Analyzing Elegance

by John Warden

This article was first published in the Spring 2017 issue of BC Nature Magazine

  • An Attractive Aura of Mystery
  • Simple Elegance
  • Flow

I’ve been watching the seagulls around the Saanich Peninsula, as they effortlessly sideslip across the winter winds that we’ve been experiencing for the past couple of months. They tack like sailboats, heading into the wind, sliding almost sideways across the upwelling off-shore winds. Over and over, flights of gulls perform an aerial ballet that seems to have nothing to do with feeding and everything to do with a sheer joy of flying. There is a surprising and pleasing elegance to their aerial efforts and they seem to be flying because they want to and because they’re very good at it. At least one definition suggests that elegance is related to ‘refinement, grace, and beauty in movement, appearance, or manners’. Elegance then seems to be grace and beauty in movement. That seems to express it pretty well for me, but then, the word elegance is also used in relation to systems design and mathematics. Azad M. Madni subtitled titled his 2012 paper on elegant systems design as ‘the creative fusion of simplicity and power’. Well, I like that description as well. Then I found Matthew May’s book, ‘The Pursuit of Elegance’. He suggests that:

Something is elegant if it is two things at once: unusually simple and surprisingly powerful. One without the other leaves you short of elegant (May, 2009).

That’s a powerful statement. He goes on to say that:

Sometimes the “unusual simplicity” isn’t about what’s there, it’s about what isn’t. Simplicity is about an ability to strip something down to its core, conceptually and visually, seducing the viewer to engage their own thoughts to complete the mystery of what’s not there.

These are good explanations of the elements of elegance, but when it comes to nature photography, I think that flow plays a part as well. Flow is about the soft, graceful, seemingly effortless and fluid movements we see in ballet, tai chi and aikido. In photography, we can evoke a sense of flowing movement by using a slow shutter speed. Keeping our camera's shutter open for fractionally longer moments of time will allow for more movement to be recorded in the image. My photograph of a waterfall at Sandcut Beach, west of Sooke, BC, can serve as an example. By using a one second exposure the falling water becomes a soft and flowing veil of mist. Well, what would it look like if I could slow down the seagulls I’ve been watching?

Over three or four days, I took nearly a thousand images of seagulls flying around Saanichton Bay. I learned as I deleted. Bad, bad, bad, no good, bad!

Fortunately, with digital photography, there is no cost for experimentation, so, I kept trying. Bad, bad, not bad, okay, good, pretty good! Then finally... ‘Hey! This one works. There’s something quite elegant to this image!’

My first successful elegance photograph was a very simple expression of a bird in flight, with a blend of blurred yet beautifully flowing wing movements. Grey on white, the image reflects the simple style of an ink wash painting. Unusually simple and yet, it is surprisingly powerful because... it’s a photograph, not a painting!

While it was a good start, the image felt kind of flat to me, two-dimensional, sort of greeting cardish. So I kept trying and then one afternoon, shooting into the afternoon light, I got to know the drama of visual elegance. Out of the roaring winds, in a little protected cove, the seagulls again, were putting on an aerobatics display and they were amazing. Exposures of a quarter of a second returned some very nice chiaroscuro like results, bright wings and soft flowing lines against a dark background. The images are intriguing, alluring even and I return to Matthew May to explain the attraction.

The unusual simplicity of elegance, of what isn’t there, drives us to resolve our curiosity. Leaving something out, something for the viewer to imagine and engage with, creates an irresistibly attractive aura of mystery.

One of the most common recommendations that professional photographers make to those just entering the field, is to ensure that your images are tack sharp. And that’s usually good advice. Exploring the elements of elegance however, allows us to slow things down. We are allowed to blur the lines of reality and in doing so, experience a lingering fascination. Seduced by elegance, we silently remark with an exhalation of awe. Wow, what am I seeing here, why do I feel such an attraction to this image?

Understanding the component parts of visual elegance is a bit like author and evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins’ comments on unweaving the rainbow. By understanding the aesthetics of elegance we are better able to appreciate the beauty of the natural world around us. In doing so, we add a little elegance to our lives.


Madni, A. M. (2012). Elegant systems design: Creative fusion of simplicity and power. Systems Engineering , 347 - 354.

May, M. E. (2009). In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing. Broadway Books.

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