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From the Archives: The Complexity of Simplicity

By November 22, 2019No Comments

Story & photo by F. M. Kearney

I’m often amazed at just how much subconscious thought and planning goes into the creation of a “simple” photograph.

A couple of years ago I was in the Thain Family Forest of the New York Botanical Garden. Located in the center of the 250-acre garden, this forest is the last remaining tract of original forest that once covered most of New York City.

I was initially attracted to a rustic log fence at the entrance to one of the forest trails. Seeing it as the perfect foreground element to lead a viewer’s eye into the photo, I positioned my tripod in the center of the trail and leveled it to the height of the fence. This was the best perspective to show the lines converging as they disappeared around the bend in the distance.

From the Editor: From time to time we republish relevant articles that deserve another read. As the seasons change and the brilliant fall colors depart, compositions become less obvious. It’s a good time to revisit F. M. Kearney’s thoughts on drawing simplicity out of complexity.

How many times have you seen poorly composed photos of trees and poles “growing” out of a subject’s head? I was careful positioning the camera to ensure that the most prominent fenceposts were clearly separated from the trees. I then had to decide where to place the focus point.

Using a 50mm lens, I focused midway into the scene and selected an aperture that gave me a range of sharpness extending from the foreground all the way out to infinity. This is known as focusing at the hyperfocal distance. Had I focused on the closest post in the fence, the trees in the background would have been soft. If I had set the focus to infinity, the immediate foreground would have been out of focus. Personally, I find the depth-of-field preview to be the easiest way to determine the location of the hyperfocal point. Of course, focus-stacking software is another option, but I prefer to do as much as I can in the camera at the time of the shoot. Lastly, it had rained the night before and the leaves were still a bit damp, creating a slight but noticeable glare. I used a polarizing filter and was surprised at just how much it improved the image. It eliminated the glare while simultaneously saturating the color.

This explains how I took this picture, but just as important is when I took it. This photo would not have worked on a sunny day. The contrast between the shadows and highlights would have been greater than even a polarizing filter could handle. Although the day was dreary and overcast, it provided the perfect lighting for this scene. For greater impact, it’s best to crop out as much of the featureless white sky as possible. The few random patches that showed through the leaves were easily removed in Photoshop.

Sometimes, it’s the simplest-looking images that require the most complex mental calculations.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit