When people ask me how to make their photographs better I often tell them to simplify their images. I tell them to clearly show their subjects and get distracting elements out of the frame. This is mostly because beginners compositions tend to be too loose and have lots of stuff in the frame that has nothing to do with the subject. This is what I call the "brown dot" photo. You know what I mean. You friend/family member comes back from vacation and excitedly shows you this awesome photo of a wild critter that they got. But what is in the picture is a bunch of trees, rocks, sky and a little brown speck that you are told is a bear, moose, wildebeest, bigfoot, whatever.
Get close. Get tight. Show me the subject and get the junk out of the way! This advice usually improves their photography greatly if they take it to heart. But frankly a complex composition is a very advanced technique. When you have lots of layers in your shot you have a much greater amount of images that simply don't work. However sometimes sticking things in your frame supports the subject or in other ways helps the shot. In other ways they save the shot.
Case study #1: Kate
Kate is a consultant and works out of an office only slightly larger than your coat closet. Really. I was assigned to do a portrait but her office wasn't going to cut it. The entry way of the building had this wall of frosted glass and some comfy chairs so I had her back lit by the windows. I put my small Chimera soft box slightly to camera right and a 10degree spot grid behind her at camera right. There was a flower arrangement nearby so I took it and with my 28-70 set to 70mm and wide open at f/2.8 I moved the flowers around right on the lens hood until I got an interesting color pattern to frame her with. The dark stuff at the top of the frame and the tan-ish blob is the flowers.
Case study #2: Lee
Much like the situation with Kate i.e. nothing to work with for context, Lee is an administrator of an outreach program for immigrants. He's not a teacher but a desk dude. I met him at a school where they do english instruction. After some shots of him in a classroom situation I noticed that at the front doors the school had a display of soda bottles for a project on plastic recycling. They were mostly clear but I knew that if I had Lee stand under one of the ceiling lights as a "spot light" and color corrected for the tungsten bulb the bottles would go blue. So I positioned him and went outside. Again that's my 28-70 at 70mm and f/2.8.
Case study #3 messy eats:
There is a gyros cart that shows up only late on weekends in downtown Boulder to cater to the party/drinking crowd. I was doing a story on places like this one and while hanging with some gyros fans I got this shot. The looming and out of focus dude on the right makes for a very layered frame and makes you feel like you are right in the thick of things. I tend to find that frames like this work better of the big blob is on the right as we tend to read images from left to right. This was my 28mm f/1.4 @ f/2.8.
Case study #4 Pari:
Was doing a profile piece on Pari, who is a chef from India, and it talked about how family centered the cusine is. I was spending some time with her family and while she was playing with her daughter at the kitchen sink I made this. I saw the cut lemons and glass on the counter so I put my lens up against them for color and texture. You can't tell what the objects are but they create a more 3 dimentional composition than if I didn't have something in there to frame the moment with.
These shots are almost always much harder to make successful than a clean frame. If there isn't something immediately noticable to layer in the frame I tend to get cleaner "straight" shots first. But after that is done I try to find a way to get something with more depth. Usually the answer is to let things get wierd. They don't often work but when they do it's pretty neat-o.