Take better photos: Visual Clutter

Do you want to start taking better photos? Today?!? Here’s a helpful hint that can immediately increase the level of impact your photos have.
Remove visual clutter!

DEFINING TERMS

“Clutter is the state in which excess items, or their representation or organization, lead to a degradation of performance at some task.” (Rosenholtz et al., 2005)
Thinking about this in terms of your photography, visual clutter represents the elements in your photograph that degrade the visual impact.

A REALLY BASIC EXPLANATION OF VISUAL CLUTTER

Your photograph tells a story (remember - “A picture is worth a thousand words”).  When you tell a story you want to be clear about the message you are trying to tell. Things that do not fit with your story become clutter. That reduces the impact of your image and makes it hard for the person seeing your photo to understand the story are trying to tell.

SOME EXAMPLES

I have a few sets of images that will show you a scene with visual clutter then a similar scene without visual clutter. I think you will agree that the second image, with less visual clutter, has much greater impact.

I love seeing the bond between children and their parents and grandparents. There is something so sweet and special about the simple act of holding hands while roaming around and exploring their environment.

In the photo below, I was trying to capture a little boy with his grandpa. They were at a park and there were tons of people and play ground structures to contend with. I did a few things to try to reduce the visual clutter as much as I could. First of all I shot with my AV setting at 4.5 which created a pretty small depth of field. That helped keep the boy and grandpa in sharp focus while the other elements in front of or behind them were not in focus. Then, and more importantly in this situation, I moved around a lot trying to get a perspective where there were as few other people in the background as possible (and there were a LOT of people so that was no small task). Out of dozens of photos, this one had the least amount of visual clutter. But it was still not as powerful as I would have liked. There is a girl in the background and lots of elements from the park. Those aren't bad things and they do tell a story about the fun playground we were at. But I wanted the image to tell the story of the relationship between the boy and his grandpa. So the park story line competed with the story I wanted to tell.

In the next photo, I was attempting to tell a similar story to the one above. I wanted to highlight the relationship between the little boy and his mom and grandmother. For this photograph, we were out near a beach in Victoria B.C.  There were no people and no pieces from the park to contend with. So the entire image really focuses your eyes on the boy holding hands with his mom and grandma. Even the fence in the background leads your eyes right to the main point of the story which is the boy holding hands in the center of the image.

Wouldn't you agree that the image below has a great deal more impact than the image above? Do you see how the visual clutter in the image above reduces the impact and how the image below is much stronger because there is not any visual clutter?

Here's another set of images to help explain visual clutter and how it impacts your photographs. My wife and I love taking our boys to the pumpkin patch every fall. It's a fun little family tradition. In the first image below, you can see that my son Denver is excited as he's hanging out in the middle of a bunch of pumpkins. But, there are kids, cars, a barn, and all sorts of things creating visual cutter in the background. While those things do tell a story about how we were at a pumpkin patch and there were lots of folks there enjoying the fall festivities, that wasn't the story I wanted to tell. I wanted the story I told to focus on my son and how excited he was to experience the pumpkin patch for the first time (he was about 11 months old in this photo).  Consequently, the other elements in this first photo competed with the story I wanted to tell. They were serving as a distraction. They were visual clutter.

To focus the story on my son we let him explore until he found himself in a spot that was free from the visual distractions in the photo above. I positioned myself so that all that was in the photo was my son and the pumpkin patch.

Wouldn't you agree that the image below has greater visual impact than the photo above? It's telling one story. Whereas the photo above brings up a bunch of story lines that are a distraction (What are all those kids looking at? Why are there so many cars? Why are two of the buildings roofed in silver tin while the other two seem to have red roofs? Etc. Etc.)

The next set of images is a great example of how removing visual clutter creates greater impact.

In the first image, you can see me holding my son. But that's the problem. You can see all of me. Me, my shirt, and my outline are distracting.

In the next image, you just see my son and my hands holding him. It's obvious that there's a parent but you don't need to see me to know that. Do you see how reducing the visual clutter to leave only the important elements makes a photograph with greater impact?

UNDERSTANDING IMPACT AND WHY VISUAL CLUTTER MATTERS

A big aspect of creating photos with impact is focusing the viewers eye on what is most important. When there are elements that draw attention away from the primary subject or message of the image, then you reduce the impact that your photograph will have.

Or said from a more positive perspective; when you compose your image you should think about framing it in a way that will ensure every element tells the story you want your image to tell.

SOME TIPS TO REDUCE VISUAL CLUTTER

If you’re not shooting in a studio and you’re shooting in real life situations then you’re inevitably going to have to deal with visual clutter. Here are a few tips to help reduce the visual clutter.

Ask yourself what items in your view finder do not improve your image. Then try to re-frame the image to remove those items that are not adding to the impact of your photograph.

Move around. Be aware of the scene and the things that are competing with your subject matter and try to find an angle where those things are not an issue.

Change your depth of field. If you shoot with a shallow depth of field (check out this blog post if you are not sure what that means) then you will blur things out that are not in the same plane as the subject matter you focus on.

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE

Reading this will do very little to help you improve the power and impact of your own photographs unless you go and put this to practice! So here's your homework. Think of a simple story you want to tell via photograph. Then try shooting it with a lot of visual clutter and without a lot of visual clutter. Compare how much impact the photos have. You'll quickly grow in your understanding of the things that create visual clutter and how they reduce the impact your photos have. The more aware you become of how visual clutter impacts your photos the more aware you will become when shooting to ensure you are framing your photos to have minimal visual clutter.

Happy shooting!!!