Take It Out

Near minimalist image. All distracting elements removed.

A lot of times, our image can be improved by taking out some of what’s there. This point of view tends to come with experience. When we start photographing the tendency is to go wide and try to get “everything” in the frame. It is a learned discipline to restrict our view and take out distracting elements.

A subtractive art

One way that photography is fundamentally different from most other arts is that the sensor in our camera automatically records everything it sees. Other arts construct an image by consciously selecting and adding elements to the frame. If you don’t like something in the scene you are painting, don’t include it.

This creates a very different workflow and thought process for photographers. I have to be aware of everything in the frame in real time. That is, I don’t have the luxury of easily picking and choosing what I will include. Unless I am very careful everything the camera is pointed at will be recorded. Yes, I could spend many hours in Photoshop removing the things that distract, but I don’t like doing it like that. Besides taking a lot of time, I believe it is better to be careful when composing the image capture. I feel better as an artist to get the captured image as close to the desired result as I can get it.

It takes lot of discipline to make myself aware of every bit of the frame. Even those far away corners where distractions seem to lurk. And those mysterious things poking in from the edges must be seen and dealt with. And that trash in view. Being aware is crucial. I must move or reframe to eliminate distractions.

You are responsible for every part of your image, even the parts you’re not interested in. – Jay Maisel

Elimination

Photography is much more about elimination than inclusion – John Paul Caponigro

Mr. Caponigro is on to a great truth here. I find when I am composing a shot that I’m caught in a strong tension. “What should I include?” fighting with “what should I exclude?”. Usually this battle plays out quickly in my subconscious. I have a lot of experience. But even so, I sometimes find myself blindsided. I look at an image and think “what is that doing here?” when I was blind to a distracting element.

I find that the decisions to eliminate things often are more taxing that the ones to go ahead and include them. When you are unsure it seems safer to include it, just in case. This is usually the wrong attitude. If you are not sure it should be there eliminate it. Taking things out, to some limit, usually makes for more clear images. Anything that competes with the main subject and composition should be very suspect.

Minimalism

Does the desire to take out distracting elements lead to minimalist images? Maybe. Not necessarily.

Minimalism tends to be an extreme. To me it can be a bleak and harsh discipline. My work is not minimalist. I love the richness of excellent textures and compositions that may include a lot of elements. Simplicity and reduction of distraction are different from minimalism.

I would characterize minimalism as a mind set. The process is to take out absolutely everything that is not completely required for the image. My attitude is to strongly consider eliminating everything that seems to be distracting. I allow for occasional riots of seemingly useless complexity when I thing it adds to the image.

The image with this post is borderline minimalist. If I had removed the grass and the hints of field it probably would qualify for minimalist in my mind. I don’t care. I don’t like labels.

Ambiguity

Less information often leads to more interpretation. – John Paul Caponigro

Have you noticed in some paintings or songs or stories that less is actually more? Less complete information leads to some ambiguity. It allows space for the viewer to fill in what’s missing. Viewers like to be challenged a little, to have to work some to figure out an image. It is engaging and stimulating. It also allows for their private interpretation to be applied. They may well create a story that is different from what the artist envisioned. That is wonderful. It means the image is big enough to encompass multiple points of view.

Enjoy the creative stimulation of the frame. Deciding what’s in the frame is composition. Where you put the frame is cropping. Keeping things out of the frame is selection, selectivity, defining the subject. Less is often more. Use your judgment and don’t be afraid to take it out.

Improvement

Results of an experiment

In a recent post I quoted Todd Vorenkamp saying “Search yourself for improvement, not your gear”. I believe that our improvement needs to come from within us, not from better gear. What is your plan to make yourself a better artist? Do you have one? I am an Engineer. I know that nothing gets better by accident. We all need a plan and strategies to improve ourselves. I am not saying we need a 5 year plan or a 10 step process. But we need to consciously strive for improvement.

Study

Whatever you believe in and value and spend your life doing, you should be a lifelong student of. We are lucky to live at a time when we have so many channels for learning available to us.

If you were an aspiring artist in the 16th century you would have to apprentice to a master. There you would spend several years doing grunt work and menial tasks while studying the basics of drawing. Eventually you might advance to a stage where you were trusted to add some parts to a painting the master started. Someday you might be trusted to make copies of the master’s work. Now after 10-15 years you could be deemed ready to go out on your own. Of course, all you know is your master’s style. You don’t really know what you want to be yet. A pretty poor system in my opinion.

