Simplifying an Image

This is a shot from Paria Canyon in Utah. I love this location – mostly because it gives me a really good excuse to get incredibly muddy. We took our students out here some time ago, and they had a fantastic time. You can check out some of their gorgeous photos in our free eBook:

Anyway. This photo is about color and form. I have a black and white version of this shot – which was published in Popular Photography magazine a few years ago – and in that version, I’ve taken away the color to make the image entirely about form. I’ve never been able to decide which version I like best. Some days I prefer the black and white version, and other days I prefer the color version. Go figure.

Here’s the black and white version:

The entire scene is strange – so it grabs the eye right away. There’s a lot going on here – “windows” in the rock, thousands of little segmented pieces of cracked mud on the ground, stripes in the sandstone, brilliant colors… but somehow, the image doesn’t feel busy (at least it doesn’t to me!). Why not? Because there is a sense of order to it all.

The colors are intense – but they are confined to a narrow range of oranges and browns. The monochromatic color scheme helps simplify the scene. The cracked bits of mud form a single, meandering shape within the frame… and that simplifies the image even further. Rather than seeing those individual pieces, your brain does what it does best – it organizes them into a single category… a recognizable pattern that leads us right through the image. The windows in the rock are arranged in a neat line that follows the pattern on the ground – the repetition helps to simplify the image even more. You brain doesn’t need to process each of those openings separately. Once again, the human brain categorizes and simplifies the scene. The same goes for the repeating lines in the sandstone.

Light is an important element here, too. Though you might not notice it at first because it’s not dramatic. I came upon this location when the sun was high in the sky. Half of the scene was brightly lit, and the other half was in shadow. In order to simplify the image even more, I waited several hours to take the shot – until the entire scene was in the shade. Harsh lighting would have been yet another distraction. Instead, the light is soft and even. The brilliant colors are an effect of the bright sunlight bouncing off the far wall of the canyon and reflecting off the orange sandstone in the photo. Scattered light is perfect for a shot like this.

The wet mud in the foreground is darker than the mud surrounding it – so you have a nice place to rest your eye. We call that a point of interest, right?

So there you go. A jumble of parts come together to create a simple composition.

Understanding a little bit about how the human brain works makes photography even more challenging. When I look at a scene, my brain automatically starts to break it up into its individual parts in an attempt to figure out what I can build from the elements in front of me.

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