On Taming Visual Chaos
On taming visual chaos
February 10, 2021
Sometimes I walk into a room where I’ve been asked to take photos and all I see is ALL THE THINGS. Things on the walls. Things on desks. Tables. Chairs. Flotsam. So much stuff cluttering up the scene, threatening to steal the impact of the picture I’ve been hired to make. Often the stuff can’t be moved – it's permanent, there’s too much of it, we don’t have time. Or it helps set the scene, as in an operating room, but it needs to be backgrounded.
So what to do?
For starters, if you can move to a better location then do it. But assuming that’s not an option, these are a few of my best not-at-all-secrets to beat back the visual clutter with a big stick.
Emphasize the subject with dramatic light so that the background dims and becomes less noticeable. I’m working toward that goal even when shooting with only available light, as with the nurse below. In that case, look for the strong light.
Techniques: strong light, shallow focus, framing, and some Photoshop
Strong light, soft background, framing
Shallow Depth of Field
Also known as shallow focus, or blurring the background. The idea is to direct attention to the subject (in crisp focus) by allowing the background to fall out of focus. You do that in one of three ways: A) Shoot at a wide aperture (f/stop). I lean on this trick a lot. Some might even say too much. B) Use a long lens. C) Get closer. The nearer your point of focus, the softer the background. Which means that if you get real close, close enough to fill the frame with a face, as in the portrait below from a busy factory floor, the background falls away into lovely indistinct blobs and pools of light.
Very shallow focus, got right up in his grill, also strong light
If the clutter is movable, move it. Things I always get rid of: tissue boxes, trash cans, water bottles, paper coffee cups, informational signs, plastic bags (they’re always lumpy and wispy-shaped and look like random garbage), boxes of rubber gloves, boxes with brand names, cardboard boxes in general, cords of any variety (cords having become a constant and ugly presence in our lives in nearly every setting; no one wants to look at those stupid cords), any randomly colored bits which are often but not always plastic and which don’t contribute to the meaning of the image. And I especially get rid of anything behind my subject’s head.
This also means not only taking things out, but rearranging elements inside the frame to create order. To frame the subject, to guide your eye, to emphasize (rather than distract from) what I want to show.
We moved a whole lot of furniture for this portrait, both into and out of the frame.
Find an angle where the main subject overlaps empty space or is literally framed by shapes in the room. Sometimes you can shoot through a foreground element to frame and create depth, as below. Those fuzzy blobs are glass bottles.
Fix it in post! I try to do everything I can in camera, but sometimes you don’t have the time or permission to move things, or it’s physically impossible to declutter the environment. So we shoot with the idea that certain things can be removed later, and previsualize the shot with that in mind. I might leave extra space at the edges, or shoot a “plate” – a version of the scene with no people, sometimes at various exposures, with the plan that we’ll extend that piece of blank wall or windows to cover something in the final image.
Fixing it in post is a photographer punchline, and most of us don’t like being asked to intentionally take this approach. But come on. Photoshop is a powerful tool, especially in the hands of a talented retoucher who appreciates the visual language of the original photograph. For me, it’s about making a photo the best possible version of itself, even if that reality didn’t precisely occur as pictured. If we moved all the furniture out of the room and into the hall, that’s not exactly real either. And in this context I care more about the clarity and emotional impact of the image than I do about whether there actually was or was not a blank wall behind this person. A discussion of whether it’s an honest representation of reality feels almost quaint for advertising photography, but for my work and aesthetic I think it’s still relevant. And it should be clear that I’m talking about commercial art here, not photojournalism, where very different rules apply.
Framing, plus a healthy dose of Photoshop. Yes, I see the plastic bags. Let's not discuss it.
The raw capture.
This is not typical and I include it more as a fun footnote. I’m almost always trying to simplify the scene as much as possible. But sometimes, once in a great while, I’ll opt to embrace the chaos and intensify it. The trick here is to push it over the top and into next level clutter territory, so that there can be no question but that it was intentional. There is so much stuff and texture that it’s overwhelming and the photo becomes in a sense ABOUT the chaos.
Sarah runs an Arts in Healthcare program. The colorful clutter behind her is her work.