Article and Photography by Ron Bigelow

I have noticed that many of my favorite images exude a quality that I refer to as simplicity. These images have very uncomplicated compositions. There is not a lot of detail to distract the viewer. Rather, the viewer's attention is focused strongly on one component of the image which tends to stand out. These images tend to be very effective in communicating an emotion to a viewer because the viewer's eye is drawn straight to the center of focus of the image and stays there since there is little other detail to distract it.

When creating this type of image, a photographer must subtract out all unnecessary detail. In essence, the photographer must practice the art of subtraction to the extreme (if you haven't already, I suggest that you read my article, The Art of Subtraction, before proceeding with this article). After subtracting out all unnecessary detail, the photographer has a number of elements that can be used to strengthen the image: center of focus, composition, color, contrast, and lines/curves. This article will examine how these elements were used to create four images that follow the principle of simplicity. 

Bush at Sunset

Figure 1: Bush at Sunset

Figure 1 shows an image that was shot by a parking lot next to a beach. The center of focus, the bush, is rather obvious. It stands out strongly. This is one of the characteristics of a good simplicity image -- the center of focus is very dominant in the image. This particular center of focus is strengthened by the composition of the image. The main compositional elements are lines and curves. The main stem forms a graceful S shaped curve. The many smaller stems also form fluid curves. At the end of most of the stems is a group of lines and curves that reach toward the sky. This composition did not occur by accident or luck. While all of the plants in the area had stems that formed lines and curves, most of them formed rather haphazard patterns that were not at all appealing. Quite a bit of time and walking was spent examining the plants to find one that had a pattern that would result in the desired results.

Color also plays a major role in this image. The use of color is quite obvious. The bright, saturated colors are probably the first thing that grabs a viewer's eye. Even if a viewer were far enough away from the image that they could not make out the detail of the plant, the bright colors would probably grab the viewer's attention. However, the color by itself is not the whole story. It is the color in conjunction with contrast that produces the full impact. There are actually two types of contrast used in this image. The first contrast has to do with the contrast of color in the background. This contrast is fairly subtle. The evening this image was shot, a saturated sunset provided the background for the image. However, most of the sky was a saturated orange without a lot of variation in color. While this would have created a bright, saturated background, it left something to be desired. Consequently, the sky was searched for an area that had more color variation. Some sections of the sky had a combination of orange and magenta. However, these areas were relatively small. In order that one of these small areas could be used for the background, without including other areas of the sky, a 400mm lens was used. This long lens narrowed the field of view. The camera was carefully positioned so that the selected area was directly behind the plant. The second type of contrast is the contrast between the very dark plant and the bright background. This is a fairly strong contrast and makes the plant stand out from the background.

Rider Creek

Figure 2: Rider Creek

The image of Rider Creek (see Figure 2) shows the concept of simplicity applied on a larger scale. I was concerned that some people would look at the image in Figure 1 and conclude that the concept of simplicity only applies to smaller objects (e.g., plants or objects suitable for macro shots). The image of Rider Creek shows that this is not the case.

This waterfall is situated on a small hill. There is a lake in front of the waterfall. At the time that this image was shot, there were storm clouds directly above the hill. The lake and storm clouds could have been included in the image. However, this would have resulted in two undesirable effects. First, a wider angle shot would have been necessary. This would have made the waterfall much smaller in the image and would have considerably diminished the impact and significance of the waterfall. Second, the additional detail would have competed with the waterfall for the viewer's attention. Thus, the clouds were cropped out of the image entirely, and only the edge of the lake was included so that the waterfall could be seen splashing into the water below.

The result is an image with a very simple composition consisting of only two components: the waterfall (which is the center of focus) and the forest trees. The composition relies heavily on the contrast, in both tone and color, between the waterfall and the trees. This contrast makes the waterfall stand out from the trees. A little bit of fog at the top of the image (which is a bit hard to see in this small image but can easily be seen in the full size print) adds a bit of mood to the image. Lastly, the image was shot at an angle that resulted in the waterfall forming a shallow curve. The curve of the falling water gives the image more of a dynamic feel. Had the waterfall been shot head on, resulting in the water forming a straight line, the image would have appeared much more static.

Valley of the Gods

Figure 3: Valley of the Gods

Figure 3 was taken at the Valley of the Gods in Utah. As can be seen, this image has a very simple composition. This image depends heavily on four elements: center of focus, color, contrast, and lines/curves. The sky (which is the center of focus) first grabs the attention because of the saturated blue color and the clouds. The clouds stand out because of the contrast, in tone and color, with the sky. The clouds also serve to hold the viewer's attention because of the many lines and curves formed by the clouds that create a mosaic pattern in the sky.

The rock formation at the bottom of the image actually covers a very small portion of the image. Nonetheless, it is a very important part of the image for two reasons. First, the rock places the sky in the proper perspective. The rock lets the viewer know that this is not a sky above some crowded city. Rather, it is a sky above a beautiful, unpopulated valley. Second, the rock adds a strong contrast to the image with the warm red tones of the rock contrasting with the cool blue tones of the sky. This contrast strengthens the image.

Ladybug at Rest

Figure 4: Ladybug at Rest

The concept of simplicity is easy to apply with macro shots. By their very nature, macro shots often tend to have simple compositions because moving in so close tends to strip out all the unnecessary detail. Figure 4 illustrates this. This image has only two objects: the ladybug and the plant. The image depends heavily on color and color contrast (the bright yellow leaves against the dark red of the ladybug).

The image was shot with a very narrow depth of field. This allows the ladybug to be sharp while the leaves are out of focus. Thus, the leaves function more as shapes and layers of color rather than as objects with detail. If the leaves showed a lot of detail, the detail would compete with the ladybug for the viewer's attention and would detract from the image.

The image also depends on the use of lines. The stem, on which the ladybug resides, forms a diagonal line that adds a dynamic touch to the image. In addition, the stem in the lower left of the image forms a line that points directly at the ladybug and serves to direct the viewer's attention to the ladybug.


I would hate to write a long and complex article about the topic of simplicity. Thus, this article is short and straightforward. Nonetheless, despite the brevity of the article, simplicity is a very powerful concept. Simple images strongly focus the viewer's attention on the center of focus by eliminating all distracting detail. This strengthens the images' ability to communicate the emotion contained in the center of focus. In photography, it is often the case that less-is-more.