Make Simple Photos

Hanoi, 2014
Hanoi, 2014

Dear friend,

I think in today’s world, we are always trying to make things more complicated than they need to be. We get more gadgets to “optimize” our lives, but it only adds more complication and frustration to our lives. We look for the “perfect camera” — but we find that the newer cameras have more features, which makes our life more complex. What I advocate instead is for us to make our lives simpler— and make simpler photos as well.

Simplicity, a dirty word?

Hanoi, 2014
Hanoi, 2014

In America, we are told that to be “simple-minded” is to be dumb-witted, stupid, and narrow-minded. However it is the pros who know how to harness the power of simplicity.

One of the sayings I love is “K.I.S.S.” (keep it simple, stupid). It is a saying that can be applied to design, life, business, photography, or anything else.

Why do we feel this need to add complexity, rather than to remove complexity— and why can’t we embrace simplicity?

The tyranny of ‘experts’

Saigon, 2014
Saigon, 2014

A lot of experts need to make a living. So they make things and the world much more complicated they need to be.

For example, think of all those millions of consultants out there who try to tell you and your company all the “defects” you have, and they propose “solutions” (and charge a hefty sum for it). They use all this technological jargon which is made to confuse you, make you feel inferior, and to instill a sense of fear in you. And this is what causes us to sometimes blindly trust them.

When it comes to the photography world, we start off as innocent and pure photographers— interested in capturing the beauty of everyday life. We might start with simple cameras (compact cameras or smartphones), yet we are told by “experts” that we need to know technical settings. We become confused by apertures, shutter-speeds, ISO, focus, full-frame vs crop sensors, focal lengths, post-processing techniques, and editing “workflows.” All of this is meant for us to look and feel stupid— and for the “expert photographer” or “teacher” to have a job.

But I think in photography, it is often our child-like curiosity and our simple photos that make the most beautiful and memorable photos.

For example, I think the most memorable photos tend to be the most simple— to the point, without unnecessary ostentation.

One of my favorite photographers is Josef Koudelka— who has shot his entire career black-and-white, and most of his photographs have a single strong subject. He doesn’t have much clutter in his photographs, yet the simplicity and minimalism of his photos allow his images to breathe, and show emotion, form, and rigor.

Henri Cartier-Bresson is also another photographer who tried to take the complexity of the streets and make it simple— through compositional techniques and his 50mm frame.


Saigon, 2014
Saigon, 2014

What is currently in vogue in street photography is to add layers, complexity, and to “fill the frame” with as many subjects or elements as possible. While I do appreciate this type of photography, I think that it is just street photographers trying to show off their “visual gymnastics.” I think what we should do instead is stick to the simple— to single-subject shots, and to show a single emotion or expression that sticks with the viewer.

Going back to the idea of multiple subjects— I still love this type of photography. Joel Meyerowitz, Constantine Manos, and Alex Webb are some great photographers who have been able to make scenes less chaotic, by creating multiple-subject shots without having subjects overlapped. And it adds more stories to the frame, which is always more interesting.

So when it comes to multiple-subjects; ask yourself, “Am I trying to make photos that are more complex to add more emotion and soul to the image? Or am I trying to do multiple-subjects to show my viewers how clever of a photographer I am?”

Don’t seek to be a “clever” photographer— seek to be a soulful and meaningful photographer.

Simple books


Another trend I see in book-making is that the designs tend to be too complex and confusing. Certain images are big, certain images are small, and certain images are placed randomly on the pages. Some images are color, others black and white, and they are mixed with all different formats.

I like the simple books— where you just have one image per spread. For example, “The Americans” by Robert Frank shows just one image per spread. The same goes for “Exiles” by Josef Koudelka. Similarly— even recent books (like Jason Eskenazi’s “Wonderland”) show only full-spread landscape-photos.

I think as photographers, we need to consider what we are trying to do with our photos. Are we making photos and publishing them to show how clever we are as designers? Or are we trying to make photographs that are emotional, meaningful, and stick in the mind of the viewer?

Stick to the simple

Saigon, 2014
Saigon, 2014

It is very complex to be simple in photography.

To be able to strip the scene of superfluous elements and focus on the essential takes a lot of work and consideration. This is one quote I like from Jony Ive,

“True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absences of clutter or ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity.”

So when it comes to shooting or selecting your best photos, you need to always ask yourself— “How can I bring order to the complexity of this scene?” This is our job as a photographer— we decide what to frame and what not to frame in a scene. And what we decide not to include in a frame is more important than we decide to include in a frame.

For example if you’re out shooting in the streets and you see an interesting character or a subject, seek how you can eliminate distractions from the background. This might mean asking your subject for permission, and asking him/her to stand against a simple white wall.

If you’re shooting candid street photos, think of how you can crouch, move left, move right, or adjust your positioning to not have distracting poles, cars, or white paper bags in the background that might take away from your main subject.

Cut the fat

Hanoi, 2014
Hanoi, 2014

Another analogy I can think of when it comes to making simpler photos is cut the fat.

If you like nice juicy steaks, you are probably told that you need to remove that white stuff around the edges of the steak (the delicious, juicy fat). Of course, I personally eat the fat— but you’re told to cut the fat.

Consider your photographs as well. Think about the edges of your frame— and what kind of fat you have on the edges of the frame. You want to cut the fat.

Sometimes what we do is just crop the photos. Honestly, I think this process is fine— but if we are overly-reliant on cropping, we never learn how to frame a scene properly. Personally, I try my best not to crop my photos— because it gives me more discipline and focus when I am shooting on the streets. And with cropping, as a general guideline— I recommend not cropping more than 5-10% of the frame. Any photograph that needs to be cropped more than that doesn’t work.

So when I’m shooting photographs, I try to avoid being tunnel-visioned by focusing on what is on the center of the frame. Instead, I focus on the background and the edges of the frame. This will help you create simpler photos with fewer distractions and clutter.

Signal-to-noise ratio

Saigon, 2014
Saigon, 2014

If you’re an engineer or scientific-thinking person, another analogy is thinking of “signal-to-noise” ratio. Signal is what is important; noise is just distraction.

For example, in the news, “signal” is the news that is really important— things that actually affect your daily life. “Noise” is the rest of the 99.9% of garbage that newspapers pump out to simply appease advertisers.

In street photography, “signal” is your main subject, or what is interesting in a photograph. “Noise” is the distracting elements— you want to cut out noise as much as possible.

If you are drowning in a sea of noise; how can you hear the signal?

Simpler, but better

Bien Hoa, 2014
Bien Hoa, 2014

To end this letter, I want to just re-iterate: make simple photos. I don’t mean for you to “dumb-down” your photos— but instead, include fewer elements or distractions in your frame, and add more emotion and soul to your images.

Furthermore, know that creating simple photos is a lot more complex than you might think. To make simple photos is to really think deeply about the essence of an image— and to eliminate anything that might distract. This requires constant consideration, constant practice, and constantly hacking away at the inessential.

To end this, I will say: K.I.S.S. (Keep it simple, streettogs) — haha sorry, that is so cheesy.


April 8, 2016 @ Philz Coffee in Berkeley.

Articles on minimalist photography

  1. Why Less is More in Street Photography (and Life)
  2. Why You Should Shoot with One Camera and One Lens
  3. 5 Essentialist Tips in Street Photography
  4. 10 Principles of Good Street Photography
  5. Zen in the Art of Street Photography
  6. Deep Focus