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