Minimalism is all the rage right now. Spend any time reading blogs, flipping through cookery books or design magazines and virtually all you see are neat straight lines, uncluttered desks, and seas of overexposed whites. We can attribute this to all sorts of factors. For instance, modern web design is all about a light, clean look with lots of negative or ‘white’ space, so similarly themed photos fit perfectly with this style – ditto on Instagram, where, when reduced to a thumbnail, a neat, minimal image leaps out compared to a busy, intricate layered shot. IKEA built a flat pack empire furnishing our homes with smart, scandi styles, and part of Apple’s stratospheric rise to the colossus it is today can be attributed to Steve Jobs’ and Jony Ive’s obsession with minimalism, both through functionality (binning CD drives and ports), and through worship of the Bauhaus design school, and Dieter Rams’ incredible industrial design functionalism showcased by many classic Braun products. So, with minimalism so highly influential in all aspects of our life, how can we start channeling this look into our street photography? And, as we continue to admire all your superb submissions from last month’s minimalism themed street photography monthly theme contest, and marvel at the brilliance of our contest winner Achim Katzberg’s street shot, what could be more apposite than taking a look under the hood of minimalism to seeing what makes it tick? Read on for a minimalism primer in our guide to minimalist street photography…
The fundamental of good minimalist street photography is meticulous composition. Whilst composition is important in all street photography (and broader photography too), it takes on extra significance where minimalism is concerned as the genre demands that so ‘little’ is going on in the frame. This means you have to be judicious with what you include and exclude in your shot, and also make sure that what you do include is captured perfectly. You need a good working knowledge of your camera’s viewfinder – does it have 100% coverage? Does it have guidelines? Using a quasi-rangefinder camera like a Fujifilm X-Pro would require extra care for instance, as the parallax effect of the optical viewfinder makes it all too easy to make mistakes in framing and aligning elements in the shot. You need to pay close attention to the edges of your frame to avoid any distracting elements creeping in at the corners. Ditto you can make use of guidelines or an auto-level to make sure your shot is dead straight and lined up. Whilst you can always crop distracting elements out after the fact in post or re-align a photo, it’s so much better to get it right in camera to avoid any issues – it’s surprising how trying to make just the smaller correction in post can lead to losing huge important elements in other parts of your street photo!
Learn Your Lens
There is no one perfect lens for minimalist style street photography, as almost any focal length can be made to work with this style. What you do need to be aware of though are the strengths, weaknesses and limitations of different focal lengths with regards to how they can work with minimalist street photography. For example, if you are the sort of photographer who enjoys using a wide angle lens for street photography then you’ll find this focal length will work perfectly for you with minimalism provided you continue to shoot wide and focus on simple wide scenes. The big downside of wide lenses and minimalism is their propensity to distort and bend leading lines, which can really disrupt an otherwise nice minimalist photo. A wider lens will sometimes ‘suck’ erroneous distracting elements into your frame too, which you wouldn’t otherwise spot using a normal field of view. Wide lenses then, need special care to avoid creating a shot that ends up looking messy. By contrast, ‘normal’ lenses like 50mm primes can work really well for keeping lines nicely undistorted. Telephotos and longer lenses are also ideally suited to minimalism if used correctly. In the same way that you can use a telephoto lens to nail a fantastic landscape photo (by basically zooming to crop out distracting elements) you can do the same for your minimalism shots. Use the zoom of your tele to create a perfect simple frame, and the flattening perspective effect of that long lens to retain neat leading lines which run perpendicular to one another without any distortion or convergence effect.
How to use Colours in Minimalist Street Photography
The coloured elements in your frame are very important to the overall minimalist effect of your photo, even if you are shooting in black and white. For a powerful minimalist street photo you will want to to harness ‘negative space’ to your advantage, which means creating a broad expanse of ‘flat’ colour. This colour doesn’t have to be white (or even black if inverted), but even if you are shooting in black and white you need to understand the tones of how colours are converted into black and white because this is going to have a big effect on your final image. Lighter hues are going to be more akin to ‘white’ on conversion, while heavier more full-bodied ones are going to be closer to black in how they appear in black and white. Having a good idea of this conversion effect will help you to ensure that if you are a black and white street photographer then you can still use colours in your black and white minimalist street photography without the overall effect being one of washed out dullness. If you’re the sort of person who likes shooting in colour for street photography, then a whole new world opens up to you with minimalist street photography. As well as being able to focus on popping whites and deep black hues, you can apply a little attention to colour to really make your minimalist street photos stand out. By studying some colour theory for instance, you can learn what colours to look out for in particular scenes that will really help to boost contrast and create the graphical effect you are looking for in your minimalist photos. Complementary colours for instance (those opposite one another on the colour wheel) create a high contrast effect when seen together, which can be very useful. Be careful not to overload your composition though – as a general rule the fewer colours the better for a really neat minimalist shot.
