Conscious exclusion

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Including everything: too much to focus on just the stairs. But since the objective was to show the mess/ busyness, it’s just enough. Think carefully: what do you need?

We almost always discuss composition and framing in terms of putting things in to the frame: on further contemplation, I don’t think that’s correct or accurate at all. The act of composition is in fact the complete opposite. And embracing that can lead to some surprising shifts and improvements in one’s compositions.

There are three main ways of making a photograph: the majority of the population – I do not consider these people photographers in the true sense of the word – aim the camera at a subject, ensure that it is mostly contained within the frame, then press the button with no further consideration to anything else. The second stage is when the photographer starts with the subject and then frames accordingly to ensure the surrounding objects/ context/ other things are arranged around the primary subject in such a way as to be aesthetically pleasing. They may or may not take into consideration the relationship or implied relationship between the primary subject and whatever is left over. Finally, we have the method I personally use: a subtractive one. I too start with the main subject, but that’s where the similarity ends.

I examine the surrounding scene to see what can be removed. The intention is to have the absolute bare minimum secondary subjects/ objects that are required to tell the story or give the context I intend; reasons being twofold. Firstly, the fewer distractions there are from your main subject, the more attention your audience puts on your intended focus. If there’s nothing to distract you from your task at hand, you tend to not only get it done faster, but also with higher concentration: the same is true for a photograph. Secondly, precisely because aesthetic preferences and photographs are subjective, there’s a need for a controlled amount of ambiguity in an image: not so much that the general meaning isn’t clear, but enough that each viewer has sufficient latitude to interpret it to their own satisfaction*. This is especially important if the content is conceptual or artistic or is cueing the audience to think as opposed to being documentary or more ‘defined’.

*The easiest way to understand this is to consider a book vs a movie: the book is inevitably better, not just because some things were left out in the interests of production economics, but because the movie is a very rigid and defined interpretation according to the vision of a few people: it may or may not agree with our interpretation of that same situation. If I write ‘it was a cold dark night’ – each of you readers will imagine a different scene, and we haven’t even started on the method of presentation yet. It’s all about expectation: words are easy to meet the expectations of a wide range of people with because they aren’t concrete; images do not have the same latitude for interpretation. A tree may be a tree, but if I think of a maple in autumn, you may imagine a redwood, and our director has gone for a spruce – which can no longer be either of the former, and we’re left either surprised or disappointed.

I’ve often said that photography is more like a short speech than any other form of communication: it may be visual, but in the end the photographer is trying to communicate something to his or her audience. Except, being visual, they have to rely on the common human subconscious ‘visual memory’ do it (e.g. our ability to recognise the human form, cues for night/ day etc.), and the whole message is conveyed in seconds. There is also no possibility for the audience to interact with the photographer and receive clarification or a reply; you only have one chance to say everything you want.

Though the last two points appear to be in conflict – the necessity of some latitude for audience interpretation and the need for instant clarity and conveyance of meaning – they really aren’t. It means that a good photograph simply has no room for extraneous elements and distractions; it is in effect a study in minimalism. Often, the most impactful images – at least the ones that I’ve seen and have stuck with me or have produced and have stood the test of time in culling – have few elements and absolutely no distractions that are not critical for telling the story. This is true even if that single element or subject dominates the entire image; there are still no distractions. You may think the [Ultraprints] would appear to conflict with this objective because their very rasion d’être is to provide so much detail as to be immersive – but I’d disagree simply because the details and small elements are necessary to provide that experience keep the audience engaged.

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Less is more: when there are subjects that aren’t that strongly isolated, it’s important to remove everything else. I’m not showing what was on the rest of the beach; it isn’t important – and you can use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

Distractions can take the form of edge intrusions, visual elements that break pattern thus unintentionally calling attention to themselves, or simply incongruous or discontinuous elements that do not belong in the story, or create some degree of confusion. Note this is not the same as ambiguity: ambiguity leaves room for the viewer to satisfy themselves through a personalised interpretation; confusion presents them with something that seems out of place and wasn’t part of the intended message.

Our job as photographers is therefore be excluders. The very act of framing is one of exclusion, not inclusion: the viewfinder cuts out the bits of the world we don’t want to see, and thus also don’t want to show our audience. By that logic, we find rangefinders useful because we can see outside the frame, and thus be able to decide if there may be elements that would serve to reinforce our message or improve the balance of our compositions if included; sub-100% finders are frustrating because we run the risk of including things we didn’t intend to, or even see at the time of capture.

