Your Next Step: Simplifying Your Message

Recently, I have judged a few photo competitions. In doing so, I found myself making the same comments over and over again. It was helpful to me because I now think I have a clearer understanding of what you are struggling with in your photography (whether you know it or not) and how you can address it.

First, let me talk about the things I’m not seeing photographers struggle with. For example, I’m not seeing pictures with exposure problems. Most photographer beyond true beginners seem to have that figured out. In addition, very often the pictures I see are reasonably well-composed. They usually have the subject well-placed within the frame and usually seem cognizant of guidelines like the rule of thirds. The photographers often make sure of shapes and leading lines. In other words, these photographers have the basics down.

That said, there is always something missing. I can tell that these photographers are looking to take the next step and they really don’t know what that is or how to do it. That’s what we are going to cover here. I’m going to show you 3 steps you can take to really advance your photography, if you are beyond the basics. One of these steps will take place in the field and the other two will take place in the post-processing phase.

Before we go further, let me say up front that this isn’t a “tips and tricks” article. This isn’t “12 easy things you can do right now.” The things I’m going to cover are simple concepts, but they can be difficult to implement on a consistent basis. They require effort and thought, but they will pay huge dividends to your photography.

Tight Focus on Your Subject

For a photograph to be successful, it needs to be of a single thing, idea, or message. One single thing! Always keep that in mind. If you do not do this, your picture will fail every time.

The tighter the focus on your subject, and the more clear your concept is, the more successful your picture will be. Period. Keep in mind that people make judgments about your pictures in a split second. If your concept isn’t clear, the viewer will be moving on very quickly.

Let me clarify. That doesn’t mean it is just a picture of one object. There can be two or more actual things in your picture – there can be 1000 things in your picture – but they need to be tied together by a unified thought or message.

Photographers are always trying to include too much context or background in their pictures. If your picture is of a discrete thing like a flower or an animal, make it just the flower or animal. No background necessary. Further, if it is of an animal, you might not even need the whole animal in the picture.

Things get a little more tricky when your photograph is of a scene rather than a thing. As a landscape and cityscape photographer, I struggle with this all the time. Essentially, you just have to decide what you are taking a picture of before you trip the shutter. If you picture is of a road leading into the frame, make it just the road. If if is of a river bend with mountains in the background, then cut anything else out.

One trick I see photographers try sometimes is to use a title to tie things together. Occasionally some sort of “old and new” concept will work, but rarely. Avoid it.

You’ll get a second bite at this apple when you bring your photos home and work with them on the computer. Remember, however, that the clearer you are in the field, the easier time you will have later.


The effort at simplifying your message doesn’t stop in the field. You need to spend some time tightening up your subject in front of your computer. This is where I am seeing a lot of photographers have problems. You need to get very comfortable with three tools in Photoshop: the crop tool, the healing or cloning brush, and the transform tools.

The most important thing you will do in your post-processing is crop the photo. This seems to bother some photographers but it shouldn’t. Don’t worry about losing data. If you don’t crop your photo when it needs it, your photo will be mediocre and therefore worthless. We don’t need to be tied to a 3:2 aspect ratio either. Only by cropping can you make it worthwhile. Get out that crop tool and put it to work. Be ruthless with it.

Whereas the crop tool is easy to use and the failure to use it is from a general reluctance to do so, there are other tools that I see photographers not using because they aren’t comfortable with them. The first one is the cloning and healing tools. Rather than cloning something out, photographers often crop the photo differently. For example, they might crop too much because they don’t know how to clone out an intruding branch. Get very comfortable with the healing and cloning tools and you’ll be glad you did.

The same holds true of transform tools. Learn to distort and warp your photos in Photoshop. If your foreground is too much of the frame, you don’t necessarily need to crop. Instead, transform it so that it is less of the picture. You can add space by stretching as well. Putting this in your repertoire will put your in control of the shape of your pictures – and consequently the subject. Now you are in complete control over the shape of your photos.

Selectively Brighten and Darken

Finally, you need to get comfortable with selective brightening and darkening. Do not rely on conditions in the field to determine this.

Remember that the viewer’s eye is attracted to brightness. Use this fact to draw the viewer’s eye. If you have a line in the picture that you want the viewer to follow, brighten it up. If there are relatively unimportant areas, darken them.

Perhaps you have seen photographers turn pictures upside down and look at them. The reason for that is to judge brightness without the composition of the photo getting in their way. This shows the importance of selective brightening and darkening.

In practice this means a few things. If your photograph is of a person, their face should almost always be the brightest part. Ditto if you are photographing an animal. If your photograph is of a place, pick your center of interest and make sure that is the brightest place. Then darken other, less important parts. It is important that the effect be subtle though.

The best way I have found to do this is just to make two Curves adjustment layers, with one set to darken and one set to lighten, and then use the Brush tool to gradually add in the brightening and darkening wherever you want it. Keep the opacity under 10% and make the brush size as large as you can. That will let you feather in the effect so you don’t notice it. When you click on the eyeball in the layers panel, you’ll then be surprised how much of a cumulative effect it had.


You might think new gear will help you take better pictures. It won’t. You might think a new Photoshop tip will help. Usually it won’t either. You strive for increases in sharpness that will make you photos pop. The impact is marginal. But the three techniques in this article will help. This is what you should focus on to take your photos to the next level.