What is minimalist photography, and how can you capture stunning minimalist photos?
Minimalism is a popular artistic technique, and it’s a great way to spice up your images. (It’s also a good way to generate lots of attention on social media.) But beginners often struggle to get to grips with minimalism, which is where this article comes in handy.
Below, I offer a deep dive into minimalism. I share:
- What minimalism photography actually is
- Key components of minimalist images
- A handful of easy tricks and tips you can use to improve your own minimalist shots
So if you’re ready to become a minimalism expert, then let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:
What is minimalist photography?
Thanks to their simplicity, minimalistic photos often have a characteristically meditative effect:
Note that minimalist photos generally feature some form of main subject (e.g., the boat in the image above). But subject presence is kept to a minimum; here, minimalist photographers often zoom out for a small-in-the-frame subject surrounded by empty space.
Some photographers are pure minimalists, choosing to capture images that are as simple as possible (e.g., a single tree surrounded by white snow). But other photographers incorporate minimalistic elements into their work alongside non-minimalistic elements. Either approach is fine – just do what feels right!
Key elements of minimalist photography
Minimalism can be applied to pretty much every genre of photography, including portrait, landscape, still life, architecture, and even street shooting. But minimalist photos do have a few key characteristics:
- Negative space. Minimalist photos tend to feature lots of empty, or negative, space. Negative space is composed of expanses of pure color or texture, such as a broad stretch of ocean or a grassy lawn. (And featureless white skies are a minimalist staple!)
- A small main subject. Minimalist compositions keep the subject small in the frame so that they’re dwarfed by negative space. As I discuss below, this can be done with a wide-angle lens or by shooting from a distance. In cases where the main subject isn’t small in the frame, it should be exceptionally simple (e.g., a few streaks of paint on a wall).
- Limited clutter. Minimalism emphasizes simplicity, and minimalist photos tend to feature a main subject, lots of empty space, and nothing else. Minimalist photographers carefully refine their compositions until no extra elements – such as poles or telephone lines in the background – exist. The more clutter you can eliminate from your shots, the more minimalist they’ll be.
If you like, you can look at the above list as a recipe for minimalist photos. As long as you include all three items, you’ll end up with a decent minimalist shot – and as you become more familiar with minimalist compositions, your results will become more and more powerful.
How to capture minimalist photos: 4 simple tips
Now that you know what minimalism is about, and you know the basic characteristics of all minimalist photos, I’d like to share a few tips to enhance your shots.
1. Pay attention to the background and the location
Minimalist photos rely on simplistic backgrounds full of negative space. Choose your background carefully, and you’ll be ready to capture plenty of great minimalist shots.
My advice: As soon as you arrive on location, start by looking around for stretches of negative space. On a beach, for instance, you might notice the sky, the ocean, the sand, and large cliffs or rocks.
Then you can try to locate subjects that are surrounded by these wide areas of negative space, such as a gull in the sky, a sailboat on the water, a bird nesting along a cliff face, and so on.
If you’re serious about minimalism photography, you can take this a step further:
You can deliberately select your outing locations based on their minimalist potential. Here are just a few locations that offer lots of minimalist opportunities:
- Industrial areas (with lots of empty walls)
Alternatively, if you like to do product or studio photos, simply place your subject in a lightbox or against a white background. Be sure the background is well lit, then take high-key shots to your heart’s content!
2. Choose your lens with care
You can use any type of lens for minimalistic photos, but certain lenses will suit specific environments, so whatever else you do, make sure you’re picking your lens carefully.
Minimalism often uses small-in-the-frame compositions, which requires one of two things:
- A wide field of view
- Plenty of distance between yourself and your subject
You can achieve a wide field of view with a wide-angle lens, and you can shoot minimalistic shots from a distance using a telephoto lens, but the two approaches are not interchangeable.
For one, certain environments aren’t amenable to telephoto photography. If you’re shooting in a city with narrow alleys, a 200mm focal length will be far too tight to get a nice small-in-the-frame effect, and a wide-angle lens will be the better choice.
On the other hand, wide-angle lenses aren’t always practical. What if you want to capture minimalist shots of distant mountains against stormy skies? Unless you’re prepared to do a lot of hiking, you’ll want a telephoto lens on hand.
So before you head out, think about the subjects you’ll be shooting and where you’ll be working. Ask yourself: Is a wide-angle lens practical? Is a telephoto lens too long?
(And when in doubt, take both!)
3. Change your angle
As you learned in a previous section, a big part of minimalism involves removing clutter from your photos.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy. Sure, portrait photographers can ask their subjects to move or even add a plain backdrop, but street photographers, landscape photographers, and architectural photographers rarely have such a luxury.
So unless you’re constantly in situations where you retain complete control over the scene, you’ll need to develop strategies to remove distracting elements from your photos.
My favorite strategy? A simple angle change!
You see, by adjusting your angle, you can quickly eliminate street signs, passersby, telephone lines, and so much more from your photos. I like to crouch down low so my subjects are framed against the sky (after all, the sky is pretty much always a great source of negative space!). You can also try stepping to the side or even getting up high.
If you find a subject you like and you almost have a minimalist photo, don’t fret. Take some time to slow down and try different angles; I bet that, after a bit of trial and error, you’ll find an alternative that makes the shot work.
Of course, if you find a truly outstanding shot but it’s ruined by a single element or two – such as a person standing behind your subject – you can always remove the problem in post-processing. Speaking of which:
4. Simplify in post-processing when necessary
It’s best to get your compositions right from the start.
There are times when creating a minimalist composition in camera is impossible, yet you really want to capture the photo. For instance, you might be faced by a stunning silhouette before a setting sun, yet you notice a lamppost that’s positioned just beside your subject.
In such cases, I recommend you take the shot (be sure to compose as if the intrusive object isn’t present). Then, in a program such as Photoshop or Lightroom, you can use a Healing Brush or Clone Stamp tool to remove the offending item. Assuming that your main subject doesn’t get in the way, you can generally get rid of a distracting object in a few seconds.
Even if you’re faced with multiple distracting objects, post-processing software can be a major help. Just don’t get in the habit of thinking “I can remove that later” every time you’re photographing a scene; otherwise, you’ll become lazy and your photographic development will stall!
Plus, while post-processing is great, it’s not always possible to remove every distraction with a bit of brushwork, so it’s best to do what you can while out shooting, and only rely on software when absolutely necessary.
Minimalist photography: final words
A lot of beautiful photos use minimalism to great effect. And now that you’ve finished this article, you can do the same!
So remember what I’ve said about minimalism. Head outside (or into your studio) and take some shots! Now over to you:
What type of subjects do you plan to photograph? What strategies do you plan to use to create minimalist, simplistic photography? Share your thoughts in the comments below!