This begs us to revisit the logic of cropping afterwards: I’ve always said I’m against it because it destroys your ability to previsualize a composition for a given focal length/ angle of view – thus weakening the use of perspective to emphasise subjects – in addition to the obvious problem of throwing away a lot of image quality. I think cropping is acceptable if you compose with the intention of doing so before capture. Hacking away at a mediocre frame bit by bit to try and make something acceptable is never going to yield a strong composition: you will simply be left with nothing because you did not define the elements that anchor the edges of your frame beforehand.

I’m going to leave you with one single, simple, closing thought: next thine you find yourself framing something, think of firstly what bare minimum elements are required to tell your story, and ask yourself not what you should include in the frame – but what you can afford to leave out without losing any of the meaning. MT

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Comments

  1. Benjamin Gay says:

    Thanks for another informative article. I find it so easy to fall into bad habits and articles like this are so helpfull in articulating what we need to strive to achieve and focus on.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. hmmm…. since I just bought the Nikon 12-24… I seem to be naturally (or unnaturally) headed toward the inclusion side of the scale. :) However, that wideness facilitates the inclusion of things otherwise excluded with regular wide angles, especially in either tight spaces, or in tightly arranged spaces. Your point applies to both, and the quest for a definition of ‘what to include’ and ‘what to exclude’ is fundamental to…. dare I suggest another obsessive fetish for you to consider: shot cleanliness hahaha You may never sleep soundly again, Ming.

    • I already don’t :) But you’re right, wides are especially tricky to use because of just how much they include. All you can do is ensure that the background is context, and not distracting.

  3. Seabisquick says:

    “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

    “If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.” – Mark Twain

  4. Ming, after thinking about it a bit, I realized that I do tend automatically, subconsciously, to frame to exclude the extraneous and unnecessary. Something else occurred to me. You stir up my philosophical bent…. I was thinking about differences in the European cultures (I live in the U.S.) and Japanese culture after reading the essay. Japanese because it is the only oriental culture with which I have some familiarity. I began to contrast things mentally. Food, music, poetry, traditional architecture, and particularly classical art among other things. Opulence (inclusive) versus minimalism (exclusive.) So I generalized; I’m not apologetic. Clearly there are many exceptions. But now I am wondering how our cultures condition our perception of what is and is not great photography. Curiously, on your site, the readers do have a significantly common view although of very diverse cultures.

    • It’s probably self-selecting, to some degree. That said, there are always dissenters.

      I don’t think opulence is necessarily inclusive – if anything, it’s the opposite – and there’s no reason why minimalism can’t be luxurious (look at what Leica charges!).

  5. Dries Indesteege says:

    Great insight!
    I have compared photography to sculpture, as opposed to painting.
    Painting and drawing are additive: elements are added until the final composition is revealed.
    On the other hand, sculpture and photography are subtractive: starting from a big block of marble or from everything in sight, elements are cut away until the final composition is revealed.
    To me, it is often helpful to take several frames, taking a step closer every time and trying to think what can be cut out and still have the same idea represented.

    • Interesting parallel between painting and photography – never thought of it that way before…

    • Catching up with posts!

      Over the last months, I’ve been thinking through how I compose and a philosophy tailored for me (of course based on what we’ve learnt in your workshop and on this blog) and I would tend to agree with your ideas – I summaries it more as focus on what is your subject and keep everything else to a minimum. But as I was reading the article I thought describing it’s exclusion seemed a bit inadequate and I think the post above as nailed exactly what it is. Thinking of it in terms of sculpture vs painting is a fascinating way of looking at it…

