Minimalism

People often say that photography is the art of subtraction, a view that anyone who has ever stood behind a camera for any length of time, trying to work out how to best compose some wild and windswept landscape into a picture postcard perfect shot will undoubtedly recognise. Whereas a painter will start with a blank canvas, and gradually add to it, brush stroke by brush stroke, until a complete image lies before him, the photographer’s job is subtly, but vitally, different.

Minimalism has a tendency towards producing fine art-style images, as with this abstract study of the flowing layers of a rose's petals.

When we make art, we have to decide what to remove from a natural view in order to make it work within the artificial confines of an image. Sometimes that is as simple as shifting to remove a stray tree from a skyline. At other times it can be far harder to see how to construct an image, using differing focal lengths, depths of field, and framing to try to bring the order of construction to the natural world, which inherently seems to throw off such attempts for much of the time I think.

Minimalism in photography, particularly in nature photography, but not at all limited to landscape work, increases and refines that natural challenge presented to all photographers. For the most part, minimalism asks that we seek to reduce to almost zero, creating our own abstract image from whatever constituent parts we choose to present to the viewer. Sometimes that means that the challenge of creating effective minimalist photos is even more difficult than usual, though at others, something will simply present itself to you as a subject and the composition will almost create itself. Groins and other man-made objects jutting into the ocean are a more and more common subject for minimalist photography, particularly with the development of filters that allow ultra long exposures in order to blur the water so it appears as though the sky and the ocean have merged.

Shot with a long exposure using a ten stop ND filter, water and sky are barely distinguishable, leaving the hard lines of the groin as the only point of interest.

So called ten-stop ND filters (so-called because they decrease the amount of light allowed into the lens by the equivalent of narrowing the aperture by ten stops) effectively turn day into night and allow the photographer to shoot in daylight the type of images that would usually feature long trails of traffic lights when produced after-dark. You can use these filters of turn clouds into streaks across the sky, or, as I tend to, as a compositional aid in simplifying your shot until almost nothing is left of it but one focal structure.

Sometimes, nature doesn’t need very much help at all in offering up a minimalistic composition, and the easiest way to highlight and control it is to use a very short exposure instead of a very long one, so as to allow you to minimise the depth of field to a sliver afforded by a very wide aperture. Using a very fast lens (one which allows maximum apertures of f1.4, 1.8 or 2) you can throw so much of the image out of focus that very little is left. This is even easier to do if you are using a macro lens, or extension tubes, as their depth of field is narrower than even the fastest lenses when focussed on tiny objects.

This image is even more abstract, the feather shot so close up as to be hardly recogniseable.

If you are interested in more examples of minimalism in photography, there is a stunning selection here and this Flickr group always contains inspirational works. More of my own abstract and minimal work can be found here.

Posted in Blog by Nic Stevenson on July 17th, 2011 at 9:46 pm.

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