What Is Minimalist Photography and How Do You Do It?

What the heck is minimalist photography? How do I take minimalist photos? And what kind of gear do I need to do it? Well, read on to find out the answers to those questions and more.

What Is Minimalism?

The term minimalism is thrown around a lot in photography, but it actually originated from the 1950s, linked to paintings and sculptures. Minimalism was then adopted by many other artistic pursuits and has even become a lifestyle movement where people rid themselves of clutter and mess in their own homes.

In photography, we talk about minimalism when there are simple, massive forms in our photos. Usually, this is where a subject is still decipherable but is simply captured with lots of negative space or large areas of calm, clutter-free sections.

What's the Difference Between Minimalism and Abstract Photography?

Minimalist and abstract photography are often falsely mistaken for one another, or the terms are used interchangeably. It's understandable because both styles can be simple, plain, and empty. There is some overlap between minimalism and abstract, but there are a few key differences you should be aware of.

Although minimal in appearance, this is actually considered an abstract photograph. It's hard to tell what the subject is due to the close-up nature of the image and the shallow depth of field. It could easily be mistaken for the underside of a fungus, but is, in fact, the edge of pages in a book.

Minimalism usually displays a subject in its entirety or at least clearly to the viewer. It's quite easy to spot this in photographs because you should be able to identify sections of the frame as particular elements either through exposure or focusing. For example, a long exposure of a seascape with a rock in it will have the rock appear steady and sharp so the viewer can identify that it is indeed a seascape.

Abstract photography, on the other hand, does not represent external reality and instead is designed to conjure thoughts, ideas, and other non-physical occurrences. Though the photo may be of something real, through a series of intentional processes by the photographer, the subject is no longer recognizable as something that exists in reality. This could be done through extreme close-up, intentional camera movement, or countless other in-camera or editing processes. 

What To Look For

How do you decide your photograph is minimalist? Or perhaps the wider question is how do you identify an opportunity to make something minimalist? Well, we can bring in some basic principles of photography that already exist in our practice. For example, if we require a clear headshot for someone, we may set up a plain background or seek out a shallow depth of field in order to blur a busy background, so as to put focus on the subject. The same idea can be applied to minimalism but should be intensified so as to remove as many distractions as possible without interrupting the capture of the intended subject.

How Do You Do It?

Let's take an example and see how I approach my own interpretation of minimalism in photography. I went down to the local nature reserve to see if I could spot any wildlife on the lake and was met with a fantastic early morning frost. There were many icy subjects to choose from, and I spent quite a while trying to take it all in with my 24mm lens. I tried several different angles where I could capture both the morning light and the fantastic plant life that was rich in the reserve, attempting to include the lake in each photo.

I started with a wide view of the reserve, but because the reeds had grown high, the lake was not visible from this shooting position.

Unfortunately, the lake was obscured by reeds, and I couldn't find a good enough vantage point to shoot it without getting power lines or a road in the shot. So, I switched my mindset into minimalist mode. I swapped lenses and put on my Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8GII ED lens (new version here) so that I could zoom in and focus on the water itself when I noticed something. There in the lake, a single upturned beech leaf was slowly drifting on the surface of the water.

After using a long lens to zoom in on the water, I spotted a beech tree leaf drifting quietly on the surface. A combination of the long lens and a shallow depth of field ensured a minimalist approach to capturing the leaf on the lake.

I zoomed in to 200mm and decided to completely fill the frame with the water so that only the leaf was visible, and the lake turned into a giant, simple backdrop. By eliminating the reeds from the photo and filling the frame with only water, the leaf was now my only subject, and it appeared like it was hanging in the air. The only part of the image that denotes the water is the leaf's reflection. I was pretty happy with my minimalist photo and realized shortly afterwards that almost anyone can do this if they can find a lake or pond. You could even just pour a little water from a bottle onto the floor outside and drop a leaf or a feather in it for the same effect.

What Gear Do You Need?

Any kit that you can shoot with is fine for minimalism, as it's a discipline that's not so gear-specific as to require strange lenses or high-end image sensors. The smartphone works great, but you have to bear in mind that the limited focal length range (unless using lens adapters) can make it difficult to isolate subjects, because smartphone cameras usually have wide angle lenses, which inherently have a wider field of view and larger depth of field.

Minimalist photography can be done with almost any gear; smartphones work just as well as point-and-shoot cameras. But cameras with interchangeable lens systems, such as DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, may help when trying to isolate subjects or create a shallow depth of field.

DSLR or mirrorless cameras (or point-and-shoot with zoom lenses) aren't necessarily better, but rather easier to shoot minimalism on because you can swap out wide angle lenses for longer focal lengths. Longer focal lengths are helpful for isolating subjects in busier environments, because you can zoom in and exclude extraneous details. The decreased depth of field that comes with longer lenses also helps to separate subjects from the background by placing it out of focus. The longer the lens, the more apparent this becomes, so a 600mm lens will be able to blur the background much more efficiently than a 50mm lens as in the example below.

Conclusion

If you've had success in taking minimalist photos, why not share your results below with the rest of the community?

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4 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

Appreciate the article, and I believe it's important to think about.

I'm a people photographer. I have really embraced the minimalist approach for awhile, now. With few exceptions, I typically prefer to have one light and one subject in the middle of the studio. Either simply sitting in a chair, on an apple box, standing, or sitting on the floor. For these kinds of shots I don't want a concept, theme, or costume to obscure the person being photographed.

It's not easy; especially for the person being photographed.

Matthew Lacy's picture

I've done some work in a minimalist theme, but nothing worth sharing here. If anyone reading is curious about learning more, visit Fstoppers' very own Minimalism, Abstract, Experimental group.

Musing Eye's picture

I like your distinction here between abstract and minimal. I've done some work that would be either in the bodyscape space, but not been as precise in thinking about such. Looking back I have some bodyscapes that are abstract, as they aren't clearly about being a human form any more but instead curves of light and shadow, while others are minimal in nature but are still clearly a human form and thus not abstract. Very interesting to think through.

Lara Harding's picture

Great article for photography lovers. In fact, a minimalist approach need careful thought, observation and the creativity of working within certain boundaries and discovering how much information to keep and how much to take away from the image before it loses impact. Please visit- http://www.webworldexperts.com/website-development-services.php