Now, though, there are an abundance of schools and online classes. There are books and magazines. There are mentors available and unlimited examples to view online. Most of us are reasonably close to good museums where we can examine great art at will. We could spend all our time studying and never make an image if we are not disciplined.

Online classes

I have gotten lots of good information from classes at CreativeLive and Kelby One. B&H Explora has a great free library to view, among all the sales stuff. Anything by Julieanne Kost is extremely worthwhile. Some other great instructors are Dave Cross and Ben Willmore. I do not receive any compensation for these plugs. Many of these things require subscription. It is worth paying for good instruction. For free stuff, there is more on YouTube than you could ever watch. Be careful. Be wary in deciding who you are going to listen to, especially on YouTube. It’s the wild west.

One reason I love Julianne Kost, besides that there may not be anyone on the planet who knows more about Photoshop, is that she said “I don’t want a recipe, I want to learn to cook.” This is wise advice. A lot of training presents recipes to do exactly what the instructor did. I don’t want that. I want to know how to fix my own dishes, to create my own recipes. She is good at presenting her training from that point of view.

The real thing is to do it continually. Learning should be a habit we cultivate for our whole life. We never know all of everything. It might be harder to find new and deeper things to learn, but it is there. I suggest you commit to study as an ongoing process, not an event.

Critique

I will put this here, even though I am very bad at it. It has been a long time since I went for a formal critique of my work.

I know it can be valuable. I remember years ago when I was in a camera club the critique was good discipline. As I matured, I also learned that you had to carefully evaluate it, because most critique was normative. It was trying to mold me to fit the biases of the group or the evaluator. Use at your own risk. Be smart about it.

I hear there are some good critique sessions you can submit your work to for evaluation. I have not done it, but I would if I found one I trust.

Possibly the most valuable thing about critiques is that they get you used to hearing negative comments about your work. This, in itself, is good training.

Experiment

There is a big difference between 20 years of experience and 1 year of experience repeated 20 times. A lot of people get trapped by their success. They become known for a style and feel they have to keep doing it for fear they may lose their audience.

I believe an artist grows and evolves throughout their career. Your interests change, your style may change, certainly your point of view changes. How will you follow these changes unless you give yourself permission to experiment some?

That doesn’t mean you have to suddenly make an abrupt 90 degree turn and go a completely new direction. Experiments may be personal. Most of them will fail. Some, though, will have a glimmer of a new idea, a new viewpoint. Follow up on them. Keep pushing.

A willingness to experiment and play is healthy. It will keep us fresh and creative as an artist. Evaluate what you have learned about yourself from the experiments and decide what to keep and build on.

A note about the image with this article: this was the result of an experiment. I liked it. Other people seemed to agree, since it went into a gallery and sold.

Be open and flexible

Are you willing to entertain new ideas? New technology and techniques? New points of view that are alien to your normal thoughts? You don’t have to buy in to them. You don’t have to adopt them.

Stretching yourself with new ideas is kind of like yoga for the mind. You stay flexible. When a mind becomes rigid and inflexible it shuns new ideas, new thoughts. The creative place within us requires fuel, new possibilities, new ways of looking at things. Otherwise we stay in our comfortable rut.

Creativity is like anything else with our bodies. We have to work at it to develop. If we don’t exercise we lose the ability to move and we get unhealthy. Likewise, being open to new things is an attitude, a habit. We can work to get better at it.

Think about it

We should be our own best critic and our own best evaluator. If you’re an artist, how can you not obsess about your art? It is a major part of your life. It should occupy a lot of your thought.

I am an introvert and an Engineer. That gives me an ability to look at my work fairly objectively. I know that will not be the same for everyone. We are all different.

But whatever talents we have, we need to learn to be able to evaluate our work fairly. You see what other artists do. You know your own work. What you do has to stack up against your own expectations and your evaluation. We never think we have arrived at the pinnacle. And we shouldn’t. Hopefully we will always be growing.

Thinking about where we are and where we need to go will help us plot our course. Being realistic will help keep us from deluding our self and also keep us from beating our self up. Don’t be negative. Improvement is a lifestyle. Look for new ideas. Embrace new points of view. Experiment with things that are very different that what we normally do. Grow.

What’s not here?

Your equipment is probably not holding you back significantly. Learn to think. Creatively visualize new things. Try new techniques. Grow into the artist you want to be. Then you will do wonders with that expensive new camera. 🙂