I love storytelling images filled with emotive details, yet I’m equally fond of images that, with barely anything in the frame at all, make a soul-stinging impact on the viewer. Such is the evocative power of the art of minimalism.
Believe me when I say, after packing up and moving my household three times in 4 years, I’ve come to value a kind of minimalism in my lifestyle. I’ve learned what I truly do and do not need. That’s true of photography as well, where incorporating a minimalist aesthetic has led to carefully executed and compelling works of art.
Minimalism is as subjective in photography as is any style of art. That is, what appears simple and soothing to one viewer might strike another as deep and complex, or have no meaning at all to another. This openness for interpretation can cause the photographer to feel uncertain about sharing her vision. It might boost your confidence to learn some elements of minimalism that help you capture the strength and essence of your subject, and take your images from mundane to intriguing.
Here are six elements of minimalist photography to think about as you create your powerfully simple frames:
Keeping it simple doesn’t mean keeping it boring. In fact, a minimalist approach requires careful thought, observation and the creativity of working within certain boundaries — exploring how much information to keep and how much to take away from the image before it loses impact.
2. Negative space
What you do with negative (or empty) space is contrary to what the term implies. Negative space is the element that determines how freely the eye moves about in the image, and directs the eye to a place to rest. Negative space can be smooth, textured, colored, and/or even contain some detail. We’re surrounded by such open, blank canvases in everyday life: an overcast sky, a calm lake, a blanket of snow, a thick haze of fog, an open field, an unadorned wall.
Negative space in minimalist photography has visual mass. The key to the amount and placement of negative space is achieving a balance between the impact of it and your subject. This openness is meant to create breathing room for the subject, but not lose the prominence of the subject entirely. That said, not all images require expansive negative space to make an impact.
3. Powerful composition
I can’t over-emphasize how much composition matters in minimalism photography. An appealing placement of the subject creates ease when our eyes read the image. Otherwise, our eyes are going to swirl around, looking for an anchor in the image, and do it over and over again until we lose interest. I often work with the rule of thirds, or even a smidge tighter when I’m composing minimalistic images. This technique helps bring the eye from left to right, or top to bottom, and creates a balance without perfect symmetry. That’s important: Although your subject may be the smallest element in the frame, it needs to become the most significant once the eye comes to rest on it.
1. If the flow of the image doesn’t feel right, a simple horizontal flip of the image in post-production might be an easy fix.
2. View the image in thumbnail size to evaluate the overall balance of the composition.
3. There are always exceptions to the rules — sometimes the subject belongs front and center in the frame.
Because the frame will contain so little, it’s important to think about the nature of your subject, and how its relevance in the frame will create an impact on the viewer. How will you isolate the subject, whether it’s a lone tree in a field or a bird on a wire? By eliminating all other distractions from the scene, the viewer can really connect with the subject.
1. Move around your subject until you find a way to isolate it. Get low to the ground or shoot upward toward the sky to change perspective and eliminate unwanted distractions in the frame.
2. If changing perspective doesn’t achieve your goal, use a shallow depth of filed to separate your background from the main subject. Beautiful bokeh can bring subtle, soft tones to your negative space.
While I certainly love a beautiful black-and-white conversion for minimalist images, bold colors in minimalism certainly do have a place. Color can give the image a big dose of wow. It’s about finding complementary colors (refer to a color wheel), and how those colors will complement the simplicity you are working to achieve.
Another play on color is to use a small amount of it. A simple pop of color can be an element that draws the eye. I love to use just one or two colors, and when I do, I make sure that negative space does not compete with, but rather complements my use of color.
Whether you use black and white or color in your minimalistic photograph, there needs to be contrast in the tones or your subject could fade into the sea of vastness. That contrast should feel both harmonious and bold.
6. Lines and shapes
Leading lines guide the eyes through an image and can contribute to the viewer’s sense of isolation, separation, distance, and scale. With little other information to go by, leading lines are often necessary.
Shapes work well to create a sense of abstract in your frame. Think of using repetition, symmetry or geometry to frame a subject or draw attention. Strong, unique shadows can also captivate and pull a viewer into the frame.
When shooting minimalistic images, I use my Nikon D750 and a 70-200mm lens almost always to give me a tight point of view.
I love shooting on overcast days, as the lightly textured sky provides a gentle canvas. If I’m unable to execute the image I had in mind, for some reason, I’ll do a little (or a lot) of work with the patch or clone tools in Photoshop to get me there. I also will use Curves (in Lightroom) or Levels (in Photoshop) to add contrast.
Cameras: Nikon D750, D7100
Lenses: AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM, AF-S Nikkor 85mm f/1.8G lens, AF-S Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8G ED; AF-S Nikkor 35mm f/1.4G lens, Sigma 17-70mm f/2.8-4 DC Macro OS HSM Art, Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM Art
Accessories: Manfrotto Tripod, ExpoDisc White Balance Filter