If you ever feel your photography is a bit cluttered, or you have been told by a camera club pundit to try and simplify your images a bit, it might be time to consider embracing some of the principles of ‘minimalist’ photography.
Many people associate this style with the peaceful, Zen-influenced landscapes of Michael Kenna, and that’s a good starting point, but it’s about much more than aping Kenna’s very distinctive style. Here are some tips to get you started in the art of stripping back….
1) Start to think in terms of key elements
At its heart, minimalist photography is about removing all superfluity and distraction to focus the viewer’s attention one one or two key features.
This could be a tree, person, animal, plant or other object, and it’s a good compositional principle to adopt even if you don’t want to be known as a consciously ‘minimalist’ photographer.
The next time you are in front of a vast sweeping landscape, for example, try to capture just a few particularly strong elements rather than getting bogged down in shooting everything.
2) Think about harmony and balance
The elements you include in the image need to work harmoniously together, too. Michael Kenna is a master of this, being strongly influenced by traditional Japanese art. So look for appealing graphic shapes and how they interact with each other.
Kenna and his followers often use long exposure and bokeh to convey a sense of softness and calm: the classic expression of this is a pier leading into a glassy, long exposure sea, often shot in black and white. It’s become a bit of a cliché, but is a good place to start honing your minimalist skills.
3) Use space wisely
The influence of traditional Asian art on minimalist photography can also be seen in the skilful use of empty space. Artists such as Josetsu and Hasegawa Tohaku of Japan used space to draw back the eye to key features, but it also conveys emptiness and the void, an important concept in Buddhism (form is emptiness and emptiness is form, says the famous Heart Sutra).
Now, you don’t need to go all Zen and start chanting, but consider how you allow conventional space in your frame to reduce clutter and distraction, and focus the viewer’s attention on where you want it to be.
4) Consider different formats
Michael Kenna also uses the square format a lot as he believes it makes his images more peaceful and harmonious, so why not try this too. Or a circular shape? It’s all forcing you to work harder to only include the strongest elements in the image and strip out the rest.
Don’t feel you need to answer very question in your image too – a lot of minimalist art leaves the viewer wondering or asking questions, or mulling over emptiness. It’s not like press photography, where you want to capture as much of a ‘story’ as possible.
5) Try minimalist still life
Still life is another genre where a consciously minimalist approach can bring great results. Without getting too bogged down in traditional Japanese aesthetics, look at how just a few branches or stems are used to create an exquisite composition in Ikebana flower arrangement, rather than the ‘busier’ approach of some Western schools.
So look for just one or two perfect specimens of a plant or flower and focus on those. You can also get great results with interesting looking tools or utensils, particularly when converted to black and white and placed in a triptych. Cutlery from the kitchen perhaps…
6) Look for textures and colours on the street
Even street photography can benefit from a more minimalist approach, which sounds counterintuitive when you consider that streets are often quite hectic places. So look out for interesting patterns, shapes and colours – even a garage door can be visually arresting if shot in the right way.
If you are interested in learning more about this topic, check out the school of ‘contemplative photography,’ as described in the book, The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood.
Again, it’s strongly influenced by a Buddhist approach, but it avoids religious doctrine or sermons and instead has lots of enlightening tips and exercises.