I thought a lot about how to improve the composition in my portrait photography. Not seeing enough progress with all those fancy techniques, I gave up and tried to focus on something else. Unexpectedly, the solution came from outside photography. Looking closely at famous paintings, I finally understood what was wrong with my composition: too many details. In this post, I’ll expand a bit more on why I think this is important. Then, I’ll show you some before/after examples of my photos and explain different ways of hiding or removing unnecessary details. You can also check out this tutorial that can help you learn composition faster as well.
What great art has and bad photography hasn’t
I read numerous blog posts about different composition rules and techniques. All of this was useful at first, but at some point just using them didn’t seem to help my photos improve that much. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have any major breakthroughs when reading about the rule of thirds for the hundredth time. So I decided to set this goal aside and went on learning more about other visual arts instead.
How painting helped me improve my photography composition
Looking more closely at different artworks, I tried to see what makes them work so well. One thing that I discovered was that if you look closely at great paintings there's never anything odd. Every detail on a painting has its meaning. Usually, a detail should either decorate or enhance the style of the main subject. In some cases, it might appear as a symbol with its own message but without distracting from the main idea. For most of its existence, art and photography served a purpose and had a message to convey. So what I mean is that there should be a clear idea of what you want to show in every picture. It might be anything: an event, a person, or a simple object.
Learning all of this helped me not only feed my curiosity but also bring my photography composition to the next level. I finally understood what was bringing down some of my photos. Now I often notice that bad images are ones without an idea or where you can't see it. Most of the time it happens because of the elements that distract the viewer. Knowing this, I pay close attention to all the objects in the frame when taking a photograph. I try to minimise details that distract the viewer from my main subject.
This already helps a lot, but quite often you can’t get rid of all distractions around your subject while shooting. What helps me even more, is editing out some details in post-processing.
How to improve your photography composition in post-processing
I didn't want to show someone's works as a bad example. Here you'll see some of the older and more recent photos that I tried to improve by reducing details
Hard to say what I wanted to show on this picture back in 2017.
I circled the details that don't help to show the idea of the shot. Probably, I liked the shadow on the other side of the street... but was too lazy to come closer and photograph it separately. Bearing this in mind, we can clearly see how everything else creates a lot of distraction. The cars, the sign, and the details in the shadows make it look like a random shot of a random street without any point of interest.
To make the composition more appealing, I first cropped the image and darkened the shadows. Later I realised that the cars are still looking bad and cars are always a problem. Cars are seldom esthetically pleasing and I usually try to avoid photographing them. To save time, I just painted them black since they are already in shadow. I can't say that I like this photograph now, but it is already better.
A bit of a newer example of how to improve an image by removing details.
Here I’ve hidden the lights on the back and some plates/signs on the wall just to make it appear clear. By the way, if your idea is to show a messy place then, of course, all the graffiti will help. Just make sure you can see the main subject between them.
And one more image. On this one I removed some houses, and made the forest a bit darker. Lastly, I made the forest cabin brighter and colder. This is to create some contrast, and to shift the focus of the photo towards it.
It's always a good idea to show less in your images and leave only the details that have meaning.
Now it's your turn. Look closer at this photo and decide what you would remove here. I have included my edited version below, but this exercise would benefit you the most if you try deciding for yourself before looking at it.
Here is my version.
Some quick photography composition tips
Try to come closer to your subject, or crop out everything unneeded
Try to find backgrounds that will not take too much attention. Often people photograph someone/something on a bright background with loads of details. If you want to photograph a bicycle and there’s a fast food restaurant in the background with bright logos and ads - try adjusting the angle. Your subject should have more contrast to attract attention.
Use an open aperture to blur the background out. Sometimes it’s not the best solution but the easiest.
Shadows are a good tool to hide parts of a picture. Your camera doesn’t see the world the way you see it. Shadows appear darker than you see them in real life. Nevertheless, in most cases it’s better to actually make them even darker.
If I could give you just one composition advice, I would say this. Try to ask yourself - "Do I need this in my image" for every object in your frame. Every time you see a random car, or a street sign, or a person at the edge of the frame, you should stop and think. If it doesn’t add anything to the idea of your photo - remove it if you can. Your pictures will get better, once you remove everything odd.
I will probably continue this topic with more details later. For now, I would appreciate your feedback. Have you tried editing unneeded details out of your photos? What methods or techniques do you find important in photography composition? Feel free to drop me a line on Instagram, let’s continue the conversation there.