The Art of "Less is More" in Filmmaking and Photography

Ron Dawson
min read
The Art of "Less is More" in Filmmaking and Photography

I’m huge fan of inspirational photo quotes. They have a way of making you get up, get out, and conquer the world. Here's one that has always had a special place for me:

Train station - standstill quote

As much as I love inspiring quotes like this, there is that cynical side of me that has to ask: “What the hell does that actually mean? How does it look…practically?”

So I wanted to address that. I don’t just want to post “Stuart Smalley” style quotes into the ether. I love to give practical application.

The Brass Tacks

At its core, this is a metaphor. The concept is basically this: in a world where everyone is doing “a lot,” you can stand out when you do less. Less can be more. Examples would include:

  • In a season of blockbuster mega movies like Shang-Chi, The Eternals, and The Fast Franchise, small movies like Zola (based on a viral Twitter thread of all things), still make a lot of buzz.
  • When scrolling through a sea of podcasts to find one to add to my growing podcast smorgasbord, the podcast art with the simplest design or color scheme is often the one I see first.
  • When everyone else’s films are filled with VFX and super high production values, you can make a small black and white film, with no dialog, that gets half a million views on Vimeo alone.
  • Instead of a powerful, cinematic score with swelling music, sometimes the lack of a soundtrack makes a film or scene more powerful. So that when music is actually used, it’s more potent.
  • When everyone is doing silly dances or crazy magical stunts on TikTok, a simple Korean dad sharing his favorite slice of pizza or Korean food suggestions, can get millions of followers.

Get it? Simpler is often sweeter.

Just Stop

This short video I made way back in the day is one of the best practical ways I've seen how "stopping" can help you stand out. While in the middle of the hustle and bustle of New York, my client wanted to create a video about "standing out." We then found this staircase in front of a major post office where for a brief moment, there was no one going in or out, despite there being hundreds of people, cars, and trucks whizzing by on the street and sidewalk.

Less is more

One of the hardest things for me to do as an artist is cut my art. To make my videos shorter. To reduce the number of clips in my portfolio. To keep blog posts under a certain word-count. Do you ever have that problem? Be honest. When you’re sitting in front of your computer weaving together your latest opus, admiring the beauty of your handiwork, don’t you hear that voice in your head saying, “Wow. Look at that beautiful slider shot. That’s GOT to go in. Oh, and this one too. And this one. And I can’t leave out the time-lapse I spent two weeks figuring out how to do. Ahhh…that shot of the tiny Chihuahua is so precious. That’s got to be in there too. Oh, and I can’t forget this slider shot.”

And it’s not just us filmmakers. Photographers suffer from it too. If the online portfolios I’ve seen are any indication, seems like it’s just as hard for photographers to limit themselves as it is for us filmmakers

But there is one truth in filmmaking and photography I’ve come to learn and respect: less really can be more. (In the world of filmmaking, they call editing “cutting” because it's a call-back to when you'd literally cut physical film to edit. But it can also just as equally stand for cutting out all the "fat" from your project.) You have to make the hard choices necessary to get your work down to the absolute shortest it can possibly be. Sometimes you have to be ruthless about it. Whether it’s a film you’re editing, or your online portfolio. There are three great reasons to keep it short:

  • Increase the chance the whole thing will be viewed. Whether it’s a promotional video for a client, a wedding video trailer, a YouTube sketch, an Instagram or TikTok video, or an online portfolio, the shorter the piece, the greater chance the whole thing will be watched.
  • Reduce the chance of the viewer losing interest in your work. This benefit is most applicable to how many photos or videos you decide to put in your online portfolio. You should only show the best of the best. If you throw everything you have on your portfolio, including those pieces which you know are only “okay,” you risk the person viewing your portfolio to become less interested. As my senior year high school English teacher Mr. Nicholson used to say with regards to our essays, “Give my fudge, not cotton candy.”
  • Improve your own editing skills. The discipline of shortening your work will really sharpen your own editing skills. The more you learn to cut out the excess, the better you’ll be at zeroing in on those clips, soundbites or photos that really tell the best story.

“Too Many Notes”

The clip below is from one of my favorite movies, Amadeus. I don’t want to set it up. Just watch. Luckily, as you can see, it’s short enough for you to get through the whole thing, despite your busy day.

As you watch it, look at Mozart’s face and consider his reaction. Do you ever look and feel like that when confronted with the possibility that you have just…too much? (As a fun game, as you watch the video, substitute the word “notes” for clips or photos or slider shots and the word “ear” for eye and “hear” for watch.)


[Header image by Ahmer Kalam on Unsplash]

December 2, 2021

About the author

Ron Dawson

Ron Dawson

Ron is a seasoned content marketer, filmmaker, podcaster, and published author with over 25 years of experience helping brands tell engaging stories. He's the lead content strategist and owner of Blade Ronner Media and serves as the managing editor of the Story Times blog.

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