Simplicity vs. Complexity in Photography

Sam Abell's classic image of cowboys branding cattle in Montana

Sam Abell’s classic image of cowboys branding cattle in Montana

It’s not often that you get to hear a master photographer explain how he made one of his greatest images, so I was thrilled to find this short video of Sam Abell describing how he made his classic photograph of cowboys branding cattle in Montana.

I love this statement: “What we’re all trying to do is make a layered, deep, complex, complicated photograph that doesn’t look complex or complicated.”

In talking about composition in my workshops and books I emphasize simplicity, since I think the single most common mistake people make is including too much in the frame. But my favorite images are rich and complex, without crossing the line into being busy and confusing. Obviously it takes years of experience to be able to make photographs like that – and Abell’s experience and mastery are on full display in this image.

My favorite Ansel Adams photograph, Clearing Winter Storm, also fits this description. It’s rich and complex, with interesting elements filling every part of the frame, but it’s message is instantly clear and compelling. Or look at this more modern landscape photography example, Trees in Fog, Boulder Mountain, from my friend Charlie Cramer. This is another favorite of mine, with beautiful details filling every corner of the image, yet the strong overall pattern of vertical lines keeps it simple.

Think about some of photographs you’ve seen over the years. Are some of your favorites in this category—complex, but not busy or confusing? If so please share them by posting a link in the comments.

I found the Sam Abell video through John Kennerdell’s article in the Online Photographer titled “In Defense of Depth.” Great article, well worth reading, and it generated a lot of discussion.

—Michael Frye

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author and photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters, plus the eBooks Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, and Exposure for Outdoor Photography. He has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

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20 Responses to “Simplicity vs. Complexity in Photography”

  1. Jan says:

    I love the concept of complexity with simplicity. Sometimes it comes by “luck” and sometimes by design. I instantly loved this capture by my friend Julie of Wolf Creek Ranch who was photographing the Surf Dog competition at Coronado Bay recently.

  2. M Grimm says:

    I’m not sure I understand. Did he construct this scene (telling people where to go) or did he just capture what he saw? He seems to indicate he had decisions in it (“Should I leave the bucket in or not?”), but somehow I doubt this was a staged shoot.

    • Michael Frye says:

      M Grimm – Abell’s description in the video does leave some unanswered questions, doesn’t it? This wasn’t staged. I looked at my copy of his book Stay This Moment, and he gives this account: “Then I chose one cowboy as the central character and followed him throughout the afternoon. The idea was to let the action—and the composition—build around him until the photograph was as full and detailed as possible. I knew I was close to the finished photograph when, at the last instant, the red bucket swung into the corner of the frame.” Great timing, as he avoided a merger between the bucket and the cowboy’s jacket. And I don’t think he used a motor drive!

  3. Richard Wong says:

    Great post, Michael. Sam Abell is one of my favorite photographers. His books are great. I’d totally recommend them.

  4. AnnieJo Eto-Guilford says:

    Wonderful article. The photo by Sam Abell captures an entire day of the cowboy in an instant, the red bucket completed the image as you need it for food and water. The depth of the photo, the details and subject matter all relate to each other and give a sense of place to the cowboy. The truth of the moment with the life of a cowboy all in one.
    Something to shoot for in my photography.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Thanks AnnieJo. As someone pointed out on Google+ when I posted the photo, the bucket is not for food or water. In addition to branding they were castrating these calves (note the scalpel in the central cowboy’s mouth), and the bucket is for the remains. :) So I try not to think about what’s in the bucket, but then again that’s one of the things that makes this image so powerful – it’s gritty, and real, and not a romanticized view of cowboys. But regardless of the bucket’s function, your points about the depth, details, and subject matter are spot on. Everything comes together perfectly.

    • Michael Frye says:

      Duncan, this is certainly a good photo, well-executed, though I don’t think it has the level of complexity of Sam Abell’s photo, or the Ansel Adams or Charlie Cramer images I linked to, where every corner of the frame has interesting elements.

  5. Paolo Nadeau says:

    Thanks for sharing this Michael.

    Sam Abell catches so much depth, and action in this shot, without the appearance of being contrived or staged.

    The vid that you included is part of a really great Nat Geo Special with Sam Abell that I watched last year.

    Here is the link for those that would like to watch the entire Nat Geo Special, which is about 45 mins in length.


  6. This is an important post and point by Sam Abell for any kind of photography. Sam Abell is a great inspiration for the serious artist.

  7. John Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing such important article with us,i like the diferrecnes in the photography,and the concept of the simple and complex photography is also clear.the picture is good and it’s a good example.

  8. The ‘luck’ in capturing a golden moment in photography are often the most unlikely shots ever taken like in sports photography. It take a kind of artistry and instinct to be able to do those.

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  11. Robert Duggan

    Simplicity vs. Complexity in Photography – In the Moment: Michael Frye’s Landscape Photography Blog In the Moment: Michael Frye’s Landscape Photography Blog

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