Three Reasons Why Minimalism Can Help Create a Better Photo

Three Reasons Why Minimalism Can Help Create a Better Photo

The natural tendency for a beginner photographer is to try to show as much as possible in their photos. They want to show everything that they're experiencing at the time. Under the right conditions, a wide-angle shot like that has its place. However, often, the better shot is the one that shows as little as possible. This technique in photography is called minimalism.

Because Less Is More Powerful

Minimalism centers around the idea that less is more powerful. In minimalist photography, the technique is to use as few elements as possible to construct the image, often reducing it down to just one key element.

Stripping the photo down to the bare essentials not only provides for a cleaner, less cluttered image, but it also makes the elements that you do include that much more powerful, that much more part of the story — or the only part of the story. It gives the subject more weight, more attention, and often more detail.

I don't recall where I heard it first, but someone once said: "No one knows what you left out of the photo." This is the key point of minimalism, to only show what you want to show, and to show it in its best, most powerful form.

In the following shot, the sunset wasn't the greatest, and I was watching the groups of people walking out to the lighthouse on the long pier. This one guy all by himself caught my eye, and I captured the photo below. I wanted to convey the loneliness of this one man, by himself, on the half-mile walk out to the lighthouse.

Pier Man - A long walk out to the lighthouse.

Minimalism can evoke curiosity and wonder in the viewer. This technique is often used to create abstract photos. By getting closer and showing only what you want to show, you can often make the image abstract or semi-abstract. It can make the viewer wonder or think about what they're looking at. It draws them into being part of the image.

Another aspect of minimalism is that it can be used at times when the lighting isn't optimum for a standard field of view photo. If the sky is white or dull grey, a wide shot of that tourist location with foreground and background elements isn't going to look that great. Take, for example, this shot of a location that many, if not most of you have seen before:

Gateway Arch in St. Louis Missouri.

With my back pressed up against one leg of the arch, I pointed the 17mm lens up to get as much of the arch as I could without getting any of the ground elements in the photo. There's almost no difference in the color version of this image as compared to the black and white version; that's just how gloomy it was. I was almost giddy when I took this photo, because I had planned for it, but I had envisioned a blue sky and white clouds. When I arrived, the sky was cloudless and overcast, almost white. After taking the photo, I think it actually makes the image better, as it's even more minimal and abstract than I envisioned.

Helps You Concentrate on the Subject and the Background

Minimalism has other benefits also. By eliminating or minimizing as much as possible, you are forced to concentrate more on the subject and the background.

When I shoot a subject, I know that I want to shoot the subject, so I don't concentrate on it first. I first concentrate on my background. I position the camera so as to get the best background that I can. Of course, you do have to consider the subject angle during this process, but often, moving just a little bit can greatly change the background. Also, consider if you want the background in focus or not.

Minimalism also forces you to pay closer attention to color, contrast, shadows, textures, patterns, and lines. Minimalism can also free you from the standard angle that others may shoot a subject from, as seen with my Gateway Arch photo above.

Butterfly chrysalis. Moving just an inch or so each direction greatly changed the location of the background colors.

Forces You to Implement Pleasing Composition

Minimalism encourages you to implement a pleasing composition. Unlike a composition that has multiple elements that can be placed in numerous locations, a single subject often lends itself to just a couple of possible compositions.

Consider balance when using minimalism. Everything in the photo will have more visual weight.  Watch the dark areas and light areas and the amount of the image they cover. Consider the balance of the subject to the background, which can either make the subject stand out more or make it blend in. Each can greatly change the mood of the image when the subject is so isolated.

Negative space in a minimal composition can greatly influence the mood of the photo, often adding a feeling of isolation, loneliness, or an indication of the great expanse of space or the relative size of the subject.

Filling the frame with the subject can also aid a minimalist composition by revealing details normally not seen at a normal viewing distance or making the subject larger than life.

Signs of fall - I wanted to show the fall colors and the detail of the veins in the leaves, nothing else mattered.

Minimalism can also help or guide you in creating an image that tells a story. In December, before we got any lasting snow here in Michigan but while it was still pretty cold, I was at the lake hoping to get a nice sunset (which didn't happen that night). I observed four girls rollerblading on the pier leading to the lighthouse. It wasn't the normal thing that you would see this time of year, but it made for a great photo about them enjoying their time out with friends regardless of the weather. It made for a great story that despite the weather, they still got to skate in December.

Skating in December - Rollerblades replace ice skates when there's no snow.

Conclusion

So whether it's subject enhancement, mood creation, or indication of scale, minimalism can greatly improve your photos. I wouldn't say that you always want to go for absolute minimalism, but in the right situation, it can be just the little touch that your photo could use.

