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Minimalism is one of those movements that some people see as a recent fad or newfangled things, like fidget spinners or man buns. In reality, minimalism is a true case of making what was once old new again, and unlike the aforementioned man bun, that’s a good thing.
In photography, minimalism is an obvious visual statement; the story of the photograph is simplified, elements are reduced, and clean space is added. Not only has minimalist photography become its own genre (you can see some excellent examples of minimal imagery here), but photographers specializing in the discipline have come into their own, creating a revitalized, attractive space of art for us all to enjoy.
Minimalism (even in photography) isn’t new. Before the term became ubiquitous and synonymous with “new” and “clean”, the style existed in various forms under other names. It has had a profound and positive influence on photography as it exists in the modern world.
But do you have to fully embrace specializing as a minimalist photographer to benefit from the advantages of the style? Absolutely not! Each of the tips below can work for almost any kind of photography. Let’s explore some of the guidelines and see how you can apply them to your own work, regardless of genre or type.
As with any photo, the story is the most important thing to convey to your viewer. In minimalism, you want to tell that story as efficiently as possible. That means clean backgrounds, negative space where appropriate, and a well-defined subject.
We will discuss background and separation of the subject in more detail below, but generally, you don’t want any distracting elements in ANY photograph. Keeping your background clean, whether through blurring, or using a solid color or simple texture can remove any unwanted distractions.
Negative space is defined as the margin around your subject and other important objects in your composition. Properly used, this space accentuates what you actually want the viewer to deem as most important in the photo.
When looking through the viewfinder at a potential shot, take a moment to get a feeling of the complexity of what you’re seeing. If the composition feels muddy or hard to discern, recompose your image to include some extra negative or white space around your subject.
Wide-open apertures along with proper positioning of the subject to background tend to make smooth, creamy backgrounds, separating it from the subject of the photo. This is right up the minimalist’s alley. Having a solid or smoothly blurred background really isolates what you want to highlight in the photo, and keeps the viewer’s eye from being overrun by more complex patterns to distinguish.
In some photos, you may not want that blurred effect on your background. Many landscape photos, for example, are shot using stopped-down apertures such as f/11 or f/16, because you want most of the scene in focus. This is because, in those situations, the entire scene can be the subject. In those situations, using color or patterns are other ways of separating the subject from your background.
But many other types of photos, especially nature and portraiture, benefit greatly from a wider aperture and using that to create separate layers in the image. Experimenting with the effects that aperture and distance have on that separation can provide many different looks for the same composition.
One of the most powerful methods of constructing a minimalist image is by using color to create a contrast. While you don’t necessarily have to go to the extremes that you would in a completely minimalist photo, picking two or even three colors that juxtapose well with each other and featuring them prominently in the textures of the image can improve the attractiveness of the shot.
While minimalist photographs tend to use large areas of solid contrasting colors to establish simplicity, other photography can benefit by keeping the color palette small and using colors that work well together or invoke a particular feeling in the viewer. For example, I find one of the most intriguing and pleasing color combinations to the eye to be blue and red, as in this example of the old red rowboat on the shore (bel0w).
Using a color wheel (as shown below), you can identify color harmony, which are complementary color combinations that are pleasing to the eye. Then try to use those color combinations in your images.
Because minimalist photography tends to feature very simple compositions, lines and textures are often used to improve upon storytelling and point the viewer in the right direction. Finding natural leading lines in your compositions can help guide the eyes of the viewer where you want them to go, which allows you to minimize the number of elements in your photo needed to tell the story.
Lines can be found everywhere; train tracks, roads, sidewalks, and buildings are just a few examples. While they are easy to find, it is just as easy to misuse them and confuse the viewer. If the line is easy to pick out, then it should lead the eyes somewhere relevant. Lines should not lead the viewer randomly away from the subject, or out of the frame with no real destination.
Texture can be a powerful element in a photograph, especially when an entire image is built around it. Obviously most often used when shooting subjects in the natural world around us, textures are a tool that can communicate many things to the viewer, including emotions, mood, light, and darkness.
Because of the limited language of minimalism, texture itself is often used as the subject, usually in the form of repeated patterns. All photography, however, can benefit from its strategic use. What is the effect when the subject features a consistent, repeating texture, as opposed to one that consists of an uneven texture made up of objects of varying size and smoothness?
Can millions of grains of smooth beach sand, saturated with ocean water, serve as a different backdrop than a large area of broken shells and sand mixed together? What type of effect will this have on the viewer’s perception of the image?
As photographers, regardless of skill level, we are destined to be students of an innumerable amount of subjects. We must constantly keep learning, and apply the things we learn to our work, to keep innovating our style, invigorating our images, and keep our viewers interested.
While minimalist photography is very popular today and is an intriguing discipline, it’s not the chosen style for us all. But the ability to take the most important points from that genre and apply it to your own work is what elevates you as a photographer, and keeps you on top of your game.
What are your thoughts on the current state of minimalism, and its influence on art and photography? Is minimalism your favorite photography style? Have some minimalist images of your own to share? Let’s discuss this and more in the comments below.