Five Steps to Incredible Minimalist Photography

Minimalism is a fascinating genre of photography and one, which can deliver some incredible and powerful photos. This is the genre where “less is more” really shines. Here I share five steps you can take to create incredible minimalist photos.

It seems that the term minimalism is used a little broader in contemporary photography, than the clear-cut historical definition, and has become synonymous with extreme simplicity. Interpretation, symbolism, and expression are preserved, whereas it was something the artists of the 1960s sought to avoid. “Less is more” is the widely adopted guiding principle of minimalism. It is any design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect and it is that principle I will use throughout this article. If you want the full experience and all the examples, be sure to watch the above video, as I cover everything and more than what I can put into text in this article.

I have found that there is a very fine line between catching that one simple photo, which speaks to you and has some meaning and purpose to it, and just taking what I find to be a boring photo. Because we are humans, this line is of course often rather subjective. Others can interpret what I find to be a boring photo as a masterpiece and vice versa. So, what do minimalist photos have in common and what steps can you take to make a minimalist photo?

Step 1:One Subject

Generally, most minimalist photos have one subject, which also works as the focal point. There should be no doubt about what you are supposed to look at. In the below example the boat is the subject of the photo. So, find yourself something specific to photograph.

Step 2: Simplification

Simplifying and removing distractions is always a good idea in your photos. Minimalist photos just take it a few steps further. The before/after example below from a waterfall in Iceland is already rather simple and clean. However, it not really minimalist. If we zoom in and only focus on the waterfall the photo is not necessarily better, but it is certainly much more simple and minimalist.

The question is if a photo can be too simple? I have photographed the black church in Iceland on several different occasions. In these two examples, the composition is completely the same, but the weather is very different, which makes for two completely different outcomes. Both photos are super simple and one could argue both of them are also minimalist, but the snowy photo is obviously simpler and more minimalist than the not-snowy photo. Is the snowy version too simple or too boring? Which one do you prefer?

Step 3: The Power of Negative Space

Generally, there are also large portions of uncluttered and clean sections in minimalist photos. This is often referred to as negative space. Negative space is the empty space between your subjects. These large portions are of course empty and the result is to greatly emphasize the parts of the photo, which are not empty – your subject or subjects. I bet that the second you lay your eyes on the photo below, you were immediately drawn to the trees. Because most of this drone shot is empty, or at least monotonous you are drawn to the area of highest contrast (the trees) your brain cannot help it. That is the power of negative space.

The interesting part of using a lot of negative space is it gives a sense of solitude in a big, big world. Take the below photos from the Faroe Islands as an example. We have a lot of negative space next to the two sea stacks, and if we zoom a bit out the sense of solitude becomes even stronger. Again, the power of negative space

Adding a lot of negative space usually compromises the sense of scale so be aware of that. It is hard to understand that the two sea stacks are 81 and 68 meters tall.

Step 4: Composition

Besides what I’ve already mentioned minimalist photos are generally comprised of simple geometric shapes such as triangles, lines, and curves and placements of your subject either centrally in your photo, in accordance with the rule of thirds, golden ratio, or something extreme as in the corners or close to the edge. The point is the lines and subjects of your photos are placed in an orderly manner.

Take the below photo for example. It is easy to see the two parallel lines along the fence and this massive snow shower. I didn’t have much to work with in this scene, but I really found the dramatic change from the golden light in the background to the wall of snow fascinating, so I lined up the fence to compliment the edge of the shower.

With the bridge in the lower-left corner, the composition is rather extreme but because of the very few elements it still works quite well. The horizon is placed on the lower third line and the crescent moon helps to balance the photo.

The below photo is divided into three equally large sections. The top clouds, the bottom mossy, grassy, lava, dirty ground, and the middle section with the power lines. The power lines even follow a very soothing rhythm into the background and disappear. If you have multiple objects or the same object contains several different sections a strict repetition is often a great feature.

Step 5: Post-Processing

We are of course in the realm of fine artsyish landscape photography and post-processing contains some great tools that you can use to purposefully get whatever is inside your head out in a final photo, but it is also a great process to just sit and chill without too much brainpower and see what comes of it.

With regards to minimalism, as I have already mentioned, it is important to clean up your photo from various distractions and fixing unwarranted mistakes such as wobbly horizons and editing artifacts like haloes.

What you can also do is of course control your tones; you can go towards the brighter tones and almost remove all the details in the highlights and thereby simplifying the photo. This is also known as high-key photography.

You can also take your photos in the darker direction and almost crush the blacks and let most of the photo be black. That is called low-key photography.

Speaking of black and white. It is usually also in the editing phase where you do the black and white conversions. I personally rarely shoot with the intent of turning a photo black and white and therefore rarely end up with a black and white photo. Going for black and white does remove the entire dimension of color and thereby simplifies your photo. The question is if this is what you want. The below photo actually works great in both color and black and white from a purely aesthetic point of view. However, their interpretations are vastly different.

I find that the color version is more “true” to what the photos were about in the first place. The yellow canola field, lone tree, and puffy clouds give an optimistic vibe of summer, although with plenty of contrast to still make it an interesting photo. Making the photo black and white flips the interpretation on its head. All emphasis is now on light and contrast. The summer vibe is completely gone and is now replaced by dark contrasty drama. This might be what you want to show, but the point is you are the one to decide.

Be sure to check out the video above for even more examples and a dive into the historical background of minimalism. Let me hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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11 Comments

Robert Dichtel's picture

Fantastic photos. Fantastic text. Fantastic narration. Inspirational! Thanks.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thanks a lot, Robert!

John Nixon's picture

Excellent article

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Much appreciated, John! :)

Hans Gunnar Aslaksen's picture

Some great tips in this article!

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Thank you, Hans! 👍

Tor-Ivar Næss's picture

Solid stuff buddy! The article was not very minimalistic though

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Haha! No, I know! One of the longest I've written :p

Kai Hornung's picture

As with most genres in photography it is rather indistinct what a minimalist image really is. To me many images which are declared as minimalist, are not minimalist at all. The more elements you see in an image, the less it’s minimal to me.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Yes, I completely agree. That was the hard part of this article / video. Trying to describe what is usually instinct :)

Mikkel Beiter's picture

Great video Mads! I really enjoyed it :-)