Champagne Glass Poppies, Merced River Canyon
Canon EOS 10D
1/1000 second
ISO 100
100 mm

Yesterday NPR and released their Jazz 100, “the 100 quintessential jazz songs of all time.” Topping the list was one of my jazz favorites, the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s “Take Five.” Listening to “Take Five” this morning I was particularly struck by the simplicity of its sound, and it occurred to me that simplicity is an essential and often overlooked element in photography.

Spend a little time on photography websites and it’s easy to come away feeling visually assaulted. Saturated sunsets, crashing waterfalls, and swirling clouds can make wonderful photographs, but some of nature’s most divine beauty is best revealed by subtracting elements we’ve been brainwashed into thinking are necessary. Just as many of the pieces on the Jazz 100 are quite complex, simplicity is certainly not necessary for a successful image. But it seems many photographers have forgotten how effective a simple image can be. As my parents used to advise (shout), louder is not necessarily better. And neither is a lot of activity in a frame. To be effective, a scene’s elements (shape, color, lines, texture) need to work together; if they can’t, it’s better to isolate the most compelling aspect and remove distractions, no matter how beautiful they are.

Case in point: A poppy-covered hillside is a beautiful thing, but so are the graceful curves and translucent gold of a single poppy. The poppy in the foreground of this image was just one of thousands blanketing a hidden hillside in the Merced River Canyon just west of Yosemite Valley. After photographing the entire scene I gradually moved closer until I found myself sprawled on my stomach beneath this one poppy. Conveying its simple elegance was all about removing distractions: rocks, weeds, and yes, even the thousands of other beautiful poppies in the background. In this case I used selective focus, attaching an extension tube and dialing up a wide aperture to limit the depth of field. Focusing on the poppy’s leading edge turned everything else in the frame to a smear of color.

Did I achieve Brubeck’s mastery of my world? I think not—but it’s nice to have something to aspire to.

9 Comments on “Simple

  1. Gary, I love the simplicity of the photo and the music metaphor (although I have to admit I usually find that jazz music contains way to many notes). I thought you might be interested in this video I found yesterday about a blind photographer. He talks about using sound to inform his visual artistry.


  2. Some of my favorite photographs, both made by me or others, are the simple ones. It’s kind of funny that I was listening to Brubeck while I edited today, so this post really struck a chord… yes, pun intended. Thanks for sharing Gary.

    • Thanks, Carlotta. The background here is a hillside full of poppies, and you can turn a background into a blur by minimizing your depth of field. The closer you are to your subject, the less depth of field you have. Depth of field is also reduced by a larger aperture (measured by f-stop). To get close I used a macro lens, then added an extension tube to get even closer. Next I dialed in my largest aperture (f2.8 on this lens). You can tell how little depth of field I have by noticing that the only thing in this image that’s sharp is the front edge of the front poppy.

  3. Hi GAry….I think I finally figured out how to comment on your WordPRess page…I am interested in getting with them. Anyway, regarding the lovely post of today and Dave Brubeck – you struck a (good) nerve…I grew up listening to Brubeck and also loved Take Five and all the others before and after. Bribeck’s music, as I am sure you know, could be VERY complex as well…Take Five, was a “simple” piece filled with complex drum solos from Joe Morello….your commen ts are superb and your image here has always been one of my favorites….from one Jazz lover (since i was 10) to the other..I say thank you and Peace! – Denny

  4. Hi Gary,
    Dave Brubeck is one of favorite jazz musicans. Just two days ago I was playing Dave’s “Time Out” CD with “Take Five” as one of the featured tracks. Btw, the poppy image is magnificent .

  5. Pingback: These are a few of my favorite things | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

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