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Simplicity Is Underrated

This article starts with a story about photography. But carried within it is a message I think most of us (not just photographers) can learn from. I hope you find it useful.

I met with a photographer mate of mine a few days ago. As is usually the case, we ended talking about photography. They're enriching conversations about inspiration or what we might be working on and are thoroughly enjoyable.

He's far more experienced than me too so I always feel like I've learned something new. Which is always a bonus! Neither of us particularly like talking about pixel count or frame rates.

On this particular occasion we were talking about technique. Studio lighting technique to be more specific. I'd asked him to do some new low key headshots for my website and social media profiles. I'd seen a portrait that he'd done before of the kind of look I was going for and he mentioned how he only used a single light. I was quite surprised as it was so evenly lit.

why use more than is necessary to achieve the desired result?

Where the penny dropped

He pointed out that photographers who use overly complicated lighting setups usually don't know what they're doing. That may sound particularly scathing. It's not to say that photographers who use more than one light are incompetent. Of course not. The point was, why use more than is necessary to achieve the desired result?

This concept got me thinking about other areas of my life and the people I interact with. I started to notice how often people make things more complicated than they need to be.

My day job

In my day job, I work as a Technical Support Engineer. I needed to discuss a case I was working on with a senior member of the engineering team. The particular product in question has been poorly designed and is over complicated. As a result we receive more support enquiries for this product (per unit sold) than any other. By quite a long way.

Photo by Nicolas Thomas on Unsplash

When I explained to the engineer why our customer was having a problem, he stood tall and said "well that's because he doesn't understand it", in a way that seemed to make him proud. Like this was a personal triumph for him by managing to design a product that demonstrates his intellectual superiority.

Firstly, I don't agree that just because someone has a better understanding of engineering, that it makes them intellectually superior to anyone. We all have our own areas of expertise. Secondly, (and quite ironically) this whole concept is IDIOTIC!!! Not to mention a giant pain in the arse for the person who has to answer all of the 'dumb' customers questions.

Don't even get me started on the paragraphs of text that are on every single product web page!

It's served us well from an evolutionary standing

Our social lives

What about our social lives and how complex that can get? There's so much choice available to us now. We're either competing with each other or being competed for (consumerism).

It's no one's fault. It's served us well from an evolutionary standing. Those that strived to reach the top of the hierarchical structure they were a part of, survived the longest. But that model no longer works in modern society as we've all become so much more integrated.

The paradox of choice

So here we are, with all these options available to us. We scratch our heads wondering which one to go for that will propel us to the top of the ladder. We keep scratching. Keep scratching. Until eventually, we get so tired of thinking about it and do nothing.

Barry Schwartz talks about this in his book 'Paradox of choice' (not an affiliate link)

“we have a tendency to look around at what others are doing and use them as a standard of comparison.”

With social media, it's much easier now to 'look around at what others are doing' on a much larger scale. YAWWWN! Another article about the negative impact of social media. I know, I know. But stay with me because it's relevant.


You see people posting their pictures or videos on Instagram working out or going to the gym. They do these complex movements that are a fancy variation of something that used to be very simple but worked just as well, if not better.

So of course, with the above in mind, the natural thing to do is compete and make it more complex. So we search and search and search for awesome training routines until we get bored and do nothing.

I've been to some gym classes where the trainer has made it so complicated, the people in class tend to end up staring around at each other, completely lost. But at least the trainer looks like he knows what he's doing. Because he's obviously created this overly complex thing and is therefore intellectually superior to you. (Ahem…)

The same is true with our diet. The cycle goes; see post on Instagram of yummy lunch > hunger/jealousy sets in > must go one better for dinner > search all your favourite food blogs > it's now 8pm and you're too tired to cook > order pizza.

Why does too much choice lead to inaction?

Making humans think isn't good from an evolutionary perspective as it burns calories. Going back to our caveman brain mentioned earlier, it's still thinking that it doesn't know when it may find food next. So it naturally doesn't want to waste calories by thinking.

You may think our caveman days are long behind us. But relatively speaking it wasn't that long ago and we're still hard wired the same way. So although, on a conscious level, you know there's a supermarket down the road (packed to the roof with options!), we still want to preserve calories.

How is this relevant now?

Well, if you're selling something, you need to tell potential customers the bare minimum. That is how your product or service will make their life better in a way that's crystal clear and concise.

This message needs to be understood by the reader in the quickest amount of time possible. Don't rabbit on for paragraph after paragraph about how great your product is. Personally, I don't care. I just want to know if it'll solve a problem I have.

Stop giving it so much significance

If you're trying to get fitter/healthier, it doesn't need to be complicated. Stop giving it so much significance and just think of it as something you do every day. Like brushing your teeth (I hope!)

Strength coach Dan John believes getting strong is "simple, not easy". That really resonates with me. If you remember nothing else from this post, remember that quote!

Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

An example of how I do it

If you're confused about your exercise routine, here's what I do. If it doesn't work for you, don't do it. If it does, awesome! I'd love to hear about it.

I go to classes 3 days a week. One of them is a self-defence class taught by my wife. Learning this kind of skill is like insurance. You never know useful it is until you need it.

I train at home on every day of the other four days. I limit it to twenty minutes, including the warmup. It's amazing what you can get done with a workout in 20 minutes! I like functional movement exercises which can be grouped in to any of the following five movements:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Hinge
  • Squat
  • Carry

I use an app to give me a workout. I tell it what equipment I have at home (a jump rope and kettlebells). It remembers those settings and every day I open it, I simply tap a button and I have a workout that covers 2-3 of the above movements.

That's right, just 2-3 movements. When was the last time you worked out and only did a maximum of three movements using only 2 pieces of equipment?

The first video on my YouTube channel gives a short demo (I'm not promoting this app or being paid by the creator to write about it):

A successful photograph is just as much what you don't capture as what you do.

Strip it all back

This article has strayed quite far from it's photographic starting point. So for the photographers still reading, take a few more seconds to think about your composition or lighting setup. Are all the elements in the frame contributing to the message you want to convey. Is there anything you can exclude? A successful photograph is just as much what you don't capture as what you do.

I think we can all gain more clarity and live happier, healthier and more successful lives by stripping back complexity.

Have a great day and let me know what you think.


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