Ask ten people what minimalism means to them, and you’re likely to get ten different answers. It’s a difficult concept to define because minimalism means different things to different people. And when minimalism is combined with an artform like photography, you have an even broader spectrum of what the two mean.
Nevertheless, there are common features to minimalism that transcend most definitions. Simplicity. Use of negative space. Highlighting color or texture. Simple backgrounds. Using these elements will get you well on your way to creating a stunning minimalist photograph.
Let’s explore each element in more detail.
For many photographers, simplicity translates into boring. That assessment is not exactly fair, however. If you include a strong subject, even if that subject doesn’t occupy much of the frame, you instantly make the image more interesting while maintaining its simplicity.
The essential benefit of composing a simple shot is that you give the viewer more freedom to interpret your work. In this way, even though there isn’t much occupying the space in the frame, viewers still have an opportunity to deeply engage with the shot because so much of it is left to their interpretation. With more responsibility to discover the meaning of the image placed on the viewer, minimalism really does do more with less, and engages viewers on a deeper level.
Utilize Negative Space
A hallmark of minimalist photography is the appropriate use of negative space. Generally speaking, negative space is the area around and between subjects that is devoid of much detail. Without much detail to speak of, these areas then serve to enhance the importance of a subject. No matter the type of photography, be it a portrait, a landscape, a cityscape, or anything in between, the inclusion of negative space gives the viewer’s eye a chance to scan the image without becoming overwhelmed. Combined with the increased emphasis on the main subject, this creates a situation in which your image has a great deal of power and is very impactful, all without being overrun with visual details.
Emphasize Color and Texture
People who claim that minimalist photography is boring clearly don’t understand that part of minimalism is to embrace color and texture. Both features give great visual interest to a scene, yet by keeping things simple, such as using the same tones throughout, the image can remain minimalist while having a pop of color or texture that really grabs the attention of viewers.
This is especially powerful when there are multiple, small subjects in the frame. Using color to bring greater attention to each element is a handy trick. The same thing can be done with textures or even patterns. The key here is to use highly saturated colors or primary colors that are bright and vibrant. Better still, try using complimentary colors, like blue and orange, using one color as your negative space and the other color as your primary subject, as was done above.
Without all the distractions that other photos might have in the frame, you can get away with making bold choices related to colors and textures. In fact, you might even use multiple colors or textures to really pump up the interest in the shot. If you take this approach, be careful in terms of how much space is occupied by the colors and textures in the frame. Use each sparingly to stick with the spirit of the minimalist shot.
Stick With the Rule of Thirds (But Know When to Break the Rule)
Minimalist images can sometimes feel unbalanced because of the lack of subject matter. However, if you stick to the rule of thirds and place the areas of interest along its grid, the resulting image will have greater balance, and will therefore engage viewers in a more meaningful way.
Now, this doesn’t mean you have to place the primary subject exactly at one of the intersection point of the rule of thirds grid. Instead, use the rule of thirds as a guide for composing your shots while maintaining the freedom to throw the rule out the window when the situation is warranted.
Mastering minimalism is all about embracing its hallmark features and training your eye to find the vignettes that benefit from such simplicity. If you’ve never tried minimalism before, and even if you have and it didn’t go well, try focusing on the four steps outlined in this lesson to devise a more powerful, minimalist statement. You need not include each of these four elements in every image. In fact, that might be a bit overwhelming. Instead, get some practice incorporating each element into your photos, and with time, you will train your eye to see the many types of minimalist scenes you encounter in everyday life.