Photography: the Art of Leaving Things Out

Dinner in the garageDinner on a Hot Summer Night – Nicosia, Cyprus

‘Photography is the art of leaving things out.’

That’s what I read a long time ago and it stuck with me.

I probably read it in Dutch, my native tongue. I have long forgotten where and when.

I still consider it good advice and I try to live by it. It goes for writing too, so it fits well with both my main professional preoccupations.

Jay Maisel also mentions it, when he tells his workshop or seminar audiences to always look at the whole frame. We tend too often to forget about the edges of our images when we take our shots.

Over time, though, I’ve come to believe that the statement is a bit restrictive. I think it made me focus too much on composition, for example, and not enough on using light to direct the viewer’s attention to what matters in an image.

As someone who dabbled a bit in photojournalism, it also made me realize that ‘leaving things out’ can lead to not showing the whole truth. I used to cover riots and demonstrations and would zero in on the actual conflict before my lens. That seemed logical and in line with leaving things out. The conflict WAS the image.

And then a real professional German photojournalist showed me his portfolio, which included coverage of riots and demonstrations. In his pictures, unlike in mine, you could see people on the sidelines, people who weren’t yelling, people who looked the other way. I asked him why he showed what obviously wasn’t part of the main storyline. I paraphrase, but his answer was basically that reality is never clear cut anyway.

And that’s true.

I still believe that a good rule for photographic composition is thinking of it as the art of leaving things out. To try to bring back the image to its true essentials. But it’s just one rule and once in a while it’s also good to realize that all rules sometimes need to be broken.

Climates, Countries and Customs of a Fair-Weather Photographer

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Cyprus Life Guard Station – February 2007

It was an amazing day here yesterday. For the first time in months, it felt like spring and summer might actually reappear within our lifetime. The birds were back twittering (or do they tweet now too?), the snow was giving way to grass (remember grass?) and the chill was out of the air.

Not to be too much of a pessimist, but this was just temporary. It’s going to rain like crazy today and then get too cold again for March. But, hey, yesterday showed that spring is not totally off the agenda for this year. I’m holding my hopes up.

What does this have to do with photography, one asks. Everything. With spring comes color, life and temperatures that make holding a metal object not the excruciating ordeal it has been for many weeks now.

I’ve admitted it here before, I’m a fair-weather photographer. Too cold, and my gear and I stay in.

That’s why I sometimes miss living in Cyprus, where we spent three years from 2006 to 2009. It got ridiculously hot in the summer, but you could basically shoot year-round on that Mediterranean island without freezing off any body parts. I looked for some samples of ‘winter’ shots the other day. [Read more…]