  6. Hate to take up more space, but I just experienced a good example of what we’re discussing. Visited a brewery in Maui, Hawaii, yesterday. Having to wait while others took the tour, I positioned myself in the corner of the small waiting room/tavern so that I could take photos of two oak barrels that were staggered across the floor in front of the bar for purposes of decoration and to place one’s beers on. Strong window light to the left created a great chiarusuro moment because the place only had two couples at the bar out of the frame. So, I was free to frame it several different ways to get the image I wanted, even changing the exposure to affect how the shadows looked. So, following your steps as well as I understand them one day later! Now the 4 year-old blond granddaughter gets in the act/frame. Perfectly back lit, but moving randomly and quickly. Wasted shots, of course. But then she walked over the barrel in front and reached out with one hand/arm to touch touch the top of the barrel, a bit taller that she is. Click. Captured. I literally had less than a second to press the shutter. No way to ask her to pose again for the camera. First of all, she will no longer do that on demand, and secondly she has learned to make a “photo face” that would drive any photographer crazy. The one I took was completely spontaneous. But it has to be cropped afterwards a bit to get everything in proportion and to remove extraneous objects. Just her, the barrel, and the window light creating great back lit highlights and shadows. Seems like both of the photos–the pre-framed one with the barrels in the right positions and the spontaneous one, slightly cropped–are worthy of “keeping.” Just two different processes in exactly the same location. Hope this example fits the discussion.

    • It certainly illustrates your earlier point, I think. It’s also a good example of how an unwanted or unexpected element can sometimes make for an interesting image in and of itself…

  7. Thanks, Ming. A subject that always seems to come up and never get resolved. The first thing others see in one’s photo is the focal point and often the next comment is “too bad that was there too.” At the time. Or “too busy” to be a good image (my wife’s favorite). But at times it sounds like you’re working from a tripod with all the time in the world to compose. No chance events that do not give you time to compose in the manner you describe. The photo that Mark attached is a great example to use. A perfect image . . . except for the distraction in the infield (pitcher’s mound?) about one third up on the left side. Distracts. And this is a photo in which plenty of time was available to take shoot, and shoot several shots as the man moves through the ground. The distraction could have been avoided given the time available. Or cropped slightly post; or use photo shot to remove it from the existing image. Piece of cake, both alternatives. I don’t see how either one would ruin the original vision and expected unfolding of the final shot. But how can this be used in fast moving situations, such as street photography or frankly getting a great, spontaneous shot of one’s kids . . . they simply move too quickly (including just facial expressions) to apply a prevision completely. Landscape or cityscape photographers have no excuse like this to justify busy, crowded images, unless that’s what they wanted.

    I hate to crop below the point where the original image has to be expanded/blown up to get the size one wants. If it’s all the pixels for a very large print (as you imply), the forget about cropping (as you advised). But the file sizes of all my cameras now (I just bought a Ricoh GR) are large enough to easily crop down to a 6×9 or 5×7 image with no loss of resolution. Or as the camera itself allows, switching from the 28mm full image to a cropped 35mm image. So, I try to follow every point you’ve made here, especially now that you’ve reinforced the rationale behind them, up to the point where the situation doesn’t allow me to apply fast enough or well enough, then I’ll see if cropping or removing minor distraction can save the original idea. The type of images that Cartier-Bresson produced seemed to follow your key points. For most he seemed to frame the location/background/image geometrically in order to capture the instant he wanted when something happened in that frame. But CB did not finish or print his own images; others did. He has a very bad crop done to one of his published images very early in his career, and from that point on insisted that none of his well framed images ever be cropped again. So, we may now have hundreds or thousands of negatives in his archive that would or could have produced amazing images if he were able to use photo shop to crop them or not the way he wanted them cropped. Our loss if this is true, and I don’t think anyone else should attempt to do it now (but who knows how long that might last). I cannot imagine of his best, classic photos being thrown aside because a telephone pole just happened to intrude in one small corner of the image. Remember, most of his images seemed to be perfect to us. What a loss, however, if very minor cropping after the fact might have produced images that were just as great as the one’s we all enjoy so much today.

    • I always tell my workshop students if you have to say ‘but ___’, then the image should be tossed out. You shouldn’t have to make excuses for your work (nor can you always explain it).

      Sadly I’ve also experienced the vicarious crop: you frame and compose something perfectly only to have a client – or their agency – hack it to pieces without any considerations for composition whatsoever…

      As for compositions seeming perfect: just don’t show the imperfect ones ;)

  8. I think photographers need to always be mindful that what the human eye sees is very different from what the camera sees. The camera is not affected by other sensory input that inevitably augments the way in which your visual cortex processes a scene.

    Exclusion is its own art form. And learning to see the way the camera does is helpful in this regard, I think.

    “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” said Robert Capa, though I suspect he was speaking about not only physical closeness, but about fostering an emotional closeness to your subject as well. And in that last point lies yet another element that makes a good photograph; finding the emotional connection to your subject and translating it into your image.

