Photo Exercise: Simplicity

Contrary to our natural inclination to fit as many elements as possible into the frame, keeping things simple can result in images that are strong, purposeful and soulful.

Simple doesn’t have to be boring. A single subject against a clean background can be utterly captivating. We can achieve simple and strong images by choosing interesting subjects and by making sure they stand out from the background.

When I want to create images that evoke simple beauty, I draw inspiration from Zen philosophy and the principles of Wabi-sabi, a Japanese aesthetic that promotes fukinsei (asymmetry), kanso (simplicity), koko (basic), shizen (natural), yugen (subtly profound grace), datsuzoku (unbounded by convention) and seijaku (tranquility).

I also feel moved by the Zen Buddhist concept of nothingness as explained by Leonard Koren in Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers: “All things are considered as either evolving from or dissolving into nothingness. This ‘nothingness’ is not empty space. It is rather a space of potentiality.” When we capture simple, single and small subjects, the empty space (background or negative space) plays a big role in the success of our photo. We can explore the potential of the background space by emphasizing its vastness.

For this exercise, I invite you to capture simplicity, a life lived simply, simple objects and the concept that simple is beautiful. 

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
—Leonardo da Vinci



1 | Eliminate clutter from the background. Simplicity is best achieved with a clean background.
2 | Balance can be challenging when shooting a single subject or a few subjects. Experiment with different angles and compositions to find the best balance for your shot.
3 | Be sure to focus on your main interest.


1 | Play off clever framing, strong lines, colors and textures to strengthen your composition.
2 | Use the Rule of Thirds.
3 | Try juxtaposing two strong elements.
4 | Place your emphasis on the negative space by making your subject very small within the frame. This technique will evoke a dreamy, faraway feel.
5 | Depending on your camera: Use a macro lens or macro lens setting and a shallower depth of field to separate your subject from the background and to highlight its features.


1 | Photograph a piece of fruit on the kitchen counter.
2 | Take a picture of a fallen leaf.
3 | Capture the silhouette of a bird on a telephone wire.

Alessandra Cave is a commercial and editorial photographer living in San Francisco. She’s also a writer, a teacher and the author of  Shooting with Soul, an inspiration and technique book with 44 photography exercises exploring life, beauty and self-expression. Learn more about Alessandra and follow her work at

Excerpted with permission from Shooting with Soul by Alessandra Cave (Quarry Books, 2013),

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