For Better Photographs, Don't Think Big, Think Simple

For Better Photographs, Don't Think Big, Think Simple

This post is in celebration of simple ideas, executed brilliantly. Incredibly simple ideas demonstrate that simplicity, combined with brilliant execution, can result in incredibly powerful images that affect us far more deeply than those that are more complex and technically well executed, but are boring and bring nothing new to the table. To make better images, stop thinking big and start thinking simple.The most powerful photographs, the ones that truly hold my attention are not those that are obvious, but rather imply something or suggest something that makes me take a second look, or linger over them. Causing confusion or creating ambiguity all helps propel a good image or technically correct one, into a new, deeper level pf appeal.

Sally Mann once famously remarked that “if a photograph doesn’t have ambiguity, don’t bother to take it”. Whether you believe this or not, she certainly has a point – obvious images, the ones we see day in day out online, are usually throwaway; those that truly linger go beyond surface values of being merely pleasing to the eye and in some way, twist up or confuse our brains and cause us to think.

It may have taken a decade, but photographer Rui Calçada Bastos’s 2004 personal project “the Mirror Suitcase Man” is suddenly getting the attention it deserves. This is exactly what Bastos’s project achieved when I saw it. The overlapping frame-within-frame arrangements that the mirrored suitcase provides, showing us what is actually both in front of, as well as behind, the camera, cause us to stop for a second and ponder what we are seeing.

There is interesting juxtaposition at work throughout – the mirrored surface represents a balance of simplicity against he main frame’s image of a complex scene, or chiaroscuro – placement of light against dark, or vice versa.  Sometimes it is motion in the reflection set against a stationary foreground scene.

Whether this project moves you in any way or not, it is a clear example of a very simple idea, with a twist, executed brilliantly.  Most “new ideas” are simply adjustments, tweaks or interpretations of those that have come before it. Henri Cartier-Bresson famously said: “There are no new ideas, only new arrangements of ideas” and he was right. Most new styles or works are simply medications of older techniques. It is a rare thing indeed to see a completely new style of work emerge from any artistic field.


Challenge Yourself

With this in mind, give yourself a challenge. Find the most simply thing you can think of and set out to push yourself to do something new or different with it.

Find the most simple, basic thing you can think of and set out to push yourself to do something new or different with it photographically. Nothing challenges the mind by taking a mundane and banal object or scene and trying to compose something new or different out of it.

I have been doing this with puddles and reflections in rain recently. When was the last time you looked closely at a puddle? They are usually something we aim to avoid at all costs, often never look twice at and generally jumping or leaping over them. Yet puddles can represent a window into a unique new, upside down world.

Challenge yourself. Get out of your comfort zone and don’t think big – rather, think differently. Think of the most simple idea you can and see if you can add your own unique twist to it. If you have the patience and focus, you’ll find it can result in truly interesting personal challenges for your own photo or video work.



Rui Calçada Bastos’s Mirrored Suitcase Project via [MyModernMet

David Geffin Photography for "Reflections" street project

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Anonymous's picture

Totally agree

Sid Vasandani's picture

Great article David...reminds me of what Annie said in her movie, her ideas are so simple and most of the times silly. The overall execution(not necessarily technical) matters.

David Geffin's picture

thanks Sid, yeah i think i vaguely remember that - can't remember the name of that doc she is in but was a good one, i remember that much!

David Matthews's picture

The simple things catch your eye.

David Geffin's picture

Finding something noteworthy in the mundane is the hardest, most challenging thing. I love it :)