    • Other senses aside, there are also the considerations of binocular vision and extremely sophisticated processing…

      As for being close enough: not everything requires proximity. Sometimes you do want the distance for a sense of scale or emptiness…

  9. The frame is the most important aspect of all 2 dimensional art.

  10. I have loved this. Thanks!!!

  11. nigelrobinson says:

    Hi Ming, I think there is a valid exception and that is when e.g a 2×3 ratio shot is taken with the intent to crop to e.g 1×1 ratio. In my case my camera can’t do this automatically, but I do have 1×1 croplines in the viewfinder. It’s probably arguable if this counts as cropping in the sense you discuss.

  12. Very, very good article! More transformational than “merely” insightful, short and to the point. Contains all the words needed and nothing unnecessary :)

    One question: what is your thinking on zooms vs. prime lenses in this context? Personally I tend to find that the former fit the process very well: look for the light, look for a subject, set the right perspective and arrange the visual elements (i.e. move your ass until things look right), and then capture the view with whatever focal length matches the previsualised framing. Primes tend to add another step where you adjust the perspective to match with the only available focal length (sometimes slightly weakening the composition, or making it too weak to be worth shooting), but of course there’s a net gain in speed if you are familiar with the lens.

    • Thank you.

      Zooms vs primes: personally, the former are for convenience or when I can’t change lenses, e.g. in hostile environments. I think of and treat them as a set of primes more than anything. Never had a problem even when only carrying two primes (though any less and you tend to start seeing the perspective you can’t have).

  13. Peter smoking a cigar. Very chilled.

  14. Hi Ming Thien, Beautiful thoughts about cropping. When I try to make the horizon line more horizontal in post-processing procedures, the tool I use always “cropping a bit” making my shot more horizontal. Is there considered as “cropping”, too? The sub-question is how can I make my shot really horizontal as possible during composition before pressing the shutter? Many thanks.

  15. An interesting read, not that we expect anything less.

    I remember what Jay Maisel (I know I keep on bringing his name up, but he’s fantastic) said when asked about how he shoots – he said that his main focus was that ” I check to see that there’s nothing in there screwing up the composition”. Another subtractive approach, or at least an exclusive one. Looking at his site, most of the pictures which impress me the most show exactly what you talk about here: the absence of anything that doesn’t contribute to the frame. This one in particular strikes me as the perfect example – I hope you won’t mind me linking it:

    http://studio.jaymaisel.com/collections/portfolio#groundskeeper

    That’s a study in simplicity right there, but damn…what a picture.

    On one of his training videos with Scott Kelby, he said that “I don’t use the word “composition”. Composition is me saying to you, “hey, stand here”. In a street situation, the composition is already there; you’re not composing it, you’re cropping it”. This obviously isn’t the same “cropping” that you speak of; he means that at the moment you take the shot, you decide exactly what’s in the frame and (equally important) what isn’t. An in-camera crop, so to speak.

    It is said that this is very similar to music – what you don’t play says as much, if not more, than what you do…while I’m no musician, I maintain that a piece called “Where were you” by Jeff Beck may be the greatest achievement of the electric guitar – because of the incredible paucity of notes in it. Check it out – it’s only three minutes or so, but says more in those three minutes than most guitarists are able to say in their entire careers.

    • That definition of crop is more like exclusion. I think of cropping as post-exclusion rejection, if that makes sense.

      If we don’t ensure that the entirety of what’s included matters, then the little distractions can well land up overpowering the meat of the image.

  16. Excellent article! Extremely informative. I agree about your comment regarding cropping. I will admit that at times I find myself cropping to almost recreate a shot a shot that I may not be happy with – and seeing that it really does not work (cropping). Thank you for posting a great article!

  17. Excellent article Ming! Photo two demonstrates this very well. I think this helps a lot as it explains the proper balance between context and simplicity. Excited to apply this.

  18. Hi Ming.Great topic. Coming from a fine art print/painting background, I found exclusion to be the most important aspect of photographic composition as soon as I tried to seriously compose photos (I could already see in triangles). You have no choice but to deal with the scene at hand. Its also what makes photographic composition unique to other art forms. I tend to compose back to front, in a sense discarding the main subject initially and building a scene around it. Its amazing how the smallest background/foreground blemish can detract and ruin what would otherwise be a strong composition. Post capture cropping is a bad practice regardless of intention in my view. Everything needs to be considered at the time of capture. If you can’t make a composition work at that moment, its probably not going to work after the fact. Another bad framing practice I often see is the use of “bokeh”. It might wow the plebs, with its “pro” feel but generally screams under skilled and over equipped in my view.

