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Minimalist Landscapes: Why Is It so Difficult When There’s so Little in the Frame?

Minimalist Landscapes: Why Is It so Difficult When There’s so Little in the Frame?

Minimalist photography by and large captures my imagination far more compared with traditional landscape photographs. I also I find that the less that’s in the frame, the more challenging it is to photograph. Go figure.  

The thing about minimalist landscape photography is that the use of negative space is what sets it apart from traditional landscape photography. It’s also negative space that makes the difference between a good and bland photograph. Unlike traditional landscape photographs where leading lines, vectors, horizon lines, or curves to create a sense of movement, you instead have minimal (obviously) textures, shapes, or colors. Instead of filling the frame, you make efforts to leave much of it blank. The effort is to maximize the photograph’s negative space while leaving enough context to stir up emotion. That’s not to say that the use of leading lines, vectors and such aren’t still important. 

Everything is Minimal

One thing that I’ve learned that has made the largest difference in improving my work is that in most respects, all attributes of the photograph should be minimalized. I know, this seems like should go without saying. For my initial attempts, however, I allowed for a cloud in the sky or a range of colors on my subject. In principle, there should be more negative space than textures, colors, or shapes. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be any of those attributes. Indeed, then you would just have a blank sterile photograph. Instead, it is about practicing creativity and beauty while being restrained. 

Another thing that I’ve found to be helpful is to avoid foregrounds. In my experience, while foregrounds can add an element of interest when using a wide-angle lens, they have a tendency to complicate the frame and make it more difficult to pare down what is in the frame. To do this, I find it much easier to get a fair amount of distance between me and the subject, get some height if at all possible to avoid noise finding its way in the frame, and to use a telephoto lens to keep the environment out. 

Why I’m Not Good at Minimalism

The fact of the matter is that I find this type of landscape photography most beautiful but most difficult. Try and try as I do, high quality work eludes me. I know that my work has progressed but there is still a lot of progress to be made. Namely, I would like to focus on cleaner transitions from subject to sky. So far, I’ve found my best work has been monochromatic. In my case, that is black and white but monochromatic can be for any color – not just black. 

Compared to this time last year, my favorite landscape work remains mountain photography. The lenses that have used to produce these images have been my 150mm and 300mm which for a 645 medium format camera equates to approximately 90mm and 180mm lenses in full frame format.  

If you have similar experiences with minimalist landscapes or if you have any advice, please leave a comment. If you have some examples a minimalist landscape photograph, please feel free to share in the comments. 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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Still one of my favorite photos I've taken to this day.

And for good reason - the mood and framing are great. Thanks for sharing!

Thank you for inspiring me to go find it! I actually re-edited it at the beginning of quarantine to get rid of some distracting elements. Solid article by the way, did you convert to black and white or were the conditions producing the look?

For sure! I'd be curious to see what you started with to see a before/after. Thanks so much! All of the photos in the article were actually taken with black and white film. I've got some work on digital that I made monochromatic but there wasn't much color in them to begin with. That said, my lady and I went to Banff last year at the tail end of winter and I took photos that looked monochromatic just because the conditions made it appear that way.

So I ended up going back and using what I've learned since I took this (2016) and cloned/quick selection to remove the distracting elements on the right and retain the file size. It was in Glacier National Park and was actually shot in full color! I *rarely* shoot B&W film unless I have run out of C41 chemicals and am feeling lazy 😂

Hey, I hope you don't mind but I took the liberty of editing your photo some more? I think the foreground trees are a little too distracting and unnecessary. The left side of the photo pulls the eye away from what I think is the most fascinating part of the photo which is the jagged contrast of the tree line and clouds which I enhanced by bumping up the contrast a bit and reducing the shadows. I think my photo now pulls the eye down to the right emphasizing the treeline contrast. (P.S. I've deleted the photo from my computer after posting this. Peace.)

Looking at it a little more, maybe pulling it down a bit would be better - a little more trees and less upper sky.

I love minimalism and keep meaning to shoot more.

Love the shots! I have one that looks like the second shot from back when I lived in Charleston. That top one is gorgeous. I reminds me of the Smokies. Thanks again for sharing!

Many thanks, James :)

For sure. Where was the first photo taken?

Mt Buller, Victoria, Australia

Intersting thoughts indeed..I'd say that two points make minimalist landscapes hard (opposed to other media, painting mostly):
- camera captures almost always too much detail
- absolute dependence on weather to provide any sort of obstruction of view

Myself, I'd also consider a minimalist landscape an inversion of your model - i.e. silhouette of ground with texture/drama in the sky.

Obvious inspiration - for my anyway - would be Michael Kenna; less obvious is marvelous Norman Ackroyd. While not a photographer but etching/aquatint printer, his images are truly an epitome of minimalist landscapes for me.

As far as my personal observations go, I'd say that square format lends itself nicely to minimalism; also long-ish lens, but not necessarily. From my two best attempts one is done with 75mm on 6x6 (~42mm on full frame) and other with 50mm on 35mm.

From the three photos that you have posted I like the second one best (ridge closeup), it has a certain 'hard' graphic quality not that common in landscape photographs.

I've never heard of or seen any work from Ackroyd. His work is breath taking. Thank you for turning me on to him!

I agree completely with the points you made. I've had some good work with my 80mm on my 645 and my 45mm on my 35mm camera.

