'Nice and Simple' Is Not the Way to Go in Photography and Video

'Nice and Simple' Is Not the Way to Go in Photography and Video

You've probably heard the statement "nice and simple." Sometimes it's true, indeed, but most of the time the results and consequences from following that philosophy are not so nice, especially for those who are in the business of photography and filmmaking.

When I walk in the nature I look around me and I see lots of things that are nice, but they are not simple at all. Have you tried to draw a "simple" cloud? Have you seen the detail in bark of the tree? It's not just a flat brown surface. What about ants which are insects of such a sophisticated behavior, and yet people stomp them with their feet when these tiny workers are trying to grab bits of food. Everywhere I look in nature, there's nothing "simple," but it's still beautiful and glorious.

Horse in the wild

When a master painter draws a scenery, we are amazed by the similarity of the painting with the real-world view. Those who haven't tried to draw such a thing may think it's "nice and simple," and maybe the painter have learned their craft after watching a 10-minute video on YouTube. No, their masterpieces are based on hours upon hours of hard work.

What if a painter made a picture of a nice cube? It is nice and simple, but there's nothing extraordinary in it. Everyone can copy it and reproduce the same result with an ease. The painter will soon sink into the deep sea of copycats and will be forgotten. But if one draws a complex masterpiece, they can stay on the top of the lader for quite a long time.

Cube

It's the same with photography and video. Recently there was an article by a fellow writer about people who duplicate the work of other artists, and thus dilute the uniqueness of the primary idea, just because it was simple, albeit nice. As with the example with the painter who paints simple pictures, a photographer or a filmmaker won't go a long way if all of their work is "nice and simple." A photograph of a beautiful girl is really nice and could be a technically simple portrait, but if the whole portfolio is just nice girls on a simple blurred background, is quite easy to duplicate the same result with the same model. There has to be a unique element in the final result. If the work you do is nice and simple to be reproduced by others, and you rely on that for a business, soon there will be a multitude of other businesses that are doing the same thing. How will you compete against them? This is why most "nice and simple" photography businesses are struggling.

Artist who draws photorealism

In order to be successful, one has to work on projects that are not only good looking, but well thought, complex, full of detail, and unique. Most copycats are sifted out just because a project is too complex. How many good painters do you know, despite the affordable paintbrushes and dyes? How many good photographers do you know, although good cameras are easily accessible today?

Pool game

This photograph took about two hours to be staged and executed. That's what all those people were gathered for: оne picture.

On every project I work on, I think of ways to make it in a different way, so that it's not easily reproducible. Of course, the idea can be copied, but the means to execute the idea can be of a very high level of complexity that would turn away the lazy folks. Sometimes just using lots of gear in a difficult-to-be-reached place could be the reason the majority won't copy it.

Turn around. Everything natural is sophisticated, complex, and it has stood the test of time. If you want to leave a memorable body of work, copy nature; make sophisticated and beautiful work.

Log in or register to post comments

34 Comments

Mike Kelley's picture

"In character, in manner, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity" -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

"Everything's quite detailed and complex" - Nature :)

E Port's picture

"I like turtles" - Zombie Kid

If you break down the elements of nature to the finest details then of course there is great complexity to be found, but the general perception, the macro view (not the contradictory definition applied to the type of lens used for close up photography), of much of what is around us is often very simple, and especially so to appreciate. We don't need to know the physics involved to appreciate the beauty and charm of lightning bugs, for example.

While I get the gist of what you are trying to say, I think a lot of photographs of today are actually too complex. They could stand to become much more simpler. Of course simplicity is often a matter of perception but I believe in the saying that the best things in life are often, if not usually, the simplest things in life. That's true when we are children and it becomes true again the older we become.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

In the current context, the business of photography and filmmaking, "simple" means "easy to execute" or "easy to replicate". Digital photography made the process of developing the film "easy to execute" which did not make photography better. Many portraits of celebrities look indeed "simple" and lots of newbies have that "hold my beer" attitude, that they can do this portrait too. It is not a simple portrait, but a complex one, because it involves the ability of the photographer to pull out a great portrait for a short amount of time on a set, made by professionals. For a newbie this is all hidden below the fact "they use just one light and an expensive camera" which I thought when I started. The beauty is in the complexity of things that may look simple, but are quite complex to be replicated.

What you refer to as "complex photographs", and I agree with that, are photographs that have the complexity placed above story, so that people see it's complex, not that people see the story in the frame and complexity to be something secondary.

"Digital photography made the process of developing the film "easy to execute" which did not make photography better."

On the technical side, it sure did, and dramatically so.

Tyler Mitchell's picture

I think you're blurring the line between simplistic techniques and simplistic compositions. All too often people think that a simple composition is easier to make than a more complex one, however, thats never the case. We all know the best and most effective photos are the ones that take the most amount of planning and forethought, but that forethought doesn't always have to translate into an overly complex image. For example, look at some of the older portrait work of the masters, Arnold Newman, Richard Avedon, and Herb Ritz. These masters spent hours, if not days, planning their shoots and visualizing their final images. But the images they created are always simple and immediately readable. If you'd like to see a modern example of this look at Peter Hurley. There's an amazing amount of forethought and effort that goes into his work, yet his images are, to use the author's words, "A photograph of a beautiful girl is really nice and could be a technically simple portrait, but if the whole portfolio is just nice girls on a simple blurred background, is quite easy to duplicate the same result with the same model."

