Learn how to perfect that minimal aesthetic for your photos
What is minimalist photography? Although it’s a visual aesthetic with a long history in music, art, architecture and design, it’s little more than the art of keeping things simple. Brutally simple, in fact. It’s about spatial isolation (loneliness) for your subject and negative space (emptiness) around your subject in an effort to accentuate it. No clutter, no distractions, just focus.
Confused? Here are some of our top tips to get you started…
1 Go back to basics
It's very tempting when taking photos to give the viewer a flavour of the location you’re in.
"Minimalism is about visual simplification and photographs that have a single point of interest."
Maybe you’re in Manhattan photographing a building, so you wait until a yellow taxi whizzes by so you can add some context. That is not minimalism.
Although it's a difficult concept to explain, that's because there's really not much to it. Minimalism is about visual simplification and photographs that have a single point of interest. A minimalist photo can be completely abstract to the point that the viewer may be looking at something perfectly commonplace and yet not realise what it is.
The philosophy behind the minimalism movement is punishingly simple: what you see is what you see. There is no room for emotion, deeper meanings, irony or anything remotely complicated in a good minimalist photo. Just a subject, usually against a plain background, that's been skilfully composed and captured. If there’s almost nothing in the photo, that’s the point of it.
2 Find a new angle
Minimalism is generally about being as clean as possible, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be creative.
"You want to create something that accentuates your subject, but without any distractions in the composition..."
You want to create something that accentuates your subject, but without any distractions in the composition, so think about how you can get a unique angle on something. Good examples include a bird’s eye view looking down on your subject or the opposite, a worm’s eye view where you point your camera to the sky to catch, say, the top corner of a building against a blue sky. Either way, the best minimalist photos encourage a new perspective on the subject.
Though minimalism is often associated with art, architecture and design, there is no subject out of bounds for the minimalist treatment. Anything can be given the bare bones treatment, from objects and buildings to animals and even waves on a beach.
3 Create some space
Don't forget the rule of thirds, which in a minimalist photo has a lot of room to work in a very pure way.
"Don't forget the rule of thirds, which in a minimalist photo has a lot of room to work in a very pure way."
The rule of thirds is simply a compositional guide that separates a photo into three sections both horizontally and vertically. That creates a grid of nine squares and four points where they intersect. The theory goes that anything on those intersection points will catch the viewer’s eye. For minimalism the rule of thirds is doubly important because your photo is likely to have a lot of empty (or negative) space within it. So where you put your subject will drastically change the balance within your photograph.
In discussions of the merits of minimalist photos you’ll often hear people talking about the space in the photos and exactly where the subject sits in relation to it. Should your subject be on the left or right? On the upper or lower intersection point? It’s subjective, but integral to minimalist photography.
The precision and simplicity of a lot of minimalist photography means it’s more important than ever to keep flat horizons and clean parallel lines in your composition. It’s therefore a good idea to make use of the spirit level/bubble on your camera or tripod, and to avoid using fisheye lenses, which can add unwanted distortion.
4 Look for geometric patterns
Classical minimalism is all about simple, repetitive patterns found either in nature or, more easily, in man-made objects. The stark geometric shapes often found in modern architecture can so often look incredible in minimalist photographs because they’re bereft of decorative detail. Walk amongst a cityscape of mirrored skyscrapers on a blue sky day and you’ll be in a minimalist photographer’s paradise.
Although a splash of colour against an otherwise monotone background can be incredibly effective in a minimalist composition, so can purely black and white photographs or those that have only one colour within. Use it sparingly, but vignetting in the corners can be useful for adding an ethereal feel and focusing the eye on the subject.
5 Landscapes and long exposures
"Minimalist photos don’t have to be stark, sharp and contrasty. You can also create ethereal dreamscapes."
Minimalist photos don’t have to be stark, sharp and contrasty. You can also create ethereal dreamscapes. One way of doing that is to use long exposures. By opening the shutter on your camera for longer (best done in manual mode and using both a tripod and a shutter-release cable) you'll not only let more light in, but you’ll blur the scene. That's particularly true if you're shooting water, whether it’s the tide coming in and out on a beach, a waterfall or a rippling lake. Either way, a long exposure will introduce a stillness.
Learn all about the long exposure technique and how to perfect it with our dedicated guide here.
Although minimalism tends to be concerned with clean lines and order, minimalism compositions can work very well in landscape photography. The ‘lonely tree’ image is a classic, but you can do the same with a lighthouse or a boat. A good technique to try is to zoom in on something farther than you normally would to isolate it from its surroundings. A telephoto lens can be a powerful addition if you’re set on creating minimalist landscapes.
6 Minimalist in wildlife photography
It's not traditionally associated with wildlife photography, but the minimalist style is by now embedded in modern photography and now very common in photos of the natural world. That’s because it helps make photos of animals really stand out. It’s a particularly popular technique in bird photography, where the subject is captured in flight or in silhouette.
As with the below image, you need a sharp subject and, in this case, a slightly out-of-focus background called bokeh (pronounced ‘bow-ka’). Bokeh is the result of using a lens with a very wide maximum aperture and often a function of the lens you’re using. Even when used in a very basic manner to blur the background it can be a good way of diverting the attention of the viewer directly onto the subject. It also adds an abstract look that’s well-suited to the minimalist style.
Learn more about creating the bokeh effect with our in-depth guide here.
To create a minimalist photo with a shallow depth of field means having only a small area that’s in focus. That’s the complete opposite to most landscape photography. The wider (faster) the aperture on the lens, the better, but depending on the lens you’ll also need to experiment with the distance between the subject and background. This is well-suited to wildlife photography since longer focal length means a more limited depth of field.
Sometimes you may take a great shot but have some objects or people that you'd like to remove to get a cleaner and more minimalist look for your image. However, these unwanted elements can be easily removed through editing. Here's our tutorial on how to remove distracting elements in your images:
- AuthorJamie Carter
Jamie Carter is a journalist and author focusing on stargazing and astronomy, astrophotography, and travel for Forbes Science, BBC Sky At Night magazine, Sky & Telescope, Travel+Leisure, and The Telegraph.View all articles