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Less is more


Time for an update: I still use film, though. Not vast quantities, but I have a darkroom, and I'm not afraid to use it.

I enjoy every image I take: I hope you'll enjoy looking at them.
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Less is more

3 Jan 2021 6:54AM   Views : 501 Unique : 354


Interestingly, Altimages used these words in commenting on a picture yesterday: I started making notes for a blog about adding and subtracting, and the times when less is more.

For instance, there’s an old joke about a man whose wife had told him to eat a salad at lunchtime, complaining that it had made it difficult to eat his usual three-course meal afterwards. I rather suspect that one member of my family has taken the idea that olive oil is good to mean that it should be added to recipes, rather than replacing butter…

It’s like that with the elements in a picture, or steps in editing: very easy to add too much, making it richer, but harder to digest. Stripped back and simpler is often the way to go. This applies equally to compositions, to processing, and even to camera features…


Start at the end: it’s the consumer cameras that have most weird menu options, and can require digging through the menus to achieve straightforward operation. My most confusing moments have come in trying to make compact cameras behave, while with upper-bracket DSLRs there’s a button marked ‘ISO’ and pressing it allows you to adjust sensitivity…

Or processing… And the suggestion my friend Moira makes so often in the Critique Gallery, where a common approach is to process the image, then process some more. And then more. And more. The advice is to look at the image after each step, and ask yourself if what you’ve just done improves the picture or not, and whether dialling the settings back down from 11 might work better.


But the illustrations are about composition, and thinking a bit about it before jumping in and moving on. Walking along the local canal, I took a grab shot of a lock gate mechanism, with a road overbridge in the background. There was visual interest in it, I thought, in several layers: the balance beam itself, with the bricked area to give operators purchase to swing the gate open and closed below, and the overbridge, and bushes and trees across the road behind. That’s the header image.

Then I realised that if I moved a little further up the slope of the towpath, I could alter the relationship between the elements, separating them, so that they appeared as a series of visual strokes across the image, separated, but forming a sort of zig-zag across the picture, giving me a second image But the light was soft and grey, typical English winter: so a monochrome conversion seemed like a good idea, with a sepia tone reflecting the idea that the canal’s been there a while. Sepia instantly takes you back 100 years!


I used the Spot Healing Tool to remove a bit of sky (bright areas at the edge of the frame draw the eye, and if they aren’t part of the composition, simplify. And finally, I cropped tighter, removing further distractions round the edge, and putting the balance beam high up in the frame, dominating the image, especially with a more contrasty conversion.

The final image is a literal overview, taken from the road bridge – my other pictures are of the right-hand side of the nearest lock gate. And it suggests the reason why the ‘lever’ for opening the gate is called the ‘balance’ beam – not only does it provide leverage so that one small person can open and close the lock gate, but it also counterbalances the weight of the lock-gate, reducing the friction and wear on the hinge mechanism (and thus making the gate even easier to operate…) It’s amazing what a trip to Wikipedia to check the proper name for the beam reveals!


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dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
3 Jan 2021 7:54AM
And I'd happily accept beer that floated in a boat from Burton to Walsall as being ecologically sounder, and providing more employment...
chase Avatar
chase Plus
18 2.6k 684 England
3 Jan 2021 10:51AM
One of my big failings.....too much in an image, I try to tell myself that but, I don't listen Sad Blush
dudler Avatar
dudler Plus
20 2.2k 2063 England
3 Jan 2021 11:30AM
That sounds like a noisy internal dialogue, Janet!
AltImages Avatar
AltImages 3 4
3 Jan 2021 11:34AM
Many years ago when I was involved in camera clubs I quickly found that I could win most of the competitions with minimalist images, particularly still lifes, where I only added in elements that benefited the composition. Plus the less that club judges could talk about the higher the marks. The same logic applies to all images as John illustrates so well here, where you get to control what your viewer sees.

There is a winning formula, and I owe much of my competition success to a 1982 John Wade paperback titled: "Make Your Pictures Win" published by the now defunct Bureau of Freelance Photographers. For those who might be interested you can pick up copies for as little as £1.89 inc p&p on ebay and amazon. It's definitely worth a read.

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