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. 
 

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38 Comments

Wyatt Ryan's picture

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

James Madison's picture

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

Wyatt Ryan's picture

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?

James Madison's picture

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.

Wyatt Ryan's picture

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 😂

Charles Mercier's picture

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.)

Charles Mercier's picture

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

Deleted Account's picture

I love minimalism and keep meaning to shoot more.

James Madison's picture

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!

Deleted Account's picture

Many thanks, James :)

James Madison's picture

For sure. Where was the first photo taken?

Deleted Account's picture

Mt Buller, Victoria, Australia

Jakub Valovič's picture

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.

James Madison's picture

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.

Deleted Account's picture

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

https://www.apollo-magazine.com/norman-ackroyd-interview/amp/

Jakub Valovič's picture

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).

Jose Cervantes's picture

I too have started experimenting with minimalist landscapes on film.

James Madison's picture

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

Jose Cervantes's picture

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.

James Madison's picture

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.

Charles Mercier's picture

Switzerland 11 years ago with a cruddy point and shoot.

James Madison's picture

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

Charles Mercier's picture

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. ;-)

Charles Mercier's picture

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.

Charles Mercier's picture

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.

James Madison's picture

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

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