    • It’s the difference between painters and photographers: they put in, we take out. Bokeh is a crutch to remove distraction and make things seem more interesting to the layperson – because it’s different to what their consumer cameras can do – but very difficult to use well, and seldom necessary.

  19. In theory, it seems to me that good composition begins with an idea, from which proceeds a rational process of consciously excluding and including compositional elements and then arranging them in harmony. But in reality, and in my limited experience, I find it’s much more messy than that. Sometimes, the idea can come right at the end just before you press the shutter, sometimes never, or sometimes you happen upon it it as you’re sifting through your photos several weeks or months later. Other times, it just falls in your lap — by chance, accident or sheer luck, totally randonmly. Question: is there perhaps a risk of over-rationalising this? Sometimes you just have to let art happen — though agreed in some sort of ordered way – not an anything goes kinda’ way.

    • Yes and no, because as you point out, you’re not always in control. Perhaps it’s the ability to develop the idea on the fly that’s important.

      Can you over-think it? Yes. But is thinking beforehand and preparation necessarily a bad thing? Not at all.

  20. Thank you for this thought-provoking article. A question: isn’t it both? “Conscious inclusion” is surely just as important as “conscious exclusion”. Plainly speaking, we need to know what to keep out but also what to keep in. At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld :-) , isn’t the real culprit here “unconscious inclusion”, i.e. putting or keeping things in without really knowing or thinking about why?

    • Absolutely it is both. Keep what is necessary to convey the idea – discard what isn’t. This of course means you need to know what the idea is…

      Unconscious exclusion usually comes about when the photographer isn’t doing their job as observer.

  21. I agree that cropping in post can be very revealing and insightful to the photographer who didn’t see the frame at the time of shooting. For all the images that are missing something in composition playing with crop can help the photographer understand what they missed. I think that cropping regularly can be used as a tool to train oneself to improve their seeing and visualisation. Definitely a practice I’m going to use after every shoot from now on. Cropping: used for reviewing one’s choice. To repose. To accelerate visualisation skill development.

    • That’s not what I was suggesting at all. Cropping makes much weaker images because you did not previsualize the spatial relationship between the elements first; as a result it never quite fits the frame properly. I have never seen a makeshift crop that was stronger than a well-conceived original. There is also no obvious stopping point – you can just keep going until there is nothing left to remove…

      • nickwalt says:

        After having just cropped a whole bunch of weak images, I definitely think the practice can help review one’s choice of focal length, distance and framing decision. However, I emphatically agree with you that the practice shouldn’t be used to fix final images too often. Certainly, as you say, it shouldn’t be used as a crutch. That said, I’ve seen photographers recommend the technique in their blogs, especially in regards to landscape photography using high mega-pixel cameras. Especially when they don’t have the reach.

        One interesting thing to note from the practice is how much I’m seeing that a small crop, to exclude even a thin strip on one edge, can make a big difference.

        Of the images I cropped, I noted with each one where I went wrong and will again review them to confirm what I could have done differently, given the situation as I remember it, to capture a better composition. Thank you, Ming, for drawing my attention further into the importance of exclusion. Less snapping and more deliberation.

  22. Roger Wojahn says:

    Great article as always, Ming. The tension that works in relation to this framework of exclusion is another one of your truths, context. So it’s a moving target in the viewfinder. How much can I exclude to bring your attention to the subject and then how much must I include in order to tell the narrative.

    • Thanks Roger – usually in uncontrolled situations you look for light first, then subject, then figure out what else you can use in the frame compositionally or as part of the story; for documentary it’s slightly different in that your composition must have certain elements in order to carry the story.

Trackbacks

  1. […] photographers have to be aware of the fact that the medium is one of conscious exclusion, not conscious inclusion. Every single act of framing is one of isolating out and discarding the […]

  2. […] of me as a person. It did get me thinking, though: since the act of photographing is really one of conscious exclusion in which we eliminate all of the elements that are distracting or unnecessary to the subject/ […]

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