Fstoppers, I feel this article is very opinionated from somebody who's opinions aren't flushed out completely. Put a bit more leg work into your articles. Then you can go preach about right versus wrong.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I'm not blurring a line, because I don't put such. Compositions and techniques are part of the same process. Makeup, set design, planning, even climbing a hill with lots of gear is part of the same process.

I'm talking about business here. I'm not talking about beauty for beauty's sake. When a product is easy to be produced, lots of people jump on that bandwagon, because people seek quick ways to get rich. The market becomes diluted with mediocre work that is a copy of the original ideas. When the process is more complex (all of its parts, as I mentioned above) it's really hard to get too many people on the same level, because most of the people are lazy, especially nowadays when they want everything quick, here, and now.

Portraits of the old masters had a complex process. They needed the equipment, the chemistry, the dark rooms. That's not something as accessible as today's digital process. That made the work more difficult to reproduce. The fact they used simple lighting or simple framing doesn't make the process simple, because, as I said, it's a whole inseparable process. What about the access to celebrities they photographed?

Today we have an instant film development (with digital cameras) and this makes part of the process simpler.

Talking about Peter Hurley's process: It is not simple at all. People see just a portrait, but most of they don't know anything more than lighting a subject on a white background and telling them to squinch. It's way deeper than that and that's why it's complex. There are lots of people who try to replicate Peter's work and they can't, because they neglect the details. I bought the tutorials years ago, and since then most of my business is coming from headshots. Not only that, but I use those techniques for the other commercial portraiture I do. It's not simple at all.

The article is definitely "opinionated", because it's not a re-post of someone else's opinion. More importantly, it's not just an opinion, but I'm sharing something that I do for living for years. If someone thinks that's a useless philosophy, let them not follow it.

The article is the same if you change "photography and filmmaking" with any other business that can produce commodities and boutique products. Commodity-sellers or producers are always competing on price level, because there are lots of others like them. Boutique product-makers can keep their prices fair (and sometimes high), because there are not many like them on the market.

David Vaughn's picture

I think you vastly underestimate the power of being trendy lol

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I haven't found someone staying in business for a long time selling commodity just because of being trendy, because they become copied shortly after that and everything gets watered down.

Those who can make profit from the short time of being trendy are smart. But those profits don't last even for a decade.

Actually, by definition of the word trendy, if any person or business can consistently be trendy they will have great success, assuming other fundamental aspects of their business is sound.

I think there's definitely something to be said for this approach. It's been my thinking for a while. I work in the pinup realm and there's a lot of people in that space who can shoot a great photo of a girl in a negligee up against a pastel paper background. There's obviously an art in mastering that but in a large city like mine there will always be a fair few who have that mastery so the client has options. On the other hand, if they want to be wearing the same costume but hanging off the wing of a spitfire firing back at a squadron of Messershmitts, locally at least, they kind of have to come to me. It's a model that's working for me at least at the moment.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

That's what I'm emphasizing on. From a business standpoint "nice and simple" is not how one can have a successful business with that the market pressure.

I think you should look at the later seascapes of JWM Turner and the Impressionists he inspired...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I like the Hudson River School of Art masters more. That's what I refer to when I think and write about master painters, like in the current article. Nice and complex:
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5c/Albert_Bierstadt_-_A...

Beautiful painting.

Michael Yearout's picture

Yes, there is something to be said for this approach - it is spot on. Good advice Tihomir.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I appreciate that, Michael

There's a painting hanging in the St. Louis Art Museum called "Spectrum II" by Ellsworth Kelly. I was looking at it this morning - 13 panels of block color adjacent to each other. It's as effective as anything in demonstrating the narrowness of Mr. Lazarov's argument - an argument that seems to miss the point of art completely.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Effectiveness of such paintings can be measured by the amount of business they bring to such an artist. I know every painting and photograph can be put in an art gallery or a wealthy buyer can purchase it, but can it bring enough business, so the artist makes a living out of it? For sure I can't make a living if I paint such paintings.

I know more painters who make a living out of paintings I posted above, than from impressionism and modern art. If you oppose my argument with "You don't understand that art", you will be right. Neither do many.

No, the effectiveness of a painting can be measured by the emotional and intellectual impact it has on the viewer. You are approaching art from a commercial and money-making point of view (and there's nothing wrong with that as far as it goes) but don't confuse your outlook with artistry. As you are undoubtedly aware, some of the greatest artists were unappreciated during their lifetimes and all the money went to the collectors long after they died. From a commercial point of view they were failures; but their art endures. And it didn't stop them from believing in their vision.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I still don't know an artist making a normal living out of modern art.

