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The Best Way to Learn About Simplicity in Photography

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Read Time: 9 min

There's a lot to be said for the simple approach, both to life and photography. Digital photography is a complex subject. There is a lot to learn, and it's easy to overcomplicate things and forget that photography is ultimately about taking beautiful photos, and enjoying the process as you go along. In this article, I'm going to take a look at some of the ways you can learn to take a simple approach to photography.

Learn about simplicity in composition

You can make your photos stronger by taking the simple approach to composition. The easiest way to do this is to close in on your subject, excluding as much of the surroundings as possible. On the other hand, if you want to include some of the environment, try and keep it as uncluttered as possible. Try and include only the elements that make your image stronger.

A good way to learn is by example, so I recommend that you take a look at the work of some photographers and analyze the simple approach they take to composition.

Look for the following attributes:

  • The way they use colour (or tones in black and white photos).
  • Shapes and patterns. How do the photographers utilise shapes and patterns in their images?
  • Negative space. How do they use negative space (empty space in the image) to give the subject room to breathe?
  • The quality of the light. Is it hard or soft, warm or cool, artificial or natural? How does the light affect the mood or atmosphere of the image?

Take a simple approach to your gear

Modern cameras have so many options that it's easy to switch from one to the other as you take photos. Sometimes you need to do this, but it can have the disadvantage of interfering with creativity. Controlling the camera becomes more important than 'seeing' good images.

Similarly, it's easy to fall into the trap of buying too much equipment in terms of lenses and accessories. That won't necessarily improve your photography, and it's sometimes better to learn to use the tools you already have in better ways than to buy something new. I recently sold two lenses that I hadn't used for ages and I'm perfectly happy with the three lenses that I have left. For what I do, they are fine. I'd like to own all the lenses in the photo above – but I don't need to!

Set it and forget it

This exercise will help you simplify your approach to photography. On you next shoot, try this. Take one camera, and just one lens. Preferably a prime lens, or you can use a zoom set to one focal length (use masking tape to hold the zoom ring in place).

Choose one mode and set the camera to it. Program is a good choice, and so are aperture priority and shutter priority modes. If it's one of the latter two, select a single aperture or shutter speed, lock it in and let the camera take care of exposure.

Select Picture Style (Picture Style is Canon's term, the Nikon term is Picture Control, Sony uses Creative Style, Pentax Custom Image and Olympus Picture Mode) and white balance settings. Once they are set, don't change them.

It doesn't matter whether you shoot Raw or JPEG, although Raw will give you more options in post-processing.

The aim of this exercise is to set your camera, then forget about the settings and concentrate on seeing and taking good photos. Concentrate on observing the subject, and the light, and making the best possible images. You may need to use exposure compensation in tricky lighting conditions, or change the ISO to suit the light levels, but the idea is to minimize that.

Using a single focal length forces you to move closer to or further from your subject to change it's size in the frame. As you take photos with the focal length you have chosen, you'll learn more about its optical characteristics and perspective. You will see new and more creative ways of composing with it.

Three years ago, I started shooting with a manual focus prime lens kit on a full frame DSLR. I shot with a 24mm, 50mm and 85mm lens. About a year ago, I decided that my eyes were too bad and that I needed autofocus. I bought a 24mm, a 50mm and a 70-210mm for a little extra reach. I'm now completely used to the 70-210mm, so when I recently dug out that 85mm for a special assignment, I had no idea where to stand when using it. I found myself having to back up or get much closer. At one time I was used to using it. We really do become in tune with the lens we use, and you can just as easily lose that familiarity.

Similarly, if you set a single aperture or shutter speed and don't change the setting, you will learn about the characteristics of that setting. If you use a single aperture (say f4) you'll learn what effect it has on the subject, and how the depth-of-field is affected as you get closer to your subject.

Creativity seems to work best within restraints. By limiting your options, your mind will start seeing ways to make images within the limitations that you have set. It can be surprising how much variety you can achieve with a single focal length – the photos above were all taken in the same village with my 17-40mm zoom lens set at 40mm.

