Less can be more when you want to create different looking images.A basic tenet of photographic composition urges photographers to fill the frame with the subject. While this strategy works well most of the time, there are situations when a minimalist approach can give a refreshing new slant to your creative vision.
The minimalist style has a long history in the arts of Asia but only became popular in Western art late in the 19th Century. It took longer to become popular with photographers but it’s currently quite fashionable, with websites and photoblogs springing up to showcase different practitioners’ images.
Colours and textures make up the picture here in the contrast between the regular harvested wheat field and the puffy cumulus clouds in the sky. The vehicle tracks act as leading lines to take the viewer’s eyes from the foreground towards the horizon.
The Macquarie Dictionary defines minimalist art as: a style … which rejects emotionalism .. and concentrates in a restrained, uninvolved manner on the visual effects of colour and style. Webster’s Dictionary puts it more simply as: a style or technique that is characterised by extreme sparseness and simplicity. However you define it, the essence of minimalism is that ‘less can be more’.
Both these definitions apply to the aesthetic approach to minimalism. The equipment approach, which focuses on reducing the complexity of the photographer’s equipment, is a subject for a different article.
If you’ve never played around with aesthetic minimalism, you’ve missed some challenges, most of which can be both stimulating and fun. The trick is to strip out any elements that don’t contribute to the shot’s composition and concentrate on capturing the essence of the subject.
Some subjects lend themselves to a minimalist approach. Landscapes, in particular, are a good place to start, although you can find a minimalist angle for other subjects if you have an enquiring and adaptive vision.
Desert landscapes lend themselves to a minimalist approach. The points of interest here are the isolated tree and line of cattle on the distant horizon, the rich colour and textures in the gibber plain in the foreground and wispy clouds in the sky.
A typical minimalist image, showing three people laying out a flagged pathway in white-out conditions in Antarctica. The wind strength can be gauged by the blur created by the flapping of the nearest flag.
This picture (also taken in Antarctica) illustrates how negative space can create a sense of scale and isolation as the small human subjects in the lower right corner are contrasted with the distant hill.
Backgrounds are often crucial to minimalist shots. Look for interesting skies, fields of grain or snow, still water, walls with uniform colours and/or textures. Then think about what will be contrasted against the background to make the shot interesting.
The rule is to keep the picture as simple as possible in design without producing a boring picture. The subject must be clearly identifiable as the strongest element of the shot, even though it may not occupy much of the frame. Success depends on finding the appropriate angle and organising how the main subject(s) will be distributed within the frame.
Have a clear vision of the effects you want and decide upon the aperture and/or shutter speed settings that will best achieve them. Where should you focus? How will you balance sharpness and blur? How can you apply rules for composition such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, space for subjects in motion? In minimalist photographs, these techniques become much more evident, due to the simplicity of the subject matter. Does this affect the end result?
Finding the Angle
Before you take the shot, decide upon your angle of view and how this will influence shot composition. Low angles can make subjects appear more prominent while high angles emphasise the relative scale of subject and background and can convey a sense of isolation.
Also consider how much of the scene you will include ““ and what you will leave out. The latter is very important because ‘negative space’ can have a powerful impact on how viewers react to the main subject.
The concept of negative space refers to the absence of distinctive subject matter within part of a picture. In a landscape photo, that negative space may be a cloudless sky, blank wall, sandy beach or the smooth surface of a body of water. For other subjects it may be the background, either an artificial one produced by setting the subject on a plain sheet of paper or a natural one produced by selective focusing.
Regardless of how the negative space is produced, it will have certain impacts. One effect is to cause viewers’ eyes to move around the frame, looking for areas with interesting details or following lines created by boundaries within the scene. Another is to create a sense of scale.
Strong lines can produce strong images. An effective line or two within a shot can add vitality to an image when subject matter is limited. Make use of leading lines to direct the viewer’s vision, deciding whether you want to take the viewer to the centre of the picture or lead their eyes around it.
Consider the structure of the subject and the space within which it is placed. In landscape shots, start with the position of the horizon, which will be determined by your choice of what is the main subject: sky or land. (Both are equally valid.)
Focus on the subject and, where possible, select a depth of field that will make the subject stand out, drawing the viewer’s eye into the shot and enhancing impact. Play with the concept of isolation by juggling the relative sizes of the main subject and the negative space.
A high-key shot showing a beach on a misty day with the waves receding.
The standard Levels adjustment of drawing the sliders in to the ends of the graph adds unwanted density and contrast.
Minimalist subjects are often more difficult to find in the city. This example highlights the use of bold primary colours and contrasting patterns, with the human subjects providing a focus.
The subject matter is about as minimalist as you can get: sky, birds and clouds. The contrail acts as a leading line directing attention towards the top of the frame where the main subject (the birds) can be found.
Moving only the white slider in to the end of the graph increases brightness and contrast slightly and retains the original intention of the shot.
Patterns in sand created by washed up seaweed and footprints left by a foraging kangaroo.
Using Colour and Texture
Colour is often more important as a design element in minimalist photos than in normal photography because the overall sparseness of the design requires viewers to pay attention to every factor in the picture. While some subjects have their colour values pre-determined, you may also be able to produce different effects either while selecting the subject and composing the shot or at the editing stage.
Many shots succeed on the basis of their colour, whether it be bright, saturated hues that complement each other or subdued pastels that evoke moody or ethereal impressions. Seek out subjects that will have impact because of either contrasting colours and shapes or tonal similarities with small, but interesting, variations.
While you may think textures would be unimportant in minimalist photos, some successful minimalist shots can be based purely on texture and colour. Look for interesting contrasts in textures and colours as well as shapes and lines that can aid shot composition. Directional light can be used to enhance many textures so it can be worth shooting when the light is at an angle to the subject.
Cropping can be an important tool, not only to remove unnecessary distractions but also to impart a sense of space into some pictures. You may have captured the shot with a 4:3 aspect ratio but find it will look better in a ‘widescreen’ 16:9 format or as a 1:1 square. Having an impression of the end result you want should help you to select the best aspect ratio beforehand and make it easy to apply the required crop post-capture.
While some minimalist shots will require little or no tonal adjustments beyond a simple levels correction, subjects with subtle tonal nuances need to be handled with care in order to preserve essential aspects of the image. The examples shown on the opposite page illustrate how a minimalist image with subtle tones can be affected by basic editing adjustments. A light touch at the editing stage can improve the end result without compromising tonal rendition.
Subjects to Try
The following are some suggestions to get you started:
1. Photograph power lines against the sky.
2. Find some textures in sand produced by the wind or footprints and create a picture with them.
3. Shoot a close-up of a flower against a green lawn or brick wall, using a shallow depth of field to blur the background and isolate the subject.
4. Create an interesting photograph of the horizon.
5. Find an interesting texture in a wall or floor.
6. Wait for a wet day and photograph rain trickling down a windowpane.
The minimalist approach can be tricky to master because we are bombarded daily by a complexity of colours and textures. It can also be difficult for others to understand. However, thinking minimalist can help you to become more attuned to what does and doesn’t work in shot composition, so it’s a useful approach to have in your repertoire.
This article is an excerpt from Photo Review magazine Issue 59
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