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How to Compose Photographs Without Clutter: Composition Techniques for Removing Distractions from Digital Images

Clutter is the product of disorderly arrangement of objects in a scene, often the result of too many objects. However, even one object in the wrong position can obscure or clutter up a scene.

Clutter produces digital photographs with conflicting content, creating confusion for the viewer as what is the main subject. Clutter sometimes partially obscures or detracts from the main subject. Classic examples are trees and poles growing out of people’s heads.

These are easy and common compositional mistakes as people construct a mental image of the scene ignoring the clutter and distractions. Digital cameras take a very literal view of a scene and they faithfully record clutter just as well as those objects that interest the photographer. There are a number of compositional techniques available to deal with distractions that editing in Photoshop cannot remove and this clutter is physically impossible or impractical to remove from the scene.

Framing

This is the surrounds of the subject, particularly the edges. While photographers concentrate their attention towards the center of an image and the subject, it is easy to miss distracting objects at the edges. So pay attention to the edges and position the camera accordingly.

Framing is a powerful composition tool often used with such things arches, doorways, or tree branches to frame the subject. Cropping the image in the digital darkroom is common way of applying the final adjustment for framing but it does mean a smaller image, or one with less resolution.

Telephoto and Zoom Lenses

Choosing the right focal length is a variation of the framing technique. As the focal length of a lens increases, the angle of view narrows. This makes the framing of the scene a consideration when choosing the focal length. This is important in situations where it is difficult to move the camera to achieve the desired framing.

The foreshortening effect of telephoto lenses may draw undue attention to background objects by making them seem closer the subject than they really are. This works in reverse for wide-angle lenses.

Depth of Field

The combination of longer focal length lenses and wide apertures (small f number) places distracting objects in the background out of focus, reducing their visual impact. This works better on larger sensor cameras such as DSLRs and medium format cameras.

Shooting Angle

Foreground clutter may appear inconsequential but it achieves greater impact in the image than when viewing the scene. For example, microphone stands used by stage performers. In the example photo to achieve a clear shot of the performer’s face required careful positioning and timing as the performer moved around the stage.

Lighting

The principal tool for most photographers here is electronic flash. Similarly, to the depth of field, photographers can utilize the limited range of these devices to light the area of interest properly while leaving the background dark.

Aperture is the main camera control to influence flash exposure of the main subject, while shutter speed influences the brightness of the background. If photographers choose a faster shutter speed they can black out the background.

Photoshop

When all else fails there is always editing tools in Photoshop to remove objects but getting it right when making the original image saves tedious work in the digital darkroom.

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