Man, that second shot is incredible! Did you use a red filter? What film is that? (I'm assuming it's film based on the comment of using a 6x6 camera) The first shot is also great. I just really love that second one. Thank you for sharing your work.

I hadn't heard of him either. I found this, which may be of interest:


Glad I could share his work - I found about him from this documentary https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3ilivw ;his work (and, well, himself) really is something else :)

Thanks for the comment - I have used Ilford Delta 100 (developed stand in 1+100 rodinal - to be a complete technical bore with details ;) and used no filter. It was shot maybe around 5-7 pm on sunny summer day (the storm was just coming over the mountains) and negative is very strightforward with details everywhere. Then I have chosen to print the details in the ground down (leaving silhouette) thus emphasizing texture in the clouds and turning the sky red-filtery dark (to continue with unnecessary deatils, I have used grade 3 pearly/semi-matt paper).

I too have started experimenting with minimalist landscapes on film.

Love this shot! The moon really makes it for me. What film were you using?

Thanks! I shot it on Ilford PanF plus, Mamiya RB67.

Nice. My favorite is the 3rd one because the mountaintop is least defined. If you're not against it, it might be interesting to use your editor to add a little more fog until the mountaintop is not discernible.

Here's my accidental minimalist photo taken years ago from a trip near the southern tip of the Salton Sea. Accidental because it wasn't planned, I just liked it after the fact. It was taken in an area of shallows in which a couple shorebirds were foraging. In hindsight, I met one of your criteria "get some height" by shooting from a 10-15' foot high observation deck. I used Lightroom to add some light between the two birds.

That's fabulous!

You took that photo on accident? How'd that work? haha.

It's a great photo - thanks for sharing!

I'm a poor planner. It was a trip to somewhere I'd never been and had no idea what might be there. Took a couple thousand photos and reviewed for keepers after the fact. The wrong lens was attached (for the distance) so it's a heavy crop for composition and just on the edge of falling apart (ugh).

I suspect there's plenty of amateurs, me included, who simply love taking photos and lots of them. In the process, we discover some of our favorite images.

Switzerland 11 years ago with a cruddy point and shoot.

The texture from the water really adds a lot dimension to the shot and the lines are clean. Thanks for sharing!

Sure - but as Ansel Adams said, 90% of photography is in the darkroom. I obviously did work on this on my computer.

Yours is one of those photos that support the argument "it's not the gear". Stop it. ;-)

ha ha! Thanks. I finally broke down and spent a whopping $800 (that's a lot for me) on a used sony full frame because well, I'm a good photographer and thought, these need to be better quality.

The reason minimalist photography is so hard is because you need to be observant (or sensitive) enough to see the difference between "empty space" which looks interesting versus empty space that looks boring - unless you're using boring to frame an interesting subject.

I hear that. Working and using the negative space to your advantage is definitely the hardest part.

I love photo with telephoto lenses, recently i took some pictures of the Atacama Desert. Check it out below.


Those are phenomenal! Thanks for sharing! And congrats on the Samsung deal!

Some images of the Atacama Desert I sold to Samsung, minimalist landscapes.

I agree the second photo in the article is really impactful. Great job. One of the great contrasts in minimalist work is between blank space and great detail, as that photo proves. I have a decent example of that on my photography site using fog. The photos I've done are an assortment of mostly more minimalist scenes and also some dense forest scenes- but this one is almost a mix of both- because its like 7 shots stitched together, you could print it HUGE and see the tree area in super detail.

Thanks for sharing your work! I went to your site and I must say "Wenatchee National Forest #4" really catches my attention. What a fantastic shot - the framing and mood are perfect.

Thank you! (I probably should put more work into the titles!)

A very interesting and thought provoking read .

I started typing this a few days ago but decided to give the subject some more thought ; however my thoughts that a landscape photograph cannot be a "true" minimalistic photo has not changed .

For me; a minimal photo subject needs to be very simple ; or have parts of the subject matter removed or mostly removed . The photos in the article are not what I call "simple" as there is still a lot going on under the rather boring white sky area that doesn't make photo "minimal" imo . My eyes see a nice high contrast picture .

As the saying goes --- it's often what is left out or removed PP that often makes the better photo

the closest hills/rocks/flowing water to me are 300-400 km away so I have adapted to noticing the little pictures inside the usually boring bigger landscape picture , and now I have no shortage of happy snapper subjects even if they are rather unimportant to many (or me :lol:).

This photo is part of salty lake I often visit close to home . Not a true landscape by any means and I have taken many similars pics . However this time I had minimal photo ideas for the edit even before tripping the shutter . I also named the photo 'crocodiles" at the same time .

I feel I have made a more interesting "minimal" image by removing the real distracting boring stuff . But is it a minimal photo? Yes and no ; or maybe no and yes (???). I would really appreciate any honest thoughts :)
if I have you interested there are more similar happy snaps on my facebook page ; "photos by ian browne" (no nothing to sell there ;))

I can't tell you hard difficult this is for me sometimes. Seems like the least amount I want to photograph...the harder it is for me. It's mostly about composition, but also about filters or no filters and exposure. With B&W it's mostly composition though. Happens every damn time.

Because it is difficult. Anyone can do it (boring!) but very few do it well.

Thank you. I feel it is difficult because we allow ourselves to get in the way. I need to 'let go' a bit more.