Composition is one of the trickiest and subtlest aspects of photography and is often one of the last things photographers master. If that is something you personally struggle with, you should try this simple change in thinking to make more powerful and compelling images.
Composition is something most of us will continue to work on our entire lives. It is neither simple or possible to objectively codify it in a complete manner, and for every tip or guideline, there is an exception that shows it is not a hard and fast rule. I have spent years playing with different methods of composition, relying on intuition, and more, but one way of thinking has made a bigger difference than any of those heuristics.
The Way Most of Us Work
Most of us, particularly those newer to photography, think of composition in an additive manner. This means that we approach an image as a blank frame into which we add elements in order to create a compelling and complete visual experience.
The above were examples of an additive approach. In other words, I kept including more and more elements in the frame until I got something with which I was satisfied. That works fine in some cases, but it can go awry rather quickly. I am sure it has happened to you before: you add one element and it throws the image out of balance. So, you add another, and the balance tips too far in the other direction. And so on. Soon, the image is a jumbled mess that is just too much for the viewer to follow from a narrative perspective, and it feels difficult or almost impossible to fix. It is like a chef adding more and more different seasonings to a dish until the taste is too overwhelming and confused to save the meal.
You can see an example where such an approach went awry above. The layers are well intentioned, but there are too many of them, and the way they work in tandem with the leading lines is confusing. The coastline leads toward the skyline, but it is too far away and too small in the frame to be the payoff. This is because each layer is itself visually interesting — the water and beach, the grass park, the marina, then the city — and without an obviously prominent subject, it is not clear what the eye should be drawn to as a resting place in the photo. The solution here would be either to use less layers or to back up and use a longer focal length to compress them and make the payoff of the skyline relatively bigger.
So, how can we avoid this pitfall and make less work for ourselves in the process? Stop asking what we can add to the frame and start asking what we can remove instead. Think of your favorite images, those that are the most compelling. Often, they have relatively simple compositions in which nothing is extraneous whatsoever. Everything that is in the frame is crucial to its balance and success, and without any single element, the image falls apart. The photographer has reduced the photo to literally its bare essentials.
Working in the same manner can help you improve your images and make your workflow far more efficient, as you are not trying to constantly balance a seemingly never-ending succession of competing elements.
I started flying out over Lake Erie a lot more because the relatively monotonous water prevented me from getting too complicated with my compositions. In the shot above, I initially defaulted to a composition from the other side, with the city skyline in the background. It would have been a fine shot — a sun-kissed skyline in the background as a sailboat lazily floats across the foreground. But that's a relatively busy shot and sort of undermines the casual summer mood I wanted to evoke. So, I turned around and shot away from the city, lining up the sunlight over the water as a simple spotlight on the sailboat. All I needed then was a sliver of coastline on the left to balance the frame. I think it is more visually interesting than my initial impulse and better conveys the simple mood I wanted to evoke.
In the photo above, I realized that I did not need to surrounding busy skyline; just a single building and a splash of light and color in the sky gave the needed contrast and balance.
In the image above, I realized the deep red of the boat contrasted beautifully with the blue and yellow of the water and the sky, and I only needed the breakwall to frame it.
Pitfalls and a Final Note
Any method can go wrong, and subtractive composition is no different. Here, the danger is going too minimal, to the point that you lose visual interest. You still need to have something compelling: the subject, the geometry of the photos, etc. to create a successful image. The idea here is to identify what that compelling element is, then get rid of anything that distracts from it.
One last note: though I have used landscape images as examples here, the principle applies to pretty much any genre. Whatever the genre, identify what it is makes the photo interesting, then remove anything that does not support that.