How to Photograph Minimalist Landscapes
Minimalism is one of the most recognised and, arguably, one of the most powerful movements in art. It emerged in western art, architecture, and design in the 1960s, although it has its roots in the reductive tendencies of Modernism.
Its main principle is that ‘less is more’, which results in a stripping down of composition to the bare essentials, leaving clean, simple lines and shapes, and placing an emphasis on ‘negative space’ (the space around the subject). Minimalism is a natural fit for photography, as in many ways it is the natural extension of the composition process.
Composition in photography is, after all, a subtractive process: we start with everything that is in front of us and then, via viewpoint, lens choice, and framing, try to exclude as many unnecessary and distracting elements as possible. Thus, reducing a potentially chaotic scene to the point where there is a sense of order in what remains. Continue on this path for long enough, and you end up with minimalism.
Minimalism is a simple enough concept, but it is actually a little more involved than just not having much in the frame. When taking a minimalist approach in landscape photography, you should consider the following elements: subject choice, subject placement, negative space, isolation, and colour.
1. Subject choice
Choice of subject is always important in photography, but especially so in minimalist studies, which often comprise of a single subject in a lot of negative space. Geometric lines and shapes are key, as leading lines can point the eye into negative space, enhancing a sense of isolation; look for subjects which lend themselves to this treatment.
Man-made structures are commonly used in minimalist landscapes, so look for subjects such as barnes, jetties, groynes, piers, and so on. Natural subjects such as lone trees, boulders, or simply the interplay of light and shadow on the landscape, can also work well.
‘Subjectless’ compositions are also possible, comprising layers such as fields and sky. Think of the mood you want to evoke and the story you want to tell.
Read more: The Art of Minimalist Wildlife Photography
Certain locations naturally lend themselves to a minimalist approach. Coastal areas can be productive, as there are often features such as marker posts, which can be isolated with a clean sky and empty foreground.
The naturally sparse nature of deserts makes them another good candidate, although few of us have easy access to such locations. Agricultural areas are more accessible for most, and are similar in many ways. They offer large expanses of uniform background, perhaps interrupted by the occasional tree or barn.
2. Subject placement
With very few elements in the frame, subject placement takes on an even more important role than in traditional landscape photography. With a single subject, you’d think choosing where to put it would be fairly straightforward.
However, what appears at first sight to be a simple decision is, in fact, remarkably complex. There are so many options, not only regarding where to place the subject, but also how large it should be in the frame. How the subject interacts with the negative space is also important.
There is the opportunity to create really bold compositions with a single subject. With more complex scenes, deviating too far from the traditional rule of thirds or golden section placement of the main subject will, more often than not, disturb the eye and look inharmonious.
However, with minimalist compositions, placing the subject in more extreme positions, such as the centre or edge of the frame, often creates a more dynamic look to an image. Experiment and use your judgment as to what works and what doesn’t: don’t simply stick to the rule of thirds out of habit. But, on the other hand, don’t place your subject in the corner of the frame just for the sake of being different.
3. Negative space
Negative space gets talked about a lot with regards to minimalism. This is because it is every bit as important as the main subject, as its function is to direct the eye around the frame and help focus attention on the subject. The subject will be more prominent when surrounded by the right amount of negative space.
Negative space can also help provide a sense of scale and a sense of place. Depending on the subject matter, it can evoke an atmosphere of isolation, remoteness, contemplation, or importance. The negative space should form an interesting shape and be as consistent in tone and texture as possible.
If the negative space has a variety of tone, or complex texture, there is a danger of introducing distracting elements into the composition. For this reason long exposures are common, as they can simplify the texture of water and sky.
As with subject placement, it’s worth experimenting with the amount of negative space in your composition when you’re framing a shot. There’s not necessarily a right or wrong answer to the question ‘how much negative space should I have?’ so go with what feels right.
In order to create a minimalist image, you’ll need to be able to isolate your subject. So, explore as many different viewpoints as you need to, and try different camera heights in order to hide elements if necessary. Pay attention to the background and make sure there are no distracting elements, including too much texture.
Minimalist images tend to have a muted colour palette with little variation in colour and tone, so this can be a useful approach to take in bad weather. With that being said, bold colours can also have a place, providing the number of colours is restricted.
Complementary colours (those which are opposite each other on the colour wheel, such as yellow and blue) can be successful in minimalist compositions, as can a splash of a single, vivid tone.
Unsurprisingly, black and white works well in minimalism, as it removes one more element from a composition, simplifying things further.
Minimalism seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance among photographers. This could partly be attributed to the influence of social media. Many people now only view photographs on their phones, so simple, bold images tend to stand out from the crowd and catch people’s attention.
Although this can be a benefit of taking a minimalist approach, there are more compelling reasons to experiment with the genre!
The main reason compositions fail in landscape photography is because they are too fussy, and contain too many unnecessary elements and distractions. In most cases, the simpler a composition, the better.
Obviously, you can’t get any simpler than minimalism, and the knock-on effect of getting to grips with this approach is that your compositions will generally become simpler, clearer, and more powerful, even when you’re not practising pure minimalism.