And yes, I'm approaching the topic from a commercial and money-making point of view, but not as someone who works on any project that comes their way. Beautiful art can bring profit if it is sophisticated, detailed, and understood by people of all ages. For example my grandma would understand almost anything I do, but she won't understand modern art, which I don't do.

Modern art is not for us, simple people. That's why I preach understandable complex art and work which can make bring profits to someone who follows that philosophy among the simple people world. According to tourists, modern art museums are far less visited than traditional art ones. That's what I know from simple-minded people.

Modern art is for everyone. We are not simple people. In fact, we're incredibly complicated, far more complicated than any piece of art could be. All it takes to appreciate modern art is an opening of that complicated mind, and any of us can do that. :) As to making a living out of modern art, some do, some don't. In an adjacent gallery to the Ellsworth "Spectrum II" hang three giant abstracts by my personal favorite artist of all time, Gerhard Richter - "November", "December" and "January". They are worth of tens of millions of dollars and Richter is still alive. You could say he got lucky, but he stuck with his vision through much leaner times and it's pleasing that he's alive to see his work highly valued. But I don't think he would have stopped doing what he does if that hadn't happened and he was still just scraping by. Again, it boils down to having an artistic vision, believing in that vision, and following it. But that requires a phenomenal sense of self-worth and a belief that what you do is greater than any material reward it might bring. Nonetheless, I'm very sympathetic to your argument that making a living really comes first. We have to live after all.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I've studied modern art about an year ago and I saw what the general public says about it. 99% (if not 100%) of the comments were the child from the "Emperor's new clothes" story. I'm also that child. I don't understand it and I most of the time I can't make the difference if that is the rag where the painter cleans their brush or the actual production canvas.

The relativism and "it's all about personal taste"-thing (not objective evaluation of the beauty of the art) are the foundation of modern art. However, simple people don't buy it no matter how much publicity it gets.

When you can't make a difference between color sheets of paper hanging in the bookstore and the same hanging in a museum, or between the dirty cleaning rag or apron of a painter and a final canvas, or between a child's drawing and a master-modern-artist canvas, that makes me scratch my head...

Mr Hogwallop's picture

A lot of people liked the work of Thomas Kincade and many even thought that a TK painting would appreciate in value.
It was sappy, romantic, colorful and sort of technically complex it was simple in meaning. It appealed to a well heeled patron with a desire acquire "art" It made him a lot of money but I think today you could pick up a painting that sold for $20k for $99.

I think a lot of photographers today lean to the more is better, more flare, more layers, more fake fog or clouds, more color tricks. Maybe just because we can.
A lot of work is trendy and popular for the next year or three. But that's how it goes in the commercial biz world. Commercial art is pretty disposable, so make sure you get paid a lot for it!

There was a similar debate in the early 1900s when the pictorialist movement was countered by the modernist movement.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The work of Thomas Kincade was appreciated then because paintings were the common means to get a romantic scenery at home. Today you can snap it with your phone and print it on a large canvas. Today it's not about the means to produce it, but the story in the picture.

Again, the process before photography was accessible, was complex. Creating a painting required (and still requires) knowledge of light, color, dyes, brush techniques, even framing. The rest is the painting itself. Today with the digital cameras part of the process is simplified and you can push a button and it captures what you see. The competition today is not based on how well you push the button, but what visuals can you capture or compose (using software compositing techniques). That's why the hard work of painters it highly undervalued today although the work is of the same complexity. People care about the final product regardless of the means to produce it.

If someone wants to be a painter, they have to paint things that can't be created with a push of a button. They may use software, they may not, but the final result has to be above the level of the general public (who, by the way, can create most of the today's modern art and call it "art").

Interesting. Well, this certainly explains much behind your article. We'll have to agree to disagree over this.

Michael Yearout's picture

These thought have been rolling around in my head all afternoon: Complex and simple. They seem, on the surface, to be at odds with each other - the complete opposites. But are they? Things that appear simple are/can be very complex. And complex things can/or can appear very simple.

Very thought-provoking post. I will be thinking about it for a long time and thinking in a different manner. I think I've been thinking like this for a long time, but just never realized it This post brought it to the surface and will influence my photography in the future.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

It's all about the final product and the means to make it.

For example MIke Kelly, who commented first, has a beautiful portfolio. The way he makes his images is complex. You can't do it with multiple exposures and then some Photoshop. It's complex, it requires time and that's why everyone who uses his methods has to be paid higher, because that process is time consuming.

Think of the topic outside business of photography and filmmaking. Imagine you make sandwiches. It's like making pictures. There are lots of people who make pictures but few of them are successful. There are lots of people who make sandwiches. How can you make them better than the others? If you make sandwiches the same as everyone else, your business won't last longer unless there are few competitors around you. If there are many, you have to be creative and make the process more complex, like growing your own organic food (or teaming up with someone who will do that for you), so that you can sell organic sandwiches at a reasonable price. The process you create the bread could be different from what the competitors do. The meat can be prepared in a state-of-the-art way, known by master chefs. You get the idea.

The point is to stay away from commodity products as much as possible.