As people look at photos on smaller and smaller screens, there has been a growing trend towards taking photos that are more and more minimalist. Especially on platforms like Instagram, minimalism is exploding; it’s everywhere, and it has been for a while now. There are some pros and cons of minimalism, and I have mixed feelings about how common this trend has become, but there’s no denying its popularity. In this article, I’ll cover some of the main reasons you’d want to capture minimalist photos, along with some tips for using this style of photography as effectively as possible.
1) Minimalism Communicates Your Message
One of my first recommendations for a photographer who’s learning composition is to hone in on your message.
What do you want the photo to say? Which emotions or thoughts should your viewers have while looking at the photo? And, most importantly, how can you simplify that message and communicate it as effectively as possible?
For a lot of photographers, minimalism is the answer — and it’s not a bad answer at that. If your goal is to depict a pristine sand dune, without any footprints or other distractions, a photo that shows the arc of a single dune against a blue sky could make for a very striking image.
Minimalist photos often have a few characteristics in common with one another. First, their color palettes are not distracting; there are usually only one or two main colors drawing attention, or the photo may be monochromatic. They also tend to have large regions of “negative space” — empty areas in the photo where people’s eyes won’t naturally fall. Finally, the main subjects tend to be small, low in detail, and well-defined, with sharp transitions setting them off from the background.
When I take macro photos, minimalism tends to creep into the final frame, whether I want it to or not. That’s because a lot of these elements are present in the macro world — unified colors, significant negative space (due to the thin depth of field), and very well-defined subjects. Not every macro photo is minimalist, but it’s a good example of a field where this type of image is common.
Still, minimalism can happen in any genre of photography, so long as you’re able to find a lot of negative space. If you want to take minimalist photos, that’s the first thing I would look for — empty areas that you can use as a backdrop for your main subject. If your final photograph includes just one or two subjects against an unobtrusive background, you’ve hit the nail on the head.
2) Minimalism Works on Small Screens
People are using phones to find content far more than ever before, and a lot of photographers have changed their styles to suit the new medium.
When you’re looking at a small screen, minimalism works really well. The tiny area of phone screens means that there’s not much room for complex details and areas with a lot of interest; instead, a single subject against a monotone background will stand out much more easily.
On one hand, this is a bit sad, because it’s nothing like the experience of viewing a large print of a detailed landscape close-up. At the same time, people will always be changing, and it makes sense that photographers would adapt accordingly.
If an area of beautiful, complex features in a large print appears as a bunch of chaotic pixels on a two-inch screen, there’s a good argument against photographing beautiful, complex features — or, at least, against posting such photos onto social media. Personally, I do still post my normal, non-minimalist photos on sites like Facebook, but I do so knowing that people won’t get the full impact they otherwise might have.
3) Great Symphonies Are Complex
Think about history’s greatest pieces of art. From Beethoven’s symphonies to Michelangelo’s frescos, almost all of humanity’s best-known works have tremendous levels of complexity.
I don’t mean to compare masterpieces like that to hobbyist photography, but there is an underlying theme: Minimalism only gets you so far. Sure, a minimalist photo may look good on Instagram, but its simplicity makes it difficult to convey much more than you see on the surface.
How many great photos can you remember off the top of your head? Are any of them minimalist? Sure, some amazing photos — say, “Afghan Girl” — are clear and straightforward, but I would shy away from calling them simplistic or minimalist. If they were, it would be very hard for them to have the same deep emotional impact.
I have seen some documentary photo series where one or two photos will be minimalist, and that’s almost always done to convey a single point as clearly as possible. But the sheer lack of information in a minimalist photo makes it difficult to show a more nuanced, intricate perspective on the world. In many cases, that puts a cap on how successful they can be.
4) Minimalism Can Get Old Quickly
With the high numbers of minimalist photos posted to apps like Instagram every day, it’s no wonder that this style of photography is starting to wear out a lot of people. If every other photo is a minimalist shot with the same composition, how can you expect anyone to see it as great, unique art?
Maybe this isn’t a fair point, though, since it’s not minimalism’s fault that it’s getting old — it’s the fact that so many photographers are using it all the time. In that sense, it’s like the Orton Effect; by itself, minimalism isn’t a problem, but when it’s so insanely popular, it’s easy to find it annoying.
If you’re trying to avoid too much minimalism, the easy fix is just to vary things up. Sure, take some simplified photos if they look good for a particular subject — but take normal photos, too. So long as you don’t go out of your way to make a photo as minimalist as possible, and you make room for complexity along the way, you’ll be good.
Even after all that, I actually like minimalism quite a bit. For certain subjects, it conveys the essence of the scene much better than any other style of photography. I’m certainly not going to avoid taking minimalist photos if I see a good one in the future.
It’s also useful if you’re just starting out in photography; minimalism can add a sense of deliberateness that your photos may not have had before, making you think more carefully about composition. In that sense, I recommend that most photographers practice with it and take some successful minimalist photos while they’re starting out. If you want to get good at complex subjects, it helps to master the basics.
At the same time, most of the best photos I’ve seen have a lot of layers to them, providing a greater sense of interest. Overly simplistic photos are like the tune “Happy Birthday” — catchy, often popular, but not of the same emotional depth as a well-written symphony.
As a whole, it can be nice to have minimalism in your toolbox, so long as you don’t overdo it. Minimalism doesn’t work well if you have a lot of information to convey, but it’s great if you’re trying to express a single message as clearly as possible.
Hopefully, the tips in this article gave you a good sense of when minimalism works well and when it doesn’t. What are your thoughts on the matter? If you have any questions or points to make, feel free to let us know in the comments.
Minimalism is all about negative space, and negative space is one of the most crucial tools you have at your disposal to create successful compositions. Unfortunately, a huge number of photographers — including many who are very, very talented — still struggle to compose their photos well. The issue is that it can be a very vague topic, and even the most concrete attempts to explain it (i.e., the rule of thirds, leading lines), don’t go nearly far enough. There’s no perfect answer here, but you can dive much deeper into this subject than typical articles and books tend to go. Specifically, if this happens to be a topic that interests you, I strongly recommend our eBook, “Creative Landscape Photography: Light, Vision, and Composition.” To be frank, eBooks in general don’t have a very good reputation. But my hope is that you’ll give this one a chance and see what it has to offer, since all the information in it is designed specifically to be as accurate and tangible as possible, in a field where accurate and tangible tips can be remarkably difficult to find.