When constructing your photo, decide if each element is necessary or not. Ask yourself what each element adds to the photo. If it doesn't add to the photo, try to eliminate it. Avoid items creeping in on the sides of the frame. Eliminate unwanted items using focal length, positioning, composition, focus, or exposure. You're in control of the photo, make it a great one.

What kind of minimalism techniques do you use?

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16 Comments

Jerry Maxwell's picture

This was my first time on this site. I really liked this article, Its something I will have to practice in my own photography.

zeissiez lee's picture

Well, not always. A photo with lots of elements can be good too, if the elements are correlated. https://www.zeissiez.com/bangladesh?lightbox=dataItem-iqkg6kah2

I generally tend to include "ample negative space" in my definition. Some images may have razor-sharp focus on subject with little else in context, but when the subject becomes too large within the frame, the image generally loses its narrative and becomes more of a straight representation of reality, a close-up or a study in detail like a macro shot. If this wouldn't be part of the definition, then close-up portraits for example would also fall under minimalism.

The opening image is possibly representative. It has a clear singular subject, but it no longer strikes me as minimalist, since the subject could be further abstracted to really separate the remarkable elements from the surrounds. In this case a notable typical green of the duck's head in a sea of gray for example.

Both the pier shots by contrast, do show a lot of negative space creating mood for the narrative, and focussing the viewer on the subject. The subjects in either case can be completely void of detail, since the general feel is immediately clear.

Timothy Turner's picture

Your photo and your point is correct, but the author is talking about one specific theme, he is not discounting all other forms of photography, bu the way, I really liked your photo, it tells a story, and is a very strong image

PixoPal Retouching's picture

This is a very strong recommendation for e-commerce, where you want to convey the product story. Good article Mike, we are sharing this ahead.

Ruth Carll's picture

Great article! I'd love to see those interested in minimalism join the Minimalism, Abstract, Experimental group here on fStoppers. It is a great place to try out this subject!

https://fstoppers.com/groups/230825/minimalism-abstract-experimental

Gary Gray's picture

Good advice

Does anyone proof-read anymore? Mimimalism?

Well, learned something there! Ran everything else through the checks, forgot to do the title. :) Thanks!

Plus how can a sky be cloudless AND overcast? I'm not a native English speaker but still ... overcast means there is cloud cover, no?

I guess "overcast" alone could have summed it up well enough. What I meant was that there were no defined cloud edges.

Ok so it seems the editor had a 'Mimimalism' moment with the headline :)

Excellent essay. Minimalism ... isolation ... emphasis on a subject ... whatever one calls the process, the endeavor almost always improves the final product. And the process is a learning experience in itself as you note.

My approach to minimalism first is to identify a subject and then to isolate using appropriate techniques. If I can point to one thing in a contemplated image — an object or person — I generally use shallow depth of field often combined with control of natural light.

Minimalism combined with ample surround space has another benefit: It leaves room for creative cropping in the darkroom.

I have an advantage over many photographers: I work for me, not someone else, and I work slowly. I have no auto-focus equipment, and I shoot only manual, prime lenses. The lenses have hyperfocal distance scales engraved on the barrels, but I've used lenses of this sort for so long, I know their behaviors at various apertures and working distances (distance-to-subject and distance from subject-to-background) without having to measure. Plus it helps that I zoom with my feet, not my equipment. That eliminates yet another variable.

The system I use hasn't changed much over the decades, and I don't chase auto-everything equipment. Facial, or lately, eye-recognition focusing software? Please! With those annoying 'capabilities,' why even bother with the photographer?

Keeping to manual photography gives me both time and mindset to master the equipment I have. Some of my lenses were manufactured in the 1960s, and their character is just as alive today as the days when these lenses were hand-made and hand-assembled. Unless you look closely and know what you're seeing, most people are not able to distinguish among this system of lenses made in the 60s vs. those made today.

Finally, it takes effort to see a scene and practice to find the focus. Perhaps the light is right at the moment, but maybe it was better earlier or will be better later. Or better yet from a different vantage point. Or a different day.

Pause and ponder. Then press the shutter release.

Ziggy Stardust's picture

On bird photography forums you see an increasing number of close crops, and they are often instantly forgettable. There's been no thought given to composition or moment.
Folk have spent up big on gear and are giving us close shots with huge detail - but these are tools to tell the story, not the story.

Agreed. That's where the photographer has to make the call on what the best composition is. It's not about *absolute minimalism*, but enough to still tell the story or capture the moment. Normally a bird photographer is already minimalizing some just by using a telephoto lens.