First, choose a relatively wide angle of view and shoot the whole scene you’re facing and identify all of the potential subjects. Perhaps you’re composing a photograph that shows a stream, some trees, some people, a path, a bridge… In that scenario, what exactly is the picture’s subject? It might be a tree, it might be the bridge, it might be everything together. The problem is, if the viewer can’t interpret what the photo is as I’ve described it here, it won’t read in the visual world as a successful image. So first you’ve got to figure out it. Maybe the real subject is the people on the bridge. Once you’ve made your decision, the next step is to simplify a bit.
Move in, with your feet and/or with your lens selection. Clean up the composition by focusing on just the people and the bridge (or whatever the equivalent is in your scenario). Forget about the trees and the stream and all the other extraneous information. Explore that composition and then refine it even further.
Compose your shot even tighter on the key element in the frame—in this case, determine whether it’s the people or the bridge. Let’s say it’s the bridge, and the people simply serve to aid the composition with a bit of context. Simplify again by tightening to focus on just the structure of the bridge.
Now you’re getting the picture. Simplify, simplify, simplify. Keep pushing in closer and closer and closer—to the bridge and its reflection, then perhaps the bridge alone and finally maybe just the details of the structure (or some other super-simplified composition that has a shot at creating a pleasing composition).
The point, as you can see, is relatively simple. The more you simplify your photos, the more you increase your odds of success. And compositional simplification, believe it or not, is a skill that can and should be practiced. Next thing you know you’ll be seeing the world in a new, and likely more effective, way.
And don’t think that simplification only means getting closer and closer to a subject. Sometimes moving in actually serves to clutter the composition by bringing more competing elements into focus. Sometimes widening out the shot—in this case, to focus on foreground trees and the whole scene simplified in the background—actually serves to create a cleaner composition.
As your acuity improves you’re bound to push the compositional limits—in some cases adding more and more information to your images without obstructing or convoluting the composition. Experience makes this possible. Even if 20 years from now you find yourself pushing the compositional boundaries and it’s not working, you know what to do: Just simplify the composition by eliminating distractions until the view through the viewfinder is, simply, perfect.