Learn to use Program mode – the perfect mode for simple photography

In the previous exercise I mentioned using Program mode, and I want to explore that in more detail. Program mode is the ideal mode for the simple approach, as it takes a lot of the effort out of selecting exposure settings, yet still gives you a lot of control.

Here are some of the reasons that I like Program mode. Please bear in mind that I use Canon EOS cameras, so there may be differences with other camera brands.

The basic modes (landscape, portrait, action etc) are too restrictive. You can't change settings like Picture Style or white balance, and you are stuck with JPEG files and unable to use Raw. The camera sets the ISO, not you. You can't change the metering mode, or use exposure compensation, or choose whether to activate the built-in flash or not. You can't even select a which autofocus point to use.

The benefit of Program mode is that you can set all these settings yourself. You can apply exposure compensation, if required, or use program shift to change the aperture and shutter speed selected by the camera if you don't like them.

Use a compact camera

Here's another creative exercise for you. If you have a compact camera, use it for a shoot (if you just have a digital SLR, you can use the program mode instead – it effectively turns your digital SLR into a sophisticated compact camera).

My first digital camera was an Olympus D345. One of the reasons I bought it was because it had a fixed lens, with a focal length equivalent to 35mm on a 35mm film or full-frame camera. The camera was so simple that the only variable I had was the focusing. I took photos by pointing the centre autofocus point at the subject, pressing the shutter button half-way to lock focus and exposure, then reframing and shooting.

The process was so simple that I just concentrated on taking interesting photos (the three photos above were taken with it). The point of this exercise is for you to do the same. Forget about your camera's settings, just have fun and get back to the basics of enjoying the process of taking photos.

Film cameras

A friend of mine told me recently that she uses film cameras, rather than digital, because she finds digital cameras too complex and she doesn't understand the post-processing side. She wants to learn, but for the moment she's happy using film.

Now not everybody uses, or wants to use, film, but there's a couple of things we can learn from this simple approach.

If you have a digital SLR, you can use a Holga lens or a lensbaby to give you a 'new' way of seeing (the above photo was taken with a Holga lens on an EOS 40D). If you have a mirrorless camera, there are lots of adapters available that let you attach old or unusual lenses to your camera. These articles on Photo Tuts+ are a good starting point:

Exploring Hunky Holga Lenses on Your Digital SLR

How to Use Vintage Lenses on Mirrorless Cameras

And if you'd like to use film:

Film Photography Session: Fourteen Phototuts+ articles about film photography.

We can also learn from the approach that photographers using film cameras take to composition. Take a look at the work of these photographers who use film cameras:

Make better use of resources

There are so many interesting photography blogs or websites that it's easy to flit between them without getting into any in any real depth. The same goes for other learning resources, such as books, eBooks and magazines.

I've been trying something a little different lately, and I suggest you try it too. Instead of reading lots of material, I've been concentrating on a few sources, but exploring each in depth. For example, I've found it more interesting to read one blog, and go back through the articles the photographer has posted over time, than follow ten or more, which is what I've often done in the past.

The advantage of reading one blog is that it gives you a real insight into the way that photographer thinks and works. It's a chance to get inside their head and understand their approach to photography. What drives them? What lessons have they learnt over the years? How would you describe their artistic vision? This is stuff you only pick up when you read their material in depth.

The same principle applies to books and eBooks. It's easy to read a book, then put it aside and start reading another. Instead, concentrate on getting the most out of a single book. Go back and reread the bits that resonated with you most. Go and put some of the things the author wrote about into practice. Study the book in-depth – you'll learn more and gain a greater appreciation of what the concepts that the author explores.

Tim Ferris refers to this as the 'low information diet'. You can read more about it here (free eBook download).

Learn about the simple approach to life

Simplicity doesn't just apply to photography, you can apply the principles to all aspects of your life. Life simplification techniques can also easily apply to your photography. If you're interested in exploring this concept further, you can learn more at these websites:


It's easy to overcomplicate photography. Let's face it, it's a hobby with lots of cool gadgets that appeal to the geek as well as the artist inside us. But at it's heart, photography is a simple craft, and the only thing that matters is that we enjoy it and make some beautiful images along the way.

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