Saigon, 2017

Easiest way to make better photos: photograph your subjects against a clean background.

99% of photos fail because the background is messy.


Signal to noise

Saigon, 2017
  • Signal: What we want
  • Noise: Everything else

In photography, we want Signal. Signal is what is important or significant to us in a scene. Aka, the Signal in a photograph is your SUBJECT. Your subject can be a person, a car, a tree, or just hands.

Saigon, 2017

Noise: distractions. Noise is stuff that doesn’t add to your photo, but removes focus from the Signal (SUBJECT) of your photo. Noise is distracting backgrounds, distracting white cars, bright plastic bags, or overlapping figures.

To make better photos, seek to SIMPLIFY your scenes, and to SIMPLIFY reality.

Simple is hard

Saigon, 2017

It is harder to make a simple photo than to make a complicated photo.

To simplify a photo, or a scene, or reality… we need to chisel away or SUBTRACT the superfluous, the messy, and the noise.

Innovation is subtraction

Self-portrait by ERIC KIM

The best innovations subtracts.

For example, noise canceling headphones from BOSE (QC) is innovative because it SUBTRACTS annoying ambient noise.

The Leica Monochrom is innovative, because it SUBTRACTED the color sensor array. It is only black and white. That’s cool.

Downtown LA, 2016

The Leica M-D is cool, because it has no LCD screen. That means less “chipping” (being distracted by looking at your photos immediately after on your lcd screen, instead on focusing on shooting).


The iPhone was innovative, because it SUBTRACTED superfluous buttons. Remember how ugly Windows smartphones were, with a billion buttons?

The iPod Shuffle was innovative, because it removed the lcd screen. And it added RANDOMNESS and serendipity to our music. Randomness and serendipity is good for creativity.

How to capture simple backgrounds

Saigon, 2017

How do we make more simple backgrounds? Simple advice:

  1. Use a flash: Using a flash will darken and simplify the background, and cause your subject to pop out more
  2. Shoot from a high angle, pointing downwards: Make the concrete or sidewalk a simple background.
  3. Ask your subject to stand against a simple background: Study the portraits of Richard Avedon, who had his subjects stand against a simple white backdrop. This causes the viewer to just focus on the subject. His photos are timeless. So in street portraits, just ask your subject to move a little to a simple background. You can first find a simple background, then wait for your subject to enter the scene.
  4. Crouch very low: Crouch low angle composition, and photograph your subject against the clean sky.
  5. Get closer: The closer you get, the less distractions in the background or the edges of the frame.
  6. Black and white: Monochrome will simplify the scene, fewer distracting colors in the background.
  7. Clean edges: When you’re shooting keep the edges of the frame clean.

Zen street photography: simplify your photos and background.

To further your learning, join STREET CLUB and participate in the CLEAN BACKGROUND homework assignment, on ERIC KIM FORUM.



Tokyo, 2012

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Prague, 1968. Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos
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