it’s very complex. Probably especially when it’s very complex.

Have the confidence to get closer, move and exclude.

This moody shot below, of the painter Francis Bacon, shows a lovely simple composition – which I think combines some quite traditional rules of composition.

What do you think they are?

© Bill Brandt

I am going to say – leading lines. You have that nice strong line leading the eye and framing the shot.

Then the subject, the painter, is placed in one of the thirds of the shot, off centre. The three main subjects – the man, the lamp and the line are in three distinct areas.

You might have thought that this was an offhand, casual shot, but the strong compositional elements can be broken down, can be explained and seen clearly when you know what you are looking for.

Everything in this shot is relevant. There is nothing irrelevant or unnecessary. 

When you see a photo, always ask yourself, why do I like this?

What is going on here that is holding my eye, what am I seeing and how am I seeing it?

© Bill Brandt

I find studying the work of photographers you love to be so useful in training our eye in composition. See what others have done and get into the habit of breaking down other peoples compositions so you can learn their process.

The power of suggestion 

When you are consciously thinking – what can I leave out, you gain the confidence to use the power of suggestion.

For example, in Bill Brandt’s famous nude series, there was often very little nudity, but the power of suggestion makes them seem so evocative of the human body.

© Bill Brandt

I am going to show some photos of mine now that could have been way more complex because they were of scenes that had many more elements in them – but I was thinking, of course, what should I leave out of this shot?

Sometimes we get hung up on providing context for our photos, we want people to see the scene we saw. Often that doesn’t matter, and the elements, the subject you focus on provide enough of a story:

To me this photo of some wires I saw in Havana just spoke of intense confusion. I wanted to show this chaos, but not provide too much context because to broaden it out would lose the effect of the lines.

The power of imagination

When you leave out the context of your location you allow new and strange stories to be imagined in the mind of the viewer, like in the photo above. What does it say to you?

What is this? Where is this?

And it sparks thoughts in the mind of the viewer. Instead of showing everything, allow the view to guess and ponder and wonder…

And most importantly – provoke their imagination.

Imagination is such a gift to us as humans – and it is under-nourished and under-utilized in adults.

Spend time with any young kids and you’ll soon see your imagination deficit.

Bring your imagination into your photography, and that will invite the views of your images to use their imaginations too.

The power of storytelling

In this photo below I suppose you could ask the opposite question – why did I choose to include all of the elements next to the painting?

Because you have this very compelling painting on the wall it would have been easy to frame the photo around the painting. But to me that would have just been a shot of a painting, and I wanted to show something else, to tell a story about where I found this painting.

But I also chose to shoot this because the elements next to the painting were so interesting. You had this brown door with the railings, then the blue wall, then another wooden door with different shape slats of wood.

These elements make the shot compelling, to have those shapes and textures next to the beautiful and very detailed painting of the girl.

I could, of course, just made the shot about the wall. But I wanted to also include the pavement, grounding the elements, but also the pavement is broken and has little plants sprouting out of it.

So it’s not a ‘clean and perfect’ composition. I like things not being too clean, especially when you are organising composition carefully like I do.

Keeping room and space for some of the chaoticness of life!

The power of clarity 

When you find the confidence to leave things out, reduce and reduce some more, and see how it can bring such a powerful clarity to your photographs.

It’s more than simplicity – which as I said earlier speaks to me more as an aesthetic. It’s about even very complex shots having exactly the right amount of elements – no more, no less.

So next time you are out taking photos ask yourself – what am I going to leave out of my shot?

What don’t I need?

I hope you enjoyed these ideas and tips.

We will have more ideas for you tomorrow, which I am excited to share.

In the meantime – I’d love to know what you thought of today’s ideas. Comment below 🙂

Have a fantastic day,

Anthony and Diana