Musings on Photography

Focus, Simplify

Posted in Photo Garden, process by Paul Butzi on October 15, 2008

Henry David Thoreau wrote “Our lives are frittered away by details. Simplify, simplify, simplify”. (amusing side note: Strunk and White noted in their canonical Elements of Style that the thrice repeated word was redundant, and it would be simpler if not repeated.)

I confess that I am a Photographer of Very Little Ability. I don’t do well when there are lots of things happening in the frame. I do rather better when I have just one or two things to manage. Three things are very hard. Four things, and I’m getting ragged. In Newtonian mechanics (aka classical physics), physicists speak of the two body problem, the three body problem, and so on. I like the one body problem. That’s ok. A man’s gotta know his limitations.

Shallow depth of field is a great simplifier. High spatial frequency clutter turns into smooth fields. Twenty body problems turn into one or two body problems. Things that would overlap in the flat photographic field are separated by the focus, according to distance from the focal plane.

Depending on your view, this can be a Good Thing, or it can be a Great Source of Heartbreak.

7 Responses

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  1. Simon said, on October 15, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    I have one word for you: “Namibia”. Go there. It’s full of amazing, stark landscapes perfect for those of us who have a hard time with complex compositions. I love the pictures I took there.

  2. Tommy Williams said, on October 15, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Like you, I don’t manage more than one thing in the frame well but I can’t stop trying to make complicated photos. Even when I set out with the intention of making clean, simple pictures with clear subjects and distinction between figure and ground with well-recognized compositions, I see nothing but complexity.

    And those times when I do manage to reduce the elements in the frame, I’m never happy with my results.

    I keep trying and I hope that, some day, I’ll figure it all out.

    But if I do, what will be the point of continuing to make photos?

  3. matt said, on October 16, 2008 at 9:06 am

    From Dantel Stella’s latest

    “Shooting with a camera on shutter priority is an excellent discplinary exercise. With far less conscious control over depth of field, one composes far more carefully.”

    Nah, that sounds like a pain. I’ll keep shooting wide open.

  4. Dennis Allshouse said, on October 16, 2008 at 2:09 pm

    BTW Physicists count as follows: One, Two, Many.

  5. Amy Sakurai said, on October 16, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    “I confess that I am a Photographer of Very Little Ability.”

    Ha! It is to laugh!

    I’ve depended on shallow depth of field a lot to isolate subjects — particularly when photographing people. I once confessed to one of my photography instructors that I relied on that technique, and she made me go out and shoot at narrow apertures for a couple of weeks. It was a good exercise, forcing me to stretch my wings and think harder about composition to isolate my subject.

  6. Mike said, on October 20, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    An alternative is to spend some time shooting with a digital point and shoot. I shot a small project (well it sort of tapered out when work took over) at lunchtimes around leeds. the rules were GX100,monchrome, 35mm equivalent (usually) and f3.7 or some such. Everything is in focus…

    I’ve now retreated to 35mm and f2 or wider:)


  7. Alex said, on October 20, 2008 at 11:43 pm

    I love that picture! I probably would crop it a bit though. Yeah, I’m sticking with simple…but once you have a camera in your hands, it’s hard to stop you. Even though I’m very new at taking pictures, I’ve been a picture lover for a long time…almost start feeling like a pro all the sudden…I have to remind myself how extremely new I am and what little experience I have!

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