Complex Simplicity

I know–sounds oxymoronic doesn’t it?  Perhaps you’ve heard or read the quote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”  Over the years it has largely been credited to Leonardo da Vinci, an Italian guy that knew a little something about creating art.  I looked up the word simplicity in the Webster dictionary and found the following definition: “the state of being simple, uncomplicated or uncompounded.”  The entry went on to suggest directness in expression or clarity and restraint in ornamentation.  Wikiquote further describes it as denoting beauty, purity and clarity.  And if you need further proof of its efficacy, the quote was also used as an early slogan at Apple Computer in 1977 when it introduced the Apple II personal computer.

So what could this possibly have to do with photography?  We’ve all, no doubt, had the mantra, “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify,” drilled into our heads where photographic composition is concerned.  And while it’s definitely true that cluttered scenes and extraneous elements within the image frame can hinder our message and possibly ruin a photograph, to eliminate all but one or two elements in the pursuit of simplification can have an equally negative and unintended consequence.  The danger of over-simplification often results in boring images that have no lasting interest for the viewer.  The real trick is finding ways to wrangle complex scenes with multiple elements into simplified yet sophisticated presentations.

Unfortunately, there is no magic potion or spell you can conjure that whips complex scenes into shape.  It’s often very much like traveling through a maze, with many wrong turns and obstructed passageways along your journey to enlightenment.  The key is experimentation.  Just as you’ll never get through a maze without forging ahead, so too will you never make complex scenes into coherent compositions without a lot of trial and error, with much emphasis on the latter.

I made this image while in Acadia National Park in October.  It’s probably my favorite image from the entire season.  I walked past this little scene several times over the course of two days before finally being able to put it together photographically.  I knew I was drawn to the radiating pattern of the fern fronds and the vibrant color contrasts with the freshly fallen leaves but had a very difficult time mastering the composition.  I wish I had some grand epiphany to share about how it all came together, but alas I don’t.  I think it just took walking around staring at it for a while and trying different things with the camera to my eye before it clicked.   It’s kind of like staring at one of those optical illusions for minutes and then squinting a bit before the “aha” moment occurs and you finally see what everyone is talking about.


Although there are many bits and pieces to the scene, the composition in my mind is largely made up of two repeating shapes, triangles and circles (yes you’ll have to squint your eyes a bit to see them) which act to anchor and balance one another within the frame.  By learning to “see” the abstract shapes and patterns within the landscape we can begin to combine seemingly disparate elements into sophisticated compositions and avoid overly simplified and often boring images.


Technical Details:  Canon 5DIII, EF 24-70 f 2.8 II USM, f16 @ .4 sec. ISO 200

Want to work on your own personal growth in creating complex and sophisticated compositions?  Join the master of composition himself, George Stocking, and and little old me this spring for one of two great workshop experiences;  Arizona Desert in Spring, March 19-23 and Arches & Canyonlands, April 6-10.  Click the links for more details.

Author: Kurt Budliger

Kurt has been photographing the natural landscape for 20 years and has been a professional photographer for the past 10. His photographs and articles have appeared in a number of books, calendars and magazines and are routinely used by non-profit conservation organizations working to protect wild lands. His clients include Outdoor Photographer, Popular Photography, National Geographic Adventure, Outside Magazine, Vermont Life Magazine, Eastern Fly Fishing, Patagonia, 1% for the Planet, Trout Unlimited, Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Kurt is the co-founder and lead instructor at Green Mountain Photographic Workshops, a U.S. based photography education organization.

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