How to Make Simple Photos

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I think to make better photos; seek to make more simple photos.

1. Simple is hard

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Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication – Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci once said that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Not only that, but Leonardo defined perfection as not when we have nothing left to add, but when we have nothing left to take away.

I believe that making things simpler is much more difficult than making things more complicated.

Anyone can easily make things more complicated. We pay people money to simplify our lives, and to cut away the complexity.

  • Uber has made taxi rides and transportation more simple.
  • The iPhone has made making a photo more simple.
  • Google Maps has made getting directions more simple.

I also think that the best photos are the ones which are simple:

  • Simple compositions
  • Simple to understand quickly
  • Simple to see the emotions, and the main subject of the frame

But why is that we try to make our photos more complex?

2. Photography isn’t a competition

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I think a lot of photography is competitive— many photographers are just trying to show off how complex/complicated they can make their photos. At a point, photography becomes more visual gymnastics, rather than finding personal meaning in your photos.

3. Simple compositions, complex emotions

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I like the idea we can combine the simple and complex.

One idea: simple composition, complex emotions.

For example, you can make your composition of a subject 1 person. But try to capture an emotion, or gesture, or mood, where there is emotional depth. Emotional complexity. Depth of soul.

4. Subtract from the frame

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Don’t seek to add to the frame, always seek to subtract.

Focus on the edges of your frame when you’re making photos. Try to make the edges as clean as possible.

Try to cut away clutter from the background.

Like a good sculptor, you are trying to chip away and carve away the superfluous— to uncover the beautiful statue beneath the block of marble.

In photography, we are sculptors. Reality is our block of marble. And the camera is a tool which we decide what to include in the frame, and what to subtract or not include in the frame.

Always try to subtract from the frame, until you make your photos as simple as possible. But not so simple that there is no emotion, depth, or soul in the photo.

5. Small thumbnail test

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An easy test to see whether your photos work or not: look at them as small thumbnails.

If you can look at your photos as small thumbnails, still see the composition, and feel an emotion from the photograph — it works.

A photograph that doesn’t work as a small thumbnail is probably not simple enough.

So once again, try to simplify your compositions. Establish stronger contrast in your photos by using minus-exposure composition (to darken the shadows), or use a flash to improve the contrast/figure-to-ground in your frame.

Try to integrate more diagonals, curves, triangles, and circles into your frame. Tilt your camera like a ‘dutch angle.’ Make your compositions dynamic; yet simple.

Learn more composition >

6. Simple is more peaceful

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Ultimately, I want to make photos that give me perfect bliss. Perfect tranquility, and zen. Photos that calm my soul, and uplift my spirits.

For me, that means simple photos that bring me simple joys.

And as a life philosophy, I think the simple is better.

I prefer simple clothes, simple meals, and simple art.

Yet for the complex— I prefer having a few friends, yet having deep, meaningful, and complex conversations with them. I like having simple photos compositionally speaking, but I want my photos to have deep psychological layers, and complex emotions.

I live a simple and peaceful life with Cindy, yet I want our relationship to grow together, to develop, into a beautiful tree with strong roots.

7. Life is complicated enough


Life is better when it is simpler. When we have fewer complications in our life. Less choices, less stress. Less stuff, more room to breathe. Less anxiety, less complications, and less complexity in life gives us more chances to be creative, to make more photos, and to make more meaning in our lives.

8. Other tips to simplify your photography and life

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So some other practical tips:

1. Simplify your camera:

Use one camera, one lens, and just shoot in “P” (program mode). Make your photo-making process as simple as possible, so you can photograph with more heart and meaning.

2. Simplify your clothes:

Wear simple outfits. I like wearing all black. Whatever is simple for you in terms of your attire, it will give you less stress in the morning in terms of what to wear. More energy and focus for the more important things in life.

3. Simplify your lifestyle:

Order espressos instead of cappuccinos. Prefer to eat at 2-star Yelp review restaurants, not 3-4 star restaurants. Prefer a simpler car, a simpler neighborhood, a simpler diet. Often the simpler is often more delicious, more wholesome, and of course— lighter on your wallet. Which means more money for travel, and other enriching experiences.

Keep it simple.


Minimalism and photography

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Simplify your photography and life:

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