Shooting Minimalist Landscapes

If you have a few hours to spare then surf the website for a definition of ‘minimalism’ in landscape photography. Actually, I’ll save you the trouble. There is no absolute definition because everyone has their own ‘take’ on what they regard as minimalist, so I’m just going to give you mine, writes Andrew James.

The concept of minimalist art is, according to the Tate: “A highly purified form of beauty.” I quite like this idea and it’s one we can certainly borrow for photography. The Tate’s definition goes on to say that “It can also be seen as representing such qualities as truth (because it does not pretend to be anything other than what it is), order, simplicity and harmony.”

Leaving the pretentious element of ‘truth’ on one side, again I like those terms of order, simplicity and harmony. Apply them to landscape photography and we can say that with a minimalist landscape image we are trying to show the beauty of something in as simple a way as is possible. How simple or how stripped-back the elements are is down to location, conditions, and artistic interpretation. Minimalism in landscape photography is a broad church that takes us from a simple but perfectly recognisable scene to something that is potentially much more abstract. It’s all valid and all personal choice.

I showed a friend a series of images (some of which will be used here) and asked her to pick out anything she didn’t regard as ‘minimalist’. She identified this next image and her reasoning made absolute sense saying: “I feel with the boat there is a lot to explore with the eye,” she commented.

She’s right of course. Although this image is ‘simple’, there’s still quite a lot of texture, patterns and depth that pulls the eye about. Maybe a completely washed-out white sky would help but ultimately there is, I think, too much detail to consider it a minimalist landscape. Does this mean that you can’t shoot a minimalist landscape with a wide-angle lens? No, you can shoot a minimalist image on any lens when conditions allow as this next image proves.

Taken on a stormy, dark and damp evening (as some Foto-Buzzers will recall) on the beach at Vik in Iceland, the conditions allowed me to shoot a wide-angle shot that is really nothing more than a series of shapes – the most dominant of which is the headland and famous sea stacks to which the eye is quickly drawn. There is no detail in the dark beach, the rolling surf is blurred by the long exposure and the sharpest point is the horizon. The eye isn’t taken on a journey, it’s moved quickly and unequivocally to those stacks.

With any form of landscape photography, weather conditions play an important role. With a minimalist image I think the conditions have even greater impact. For example, heavy snow or a thick mist has a natural way of making the landscape simpler. It shrouds the more complex elements of a place and leaves the photographer to find a simple point of interest that will draw the viewer’s gaze.

Backlighting that allows you to create a silhouette will do something similar and it’s a favourite way of mine for creating really simple compositions, as the Vik image has already shown. But I’ll also use it when the light is stronger and try to keep in mind that the idea is to simplify the scene this way, so the resulting shapes and shadows can’t be too complex or confusing.

This was taken on a chilly morning on the top of Mount Ventoux with Foto-Buzzers Jo and Rosie. The warm light makes it look much more inviting than it really was! Two minutes before the sun appeared, the recession was a cool blue. With this contre jour image, I’ve used a long lens and I do find that a telephoto lens is a really great way to shoot in a more minimalist manner. It avoids the need for foreground and allows you to frame in the simplest way possible. I’ll use focal lengths from 70mm to 400mm more often than I’ll choose a wide-angle lens. Here’s another long-lens shot that uses the strength of light to create simple but effective shapes.

The lighting is more from the side than the back here but the contrast between the lit areas of these Namibian dunes and the shadow areas means that the shapes are strong, simple and the detail is minimal. Of course, you don’t need to be in exotic places to make this work – here’s one I shot from the window at the back of my office on a 300mm, using the sheep as my simple silhouette and the stormy sky as a backdrop. Exposure for this type of shot is simplicity itself, just let the camera take a reading from the brightest part of the scene and you’ll create your shadow where you need it.

When you are using a long lens one of the bonuses is that you can leave out the sky altogether if you think it’s not helping your image. By doing this you are cutting out another potential complication and it’s a framing technique I’ll frequently turn to in order to further simplify composition. A lot of the time when I do this I find myself shooting vertically too as this narrows the frame and keeps everything tight, like this next image.

This is ultra simple – a small iceberg caught against the edge of the fjord. I liked the shapes, contrasting textures and tones from the rock face, plus the curves of the iceberg and then the subtle reflection in the water.

Long exposures
There’s no doubt that the minimalist style works well with long exposures and water. We’re all familiar with this type of image and in fact, I’ve almost stopped doing it because I feel it’s been overdone. However, I do use the technique from time to time and there is no doubt it can do a lot to make the image you are shooting much more minimalist in its style, like this next image taken in Norfolk while doing a magazine shoot with Foto-Buzzer Adrian Stillwell. Composing with the groyne as the main focal point and using a Big Stopper to extend the shutter speed to 30secs or so, the water smooths considerably and the image becomes uncluttered. In this case I didn’t worry about holding too much detail in the sky either, so the flat white backdrop doesn’t compete with the rest of the image.

I also want to mention Intentional Camera Movement as a way to create minimalism. Just as a long exposure smooths water, a longer exposure and camera motion can produce the same softening and moulding effect to turn a busy scene into something that is less cluttered and even dreamlike. Many of you have been trying this a lot recently for the ICM FotoMission so will know how much fun this can be. This next image was taken later in the day from the long exposure image above, and just needed a slight pan from left-to-right across the beach to create some interesting shapes and contrast.

Overall, the beauty of taking a minimalist approach is that you can invent your own rules regarding what you want your brand of minimalism to be, and then hone your shooting skills to follow them. Whether you opt for long exposures, camera movement or negative-space composition to get there, the journey you’ll take will reward you. Experimenting with minimalism forces you to think in a very different way about your photography, and that’s always a good thing, as it poses profound questions about style, content and technique. Whether you can answer these questions is another matter, but that’s the nature of Art!

Giving minimalism a go is a great way to help you with your more conventional landscapes too because it helps you to reduce what you are seeing with the naked eye, down to the basic shapes of the landscape that are created by nothing more than tonal variation. We’ve talked about the ‘squint’ when shooting black & white images and you should try it when looking at a landscape and considering its form for a minimalist approach. You’ll find painters do exactly the same thing when painting a scene.

Ultimately, simplicity is often the best approach to any subject and it’s the same with landscapes. You should always try to find the simplest and most effective composition and with minimalism try to simplify it further still. You can even take it right back to abstraction, where you are losing the context of the wider landscape entirely.

In this image, I’ve used a combination of telephoto lens and aperture to reduce the scene to colour and shape – and while not totally abstract because it’s recognisable as lavender fields, it’s a long way from a conventional shot of the scene.

Minimalism is a lot of fun to try and it really makes you think about composition and the important elements of your scene. Remember, those words from the Tate Modern I mentioned at the start and use them as your mantra: ORDER, SIMPLICITY & HARMONY

Published in Camera Skills
  1. Thanks AJ. Very helpful and fabulous images here. Just need to try to put this into practice

  2. Good article, I love your ICM, you should enter that in a fotomission!

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