How to use Backgrounds in Minimalist Street Photography
Where possible, backgrounds should be kept as simple as possible in a minimalist street photo. The fewer distracting elements the better, which means you should be aiming for things like nice flat walls with strong lighting, clean pavements and Tarmac, neat skies, and beaches. This will of course greatly limit the sorts of locations in which you can practice your minimal street photography, as you will be restricted to places which fit your remit. You will probably have to do a fair bit of location scouting, or use all your compositional tricks with your lens and point of view in order to remove any distracting elements and keep your background canvas as ‘clean’ as possible. Of course, this doesn’t mean that this is an entirely hard and fast rule and that your background must be stark and totally devoid of anything at all times. It may be that you can use some ‘graphical’ element like a window or poster to create a complementary focal point to your subject, or even better use part of your background element as some clever leading lines to accentuate or support your subject. Examples can include railings – which work beautifully as repeated shapes, especially with a forced perspective effect – as well as road markings and lines – like double yellows or zebra crossings – and even things like graffiti. Great minimalist street photography is all about spotting the minute details and then artfully building them into your composition.
How to use Subjects in Minimalist Street Photography
Just like your backgrounds, subjects should be pared back to their minimum. This is not the place for your best layering efforts! Instead you probably want to focus on only one subject if possible, and then it may even be that you don’t want to show them in their entirety. Sometimes just a head, disembodied foot or hand, or a very simple whole body silhouette is enough to give the shot a human ‘flavour’ but not overload it to the point of it moving away from being minimalist.
How to use Shapes in Minimalist Street Photography
If you spend some time researching and studying your favourite minimalist street photos you’ll probably begin to notice some patterns – great minimalist photos are all about shapes and patterns. In many respects they are actually very similar to elements of graphic design like posters. Minimalist street photos will often use a simple background canvas (our area of negative space) on which subjects and interesting objects are placed. The interaction between the subject, other elements in the frame and the background will often create interesting shapes with a visual punch – either because from the outline of the elements themselves or the area of negative space that is left blank in the frame. Effective minimalist street photography is about considering how you can use the interaction between your subject, a few other elements in your frame, and the background to form a series of interesting graphical shapes that will wow your viewer.
How to use Contrast in Minimalist Street Photography
Nailing the right exposure for your shot is always important in street photography, but it takes on extra significance in minimalist street photography. Given the importance of simple colours, shapes, and creating a graphical effect with your compositions, your aim with your minimalist street photos is going to be to create a street shot that is heavy on the contrast, which means you are going to need to know the best camera techniques and shooting styles for high contrast street photography. You can aim to use strong sunlight and and heavy shadows where you can to add extra shapes and elements to your composition, and even to isolate via exposure particular parts of your shot (perhaps even your subject) and leaving the rest in shadow. Powerful natural light – or even available light in the case of night street photography, or perhaps even a flash, can aid in helping strong primary complementary colours (as mentioned above) to really pop too!
Look Up, Look Down, Look Around
While the temptation is there to focus on side shots in minimalist street photography – after all, their starkness and ease of composition really lends the style to neat minimalist compositions – it’s worth remembering to mix it up a bit too when it comes to point of view. We’ve established the challenges with finding a neat, stark background for a minimalist street photo, so make your life a little easier by using a different point of view. Shooting from below and looking up for example (perhaps upwards towards a platform) can give you a beautiful expanse of clear sky to work with as a background and negative space area. Or you can shoot down towards the pavement, where the lines of paving stones are great sources of inspiration. Or even get above your subjects and focus your framing down on them for a bird’s eye view which will allow you play with a disruptive unusual view of the human form as well as showcase leading lines like road markings and the edges of pavements and walls, etc. Once you start thinking outside of the box you’ll find there are actually a lot more opportunities presenting themselves for minimalist street photos than you previously thought!
Be Still, Be Slow, Be Considered
Minimalist street photography does not lend itself to a spray and pray approach. It requires you to shoot slowly and in a considered manner in order to get the basics right. That does not mean that you do not have to think quickly if you start to see a scene come together, but rather that you need to pay attention to all the details and shoot more like you would with film – ie making each exposure really count. Far better to line everything up perfectly, take your time and nail the photo in one than burn your way through in continuous mode and end up with a series of shots where nothing is exactly quite right. And this approach extends further throughout the whole style of minimalist street photography too. Like the design philosophy itself, it asks that you become calm, measured and considered, aiming for an almost zen-like state where you are focused on making the photo you want but not hurried or distracted. Shooting in this way means that the journey to making the street photo becomes an integral part of the photo itself. It’s an interesting approach, and one that’s definitely worth a try!
Does Minimalism Work for You? Or Does it Take too Much Away?
Any ideology, concept, or design language which places such a slavish devotion on the obsessive pursuit of simplicity and ‘pure’ functionality – and some may argue, more of a concern with what isn’t there than what is – is often going to prove controversial. Some will brand minimalist street photography too ‘easy’, lacking in nuance, too easily repeatable and lacking in sufficient complex elements to be truly great. What those critics fail to appreciate is the sheer challenges that are presented when you leave things out of a street photo, and the increased importance it places on those remaining elements of the shot being absolutely perfect. Minimalist street photography is one that’s a huge challenge to practice but hugely rewarding when you get it right. And largely underrated to boot. Do you agree? Let us know in the comments!