Leaving Things Out
Sometimes, it can be more important what you leave out than what you include when trying to improve your photography.
One of the most common reasons people give for buying a camera is the desire to record the events of their life. Shooting with this objective in mind, they end up with a lot of images of birthday parties and other family gatherings. It's not uncommon for such images to suffer from one of the most common photography mistakes a beginner can make: cutting off people's feet. Literally focusing on people's faces, they inadvertently forget that those people also have feet. Reviewing the images they end up with often reveals that all the friends and family in the images don't have any feet showing, a trait that generally doesn't look very natural, to say the least Once they notice this common flaw, it only takes a small amount of extra attention to remember to recompose so as to clearly include people's feet.
But this isn't the only kind of "leaving things out" I wanted to talk about this week.
Another type of omission that far too many outdoor photographers commit is the failure to bring essential items with them. There's a common concept of the "ten essentials" that you should always carry with you in the outdoors in order to stay safe. The exact list varies between sources, but the concept is the same. Even if you are heading out for what should be an easy afternoon hike, you never really know when circumstances will cause things to work out differently. Some form of map and compass, fresh drinking water, a flashlight, warm clothes, and similar items can have a profound impact on your ability to stay comfortable and perhaps even to survive if you find yourself lost and having to spend the night in the wild.
Long ago, I once drove several hours north from Seattle to the end of the Mt. Baker Highway for sunset in the heart of the North Cascades, the seemingly perfect way to begin a weekend of shooting. Although I arrived at my destination right at sunset and jumped out of the car believing that I was ready to take some killer images, I found to my dismay that I had forgotten to bring my tripod with me. This reality sunk in as I rummaged in the car, only to eventually become convinced it was still sitting on the counter back at home. In my hurry to pack and get out the door for my weekend trip, I had left behind what I consider do to be an essential item, at least for the kind of images I shoot. A weekend without my tripod? Not a pleasant prospect. I hadn't left out those items generally considered the "ten essentials," but for an outdoor photographer, a tripod is pretty darned important, and I had left mine at home.
After weighing alternatives, I eventually put into motion the best option I seemed to have among the bad choices available to me. The entire weekend would pretty much be a bust without a tripod, so I sheepishly got back in my car and drove home to get it. By this time of the evening, the commuter traffic had hopefully died down, and I reasoned that I could drive home, get my tripod, drive back, and still have at least a bit of time to sleep before sunrise. At least this way, I could salvage most of the weekend for the type of shooting I had originally planned.
But as embarrassing as this type of "leaving things out" was for me back then, it isn't the only type I wanted to talk about this week either. I'm going to assume you won't make the mistake I did of leaving your tripod behind. I'm going to assume you've been taught about the ten essentials of outdoor survival. I'm even going to assume you've mastered your compositional skills enough not to crop out your friends and family members' feet. Hopefully these are all types of omission that you have already learned to avoid, or at least you do your best to avoid them.
The less obvious type of leaving things out, and the one I started out thinking about that led to this week's article is seemingly much harder for photographers to learn. And it's really the exact opposite of the problems I've already discussed. Rather than leaving something out that should have been included, this problem deals with including things that would be better left out. When taking pictures, it's ridiculously tempting to cram everything you can into an image. But for making the best images you can, it can often be more important what you leave out than what you include.
If you were to see my house right now, you'd find a great deal of clutter. I may not qualify as a true packrat, but I definitely have tendencies in that direction. It just seems that there's never enough places to put everything.
When taking pictures, it can be all too easy to be a packrat. Everything just seems so interesting, so worthy of being photographed. But more of a good thing doesn't generally lead to better pictures. A lot of clutter in an image can be confusing for those looking at it. The watch word here is "simplify!"
Start with whatever your eye guides you to. Compose the image the way you see fit. But once you do, look for ways to simplify the image. How can you reframe the subject so as to crop out what doesn't need to be there? Once you do this, do it again. And again. Each time, you will likely end up with a more focused and thus more powerful image of your intended subject. If you're having second thoughts about leaving something out, take some shots with your current composition before continuing to simplify. If you find that you've gone too far, you can rest easy knowing you've already got the shot with your earlier composition.
In today's world, memory cards are cheap, so fire away, and then work the composition further. When packing for your trip, you didn't leave out your extra memory cards, now did you?