One way to make your images stronger is to simplify the composition. One of the easiest ways to do that is with a telephoto lens.
A telephoto lens helps you simplify in two ways.
1. The narrow angle of view means that you get less background in the photo. You can crop out elements that might be distracting, such as bright colors or strong highlights.
2. The shallower depth of field makes it easier to throw the background out of focus by using a wide aperture. Prime lenses are great for this thanks to their wide apertures.
Here are some examples.
I made this photo with an 85mm lens (full-frame camera). I focused on the lizard’s eye and set the aperture to f1.8 to make the background go completely out of focus.
For this photo I used a 56mm lens (APS-C camera) to create a simple composition built around the clay pots. An aperture of f5 was wide enough to blur the background without defocusing it completely.
Telephoto lenses can also help you simplify the composition in busy situations. For example, I made the portrait below at the Auckland Lantern Festival. It was a busy event and there were lots of people in the background.
I couldn’t do anything about that, but I could use a telephoto lens (56mm, APS-C) to exclude as much of the background as possible, and a wide aperture (f2.8) to push the background out of focus.
Simplify composition with standard lenses
Standard lenses occupy the middle ground between wide-angle lenses and telephotos.*
To see what I mean take a look at these photos, both created with a standard lens (35mm, APS-C).
I made the first standing some distance from the old greenhouse that’s the focal point of the photo. Because of that you can see plenty of the surroundings, a bit like you would if you used a wide-angle lens to photograph the same scene.
But for this photo, made with the same lens, I moved in much closer. The result is that the photo looks like it could have been taken with a telephoto lens.
Don’t forget that with standard lenses, you can simplify the composition by moving in closer to the subject. This is true of any lens, but it’s interesting how the nature of photos taken with standard lenses changes as you get closer to the subject.
* A standard lens is a prime lens with a focal lengths of 50mm (on full-frame cameras), 35mm (on APS-C cameras) or 25mm (on Micro Four-thirds cameras).
Simplify composition with kit lenses and zooms
So far all the photos I’ve shown you were made with prime lenses, but you can apply these ideas with a zoom lens as well by setting it to the longest focal length.
I did exactly that, with this photo taken at 55mm with an 18-55mm kit lens (APS-C camera).
Other ways of simplifying composition
There are other ways of simplifying the composition of your photos. They work well in combination with a telephoto lens.
Remove distractions from the background. Does the background contain bright highlights or colors that pull attention away from the subject? Is there something in the background that you can remove from the photo? Does reframing the photo simplify the background? If you’re making a portrait, can you move the person to a position with a better background? These are all questions you should ask yourself when taking a photo.
Take a look at these two portraits. The background in the one on the left is very colorful. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you might be able to create a stronger, more subtle portrait by using a different background. Moving to a different place allowed us to do this and make the portrait on the right.
Use colors that work together harmoniously. Clashing colors can also weaken the composition.
Work in black and white. If you have a problem with distracting colors then try working in black and white instead.
Learn more: Color or Black & White?
Another important skill that you need when it comes to simplifying composition is the ability to know when you have taken a particular technique too far.
For example, if you have a prime lens it’s tempting to use the widest aperture setting to create photos with amazing bokeh. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are lots of times when you might want to use a smaller aperture so the effect isn’t so strong. Experiment with different aperture settings to see which works best for you.
It’s also important that you don’t forget to tell the story. That means including enough details to give the subject context.
For example, in the photo below I used a telephoto lens (56mm, APS-C) to make a photo of a glass blower at work. I included enough details, like the metal chair she was sitting in and the heatproof glove she’s wearing on her hand, to tell a story about the glass blowing process.
Here’s a crop to show what the photo would have looked like if I’d used a longer focal length. It’s still interesting, but it lacks the details that give the other photo context. Both are good photos and legitimate approaches – it’s up to you to decide which one you want to take.
There are many ways to simplify the composition of your photos but using a telephoto (or normal) lens is one of the easiest. These lenses are a great tool when you want to create strong, simple images without distractions and lots of impact. Normal lenses are also useful for this if you get close enough to the subject.
My ebook Mastering Composition contains 20 simple lessons to help you compose more interesting photos.