Minimalist photography is the art of shooting the simplest of images in the most compelling way. Marette Bennett of Refined Edges Wildlife Photography and Training explains how to make more out of less.
According to one of my go-to photography sites, expert Photography (www.expertphotography.com), minimalist photography is about showing only a few elements in the composition. When the opportunity presents itself to capture something unique in a minimalistic composition, I jump with joy! The challenge is to create a composition that conveys simplicity but will also capture the viewer’s imagination. It could be as simple as a single subject against a plain background, or a repetition of patterns. I will move around and find the best angle even before picking up my camera and then continue to shoot several shots and use different exposures.
For minimalistic images to make any impact, you need razor sharp focus at a key point. Keeping the depth of field wide will produce focused elements throughout your image and works well if your background is clean and uncluttered. I often, when possible, change my perspective to get the simplistic background I envision. When shooting with my macro lens, I choose a wide depth of field to get the whole frame in sharp focus. However, when I shoot the thorns on the edge of an aloe or cactus leave, for example, I’ll set a shallow depth of field to blur the background to emphasise the detail.
The space around an element and within the frame can emphasise the subject, giving it much more appeal. This “empty” space can be in the foreground, middle-ground or background. An easy example is a single tree in a wide-open field, in which a wide composition uses the empty surroundings to highlight the tree.
When composing an image using negative space, start by using the rule-of-thirds to place your subject. Then adjust your angle and break the rules, because sometimes in simplistic compositions it can add a lot of drama to place the subject on one side in the corner. This leaves room for the viewer to create a story through a simplistic suggestion. In post-processing you will see what worked best and can tweak the image by cropping to tell the story you intended.
Fill the frame
Sometimes negative space can become the subject on its own. Windblown lines in the sand or the cracked surface of a dried-up puddle are examples where the composition includes only one texture and nothing else. A repeating pattern canal so become the subject of a composition. Focus length will determine the impact of the image. Too close and not enough of the texture will be included to stimulate the viewer’s eye. Too far and the texture will lose detail and impact.
Another way is to use a macro lens and get really close toa subject. Here the texture of a subject becomes the subject– for example the thorns on a cactus or the bark on a tree. There are endless possibilities for a superb minimalist shot, both man-made and in nature, but the rule of thumb is that the composition must still accentuate the simplicity.
Clean lines and simple shapes in a composition can create compelling images while maintaining simplicity. The lines can be horizontal, vertical or diagonal, and don’t even need to lead to a subject. Against a clean background, the lines can be the subject. Think of, for example, a bridge, jetty or walkway against a clear sky. Symmetrical objects are naturally appealing and using this element in a simplistic composition can produce very powerful images. Generally, a symmetrical subject will be centered in the composition to create balance, ignoring the rule-of-thirds. Again, I tend to shoot the subject using different compositions and exposures, then decide in post-processing what I like best.
It’s all about light
The word photograph literally means ‘’light-drawing’’ in Greek. ‘’Phos’’ or ‘’photo’’ translates to the word light and ‘’graphe’’to the word drawing. Capturing light is what photography is all about. In minimalistic art and photography, light creates the mood and the drama. The contrast between light and dark is powerful in minimalistic images. Look for long late-afternoon shadows or silhouettes against the setting sun but eliminate the surroundings. Adjust the aperture and shutter speed to let in the amount of light needed to create the image you envision.
Colour is just additional light, absorbing the light waves we don’t see and reflecting the light we do see. Using “colour contrast” combinations is another way to create minimalistic images. Complementary colours, which are opposite each other on the colour wheel, will produce something that stands out. A pale yellow flower against a blue background, for example, may not have as much impact as an orange flower against a blueback ground – because orange and blue are on opposite sides of the colour wheel. Some particularly strong combinations are shades of purple and yellow, red and blue, and orange and blue.
Shoot in black and white
Removing all colour from an image strip it down to its bare essentials to create an incredibly powerful effect. Black and white images make everyday scenes look dramatically different and enhance the minimalist effect. This forces you to concentrate on the lines and shape of subject. Still life photography works well in black and white, with minimalistic-style composition. When I decide a subject will be good for a black and white image, I set my camera to black and white mode to instantly see what I am capturing and adjust exposure and composition as needed. You can also choose to shoot in colour and edit your images to black and white in post-processing.
In post-processing you can eliminate the background in a process called “high key”’ or “’low key”’ editing. Stripping an image down to feature only the subject can create drama and impact. By adjusting the white or black point in the image, it is possible to eliminate the background in certain compositions.
Another way to create a powerful minimalist image in post-processing is by changing the pallet to complementary colours that pop. In selective colour, choose the grey component, then drag the cyan, magenta and yellow sliders until you get the colour want.
You can also eliminate certain colours by using desaturaturation. In saturation, choose the colours you wish to eliminate and drag the universal saturation to the left, until no colour is left. To be effective, choose to keep a bold colour like blue or red and desaturate the rest.
Minimalist photography means minimum equipment. You don’t need the latest and greatest. Smartphone cameras have reached new heights and are more than enough. They still lag behind when it comes to depth of field and are not able to produce the smooth bokeh that DSLR or mirrorless cameras can produce, but it doesn’t matter. In fact, capturing the clean lines and stark contrasts needed for a great minimalistic image is easier without bokeh. Your DSLR or mirrorless kit lens will be more than enough to capture striking minimalistic images. To compensate for a wide depth of field that will let in less light, you will need to set a slower shutter speed. Have a tripod ready or any other means of stabilisation when you need to set low shutter speeds.
Even when you think you have struck a dull photographic day or uninspiring spot, look around – there is always something to photograph! For example, I love visiting the Aloe Farm near Hartebeespoort Dam in the North West Province for the amazing birdlife, especially the bee-eaters and sunbirds. However, on some days they are just not co-operating. Then I take out my old50mm 1/1.8 macro lens (or any kit lens) and capture the most amazing patterns, textures and colours one finds among the millions of trees, aloes and succulents. You won’t be alone in your search, though, because the Aloe Farm – with its indigenous garden and many water features– has become quite a tourist attraction. Bird photographers gather here in their dozens over weekends to catch the White-fronted Bee-eaters in the early morning near the specially preserved nesting wall, then move on to snap away at the vast array of sunbirds attracted to the flowering aloes.