Less is More: the Art of Minimalism

The art and skill in creating moody images with a strong subject and zero clutter and distractions

My latest talk, Less Is More: the Art of Minimalism, went ahead live online on 20th September 2023, and you can now watch the recording any time on You Tube and right here. Just click on the link below.

Keeping the images clean and super simple

When we talk about Less is More what do we actually mean? Well, in photography at least it means the art of cutting away all the confusing clutter from the image frame. The result is an image with a single strong subject that stands almost alone in the frame, unchallenged by all the usual mess that surrounds us in real life. Having less in the frame – other than the subject of course – gives us a whole lot more image.

Of course, saying this is one thing, achieving it is quite another. More often than not success comes down to choosing the right kind of subject matter in the right kind of environment. The vast majority of subjects we might shoot from day to day will never fit into the minimalism genre, so you just have to be selective.

So what kinds of subjects will lend themselves to minimalist photography? They are spread across most genres of photography, including architecture, landscape, travel, wildlife, still life and fine art, to name just the most obvious.

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Less is more and some genre examples

Lets have a look at a few areas where minimalist photography might work well.

Not surprisingly, minimalism in architectural photography can be achieved mostly with modern architecture. Their clean, simple and embellishment-free lines lend themselves to this art rather more effectively than is usually possible with historic buildings.

Landscape photography is one of the classic areas where minimalist photography is possible. In general, it can best be achieved in certain environments, such as in a desert, on open moors or when surrounded by water. With the first two, the meer simplicity of the landscape can lend itself to a sense of emptiness. With water – whether a stream, river, lake or sea – a common technique is to use a slow shutter speed (from, say, 1/8 second to 30 or 40 seconds) to completely blur out the movement in the water and so remove any detail. For this to be possible in the middle of the day, it might be necessary to use a neutral density filter over the lens to cut down the amount of light reaching the sensor.

In both wildlife and many forms of close-up photography it is common to focus in on the subject with a telephoto lens and then leave the background to completely blur out, removing all detail from what might otherwise be quite a complex environment. The subject will then completely stand out from the background, being the only element in the image that is in focus.

Particularly in landscape photography, but also in other genres too, the presence of fog can have a hugely beneficial effect, removing much background clutter altogether, and reducing other elements to ghostly and atmospheric detail-free outlines. Never put the camera away just because the fog has descended!

One other noteworthy point is that in many minimalist images things are further simplified by having a very limited colour palette. Bright and contrasting colours rarely lend themselves to the moodiness of a minimalist image, so instead they are typically characterised by consisting simply of different shades of the one colour, such as blue, grey or (especially for sunset/dusk images) pink or mauve. Not surprisingly, then, black and white photography can lend itself well to minimalist photography, though this is not universally so.

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Keeping to the rules of composition

Finally, a brief word on general rules of compostion as applied to Less is More techniques. Even though an image’s ‘negative space’ – that is, everything that is not the main subject – is almost completely empty in a minimalist photo, with just a single, strong subject dominating the frame, doesn’t mean that you can forget about all the rules of composition.

The subject must still be well-positioned within the frame, obeying such things as the law of unequal thirds, height and size relative to the image frame, and so on.

If any foreground is visible (it can happen, even in minimalist photography) it must be a damned good foreground, supporting the subject and helping to lead the viewer’s eye to it, with no distracting elements.

Diagonal lines, such as those created by converging parallels in the form of roads or rivers cutting into the photographic scene, remain a hugely important element, helping to direct attention towards the subject, give the illusion of three dimensions, and delivering a sense of energy and dynamism.

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Bringing it all together

Always bear in mind that Less is More should be very much a guiding principle in photography, and when out shooting one should always be on the lookout for opportunities where it will be possible. Although many everyday subjects will never lend themselves to great minimalist photography, a large proportion of the world’s greatest photographs are minimalist in approach. All photographers would do well to use it whenever they can.

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Future talks

My online photography talks take place every three months, with the next one scheduled for 6th December 2023, entitled Light in the Landscape. As the title implies, it’ll be all about using the light to create great landscape photography.

Click on the links below to sign up for the December talk, and to sign up for our regular newsletter to help you stay informed of future talks and workshops.

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Author: Nigel Hicks

Nigel Hicks is a highly experienced professional photographer and writer, based in Devon, southwest England, but frequently working around the world. He shoots for a range of clients and is a member of the National Geographic Image Collection. He has written over 20 books, covering travel, wildlife and photography subjects.