Creative paths

Michael shows that less is more, and it’s what you leave out of an im­age that counts…

NPhoto - - Contents -

This is one path that you’ll be hard put to find any­one dis­agree­ing with – and it ex­tends way be­yond pho­tog­ra­phy to just about ev­ery creative en­deav­our you can think of, from writ­ing to mu­sic… the power of sim­plic­ity.

There are lots of good quotes about re­duc­ing and sim­pli­fy­ing, which is al­ways a good sign. From pho­tog­ra­phy we have Bob Car­los Clarke say­ing, “The essence of great pho­tog­ra­phy is econ­omy, and it’s all to do with con­fi­dence. Crap pho­tog­ra­phers don’t have any con­fi­dence and there­fore they don’t have econ­omy.” From the world of ad­ver­tis­ing there’s John He­garty with: “What­ever you’re cre­at­ing, sim­plic­ity is the ul­ti­mate goal. The power of re­duc­tion, as we say in ad­ver­tis­ing, means tak­ing a com­plex thought and re­duc­ing it down to a sim­ple, pow­er­ful mes­sage.” And my favourite, French philosopher Blaise Pascal ends a let­ter to a friend with: “My apolo­gies for this let­ter be­ing so long. Had I more time, it would have been shorter.”

In pho­tog­ra­phy, it gen­er­ally boils down to get­ting rid of stuff in­side the frame, or at least, get­ting rid of clut­ter. The trick, if there is one, is know­ing what to leave in and con­cen­trate on – and hav­ing a rea­son for do­ing so. The tech­niques are gen­er­ally to do with find­ing the right view­point that sim­pli­fies, fram­ing that sim­pli­fies and a fo­cal length that ei­ther ex­cludes things or makes them ap­pear too small to mat­ter. One of the most con­vinc­ing ar­gu­ments for re­duc­ing in pho­tog­ra­phy (apart from the fact that most view­ers seem to like it) is that it’s very much about ex­er­cis­ing con­trol – about putting your stamp on a scene. As Pascal the let­ter-writer men­tioned, re­duc­ing takes time and ef­fort.

A lit­tle some­thing

For the shot above, of the Bayuda Desert in north­ern Su­dan (which is mainly desert any­way, but this bit is even more bar­ren) I wanted to make a shot that said ‘empti­ness’. Most pho­tog­ra­phers in deserts like rak­ing light from a low sun that throws up rip­ples and dunes, and I ad­mit to be­ing par­tial to

that my­self. In this in­stance, though, I wanted the op­po­site. I wanted the God­for­saken im­pres­sion that you ac­tu­ally get from mile af­ter mile of noth­ing, un­der a blaz­ing hot sun.

Now it would have been pos­si­ble to do a kind of Hiroshi Sugi­moto and have a to­tally fea­ture­less sandy-coloured band topped by a blue band, but that would have been too ab­stract for my taste. So while it might sound para­dox­i­cal to step back from to­tal blank empti­ness, the scene needed some small hints and clues. Empti­ness is ac­tu­ally about three-di­men­sional space, and for this I needed a few small fea­tures to give scale. It ac­tu­ally took a lot of driv­ing time to find this lone bush, but it does the job of em­pha­siz­ing the sur­round­ing noth­ing­ness. And con­ven­tion­ally at­trac­tive light was def­i­nitely not wanted in this case. There was a wide choice for the an­gle of view – any an­gle that didn’t in­clude the road or Land Cruiser – and I set­tled for this one, with two small mounds on the hori­zon form­ing a tri­an­gle with the bush.

Our glo­be­trot­ting Con­trib­u­tor at Large, renowned pho­tog­ra­pher and pro­lific au­thor Michael Free­man, presents a month-by-month mas­ter­class that’s ex­clu­sive to

N-Photo, in which he ex­plores his tried-and-tested paths to more creative pho­tog­ra­phy. Michael has pub­lished dozens of books on pho­tog­ra­phy, in­clud­ing the best­selling Per­fec­tEx­po­sure.

If you en­joy this ar­ti­cle and want to learn more, there are 50 more paths to be dis­cov­ered in Michael’s new book Fifty Paths to Creative Pho­tog­ra­phy (NB: all 50 are dif­fer­ent from those that will be fea­tured here in the magazine).

Three small vis­ual el­e­ments ac­tu­ally en­hance the sense of empti­ness, and pro­vide struc­ture to the im­age

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