A Beginner’s Guide to Minimalist Photography

Marianne Stenger
1st February 2020

Minimalist photography has been gaining popularity in recent years, and in our fast-paced and often chaotic world, images that have been stripped down to the basics with no clutter or distractions can be extremely powerful.

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery said “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This quote perfectly sums up the minimalist approach, because what is left out of a photograph is often just as important as what is in it.

Although minimalist photographs might look simple, composing them can be surprisingly difficult, and each shot must be carefully planned. If you’re interested in learning more about this genre and creating minimalist images of your own, our beginner’s guide to minimalist photography will help you get started.

What is minimalist photography?

Minimalist photography can be difficult to define, and there are as many interpretations of it as there are photographers. In general, however, minimalist photos tend to be simple and use negative space along with a restricted number of carefully chosen lines, colours, and shapes to draw the viewer’s attention to the main subject.

Minimalism first emerged as an artistic movement in New York in the late 1950s, when artists began moving away from the gestural abstraction that had been popular with their parents’ generation. It’s now prevalent in architecture, design, fashion, and photography.

If you’re not sure where to begin with minimalist photography, start by familiarising yourself with the genre as well as some of the minimalist photographers of recent years. A few examples of well-known photographers who have used the minimalist approach in their work include Michael Kenna, Andreas Gursky, and Fan Ho.

Less is more

Although “less is more” might be a bit of an oversimplification of what minimalism is all about, the focus in minimalist photography is usually on a single subject. Everything else in the image should draw attention to or in some way enhance the main subject.

Making the decision about what to include in your photograph is probably the most difficult aspect of minimalist photography. If there are multiple interesting elements in a scene, such as a bird, a tree and a house, you’ll need to think about which one to include and which ones to leave out. Keep in mind that although it is sometimes possible to crop unnecessary distractions out of the frame later, it’s always better to avoid them when taking the photograph by moving or changing your angle.

Composition is everything

In order to successfully pull off minimalist photographs, you must first understand how to compose a strong photograph. The well-known rule of thirds, which is based on the idea that pictures are generally more interesting when they aren’t centred, is a good place to start. But there are plenty of other compositional tricks you can use when shooting images in a minimalist style, including the use of leading lines, framing, or isolating your subject by using a shallow depth of field.

Include plenty of negative space

In art, photography and design, ‘negative space’ or ‘white space’ refers to the empty space between or surrounding objects. Leaving plenty of negative space in a photograph is one of the ways in which you can draw more attention to your subject and emphasise certain shapes and sizes. When studying examples of minimalist photography, pay attention to how the photographers have used negative space to enhance or emphasise their subject.

Colours, patterns, and textures can be powerful tools

Colours, textures and patterns can also be powerful tools in minimalist photography. Most of the time, a minimalist photo won’t contain more than two or three colours, patterns and textures, so the few that are included must in some way complement each other or add contrast.

For example, placing two bold colours or textures side-by-side can make for a striking photograph, whether it’s a field of golden wheat set against a clear blue sky, or a bright yellow sunflower against a weathered plank of wood.

Lines lead the way

The use of leading lines is another important tool in minimalist photography. Strong horizontal or vertical lines can draw the viewer’s eye straight to your subject, whether it’s in the centre of your image or off to the side.  Lines can also help to convey a sense of depth in an image, such as in the case of a tunnel or train tracks stretching into the distance.

So keep an eye out for leading lines when composing your photographs; they might come in the form of telephone lines, a row of trees or a narrow pathway. Remember, though, that the lines should lead the viewer’s eye towards your subject rather than away from it or out of the frame.

Find inspiration in your everyday life

Inspiration for minimalist photography often comes from the most unlikely places and you never know when it will strike. It might be an interesting pattern you notice in your kitchen tiles, a single drop of condensation on a rose petal, a lone tree on a hill, or a fascinating reflection in a puddle of water. So try to keep an open mind and bring your camera with you whenever possible. Once you begin to develop your photographic eye, you’ll start to notice opportunities for photography all around you, whether you’re at home, on a train, or in a shopping centre. 

Looking for more photography tips and inspiration? Take a look at these essential photography tips for beginners or develop your understanding of shutter speed. Alternatively, if you’re ready to get creative with some of the photographs you’ve already taken, be sure to check out Bob Books professional-quality photobooks and wall art.