The Traveling Photographer: A Guide to Great Travel Photography (2014)
11. Less Is More
On Photographic Minimalism
In the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupèry, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Put differently: Most pictures are showing too much. Two clear-cut statements (the latter from photographer Andreas Feininger), one distinct message: Less is more. This applies as much to travel photography as it does to any other genre.
The more distinct the composition, the less elements distract from the main subject, which in turn makes the photo more convincing. Usually, it can only mean good things for a photo if its idea and main subject are obviously recognizable.
Minimalism, in the sense of focusing only on what’s absolutely essential, is a means to an end for all types of photography. It implies maintaining a certain level of consistency with your compositions, selecting the image area carefully, waiting for the decisive moment, and tidying up the photo as much as possible.
It’s up to you, as the photographer, to choose who, what, and how much from which perspective is revealed in your photos. Consider which element you want to have the main role in your photo and design your picture so that this very element actually plays the leading part rather than anything else. Ask yourself while looking in the viewfinder or at the camera display with a critical eye whether your composition holds up. Is there anything (besides what’s absolutely necessary) that is distracting from the main subject? If there is, adjust your position to remove the distracting elements from your picture. This might mean moving closer to your subject, or you might opt for a longer focal length or a wider aperture to isolate your subject from its surroundings.
The realm of minimalistic photography and abstract photography is rich with possibilities that are as diverse as they are fascinating. Photography of this genre may involve emphasizing details; concentrating on a composition that is convincing because of its simplicity; searching for a detail representative of a larger whole; documenting small variations that disrupt familiar patterns; or depicting structures, lines, colors, and shapes.
There are no limits when it comes to minimalist subjects and playful ways to capture them in an image. Try it! These subjects often present themselves unexpectedly along the way; you just have to develop a sense for what to look for. Fortunately, it’s mostly a matter of practice, and it’s equally enthralling and inspiring.
An African reduction: Even though only a small portion of the animal is visible here, every viewer recognizes the shape, color, and skin texture of an elephant. | Nikon D300 • 285 mm • 1/160 s • f/8 • ISO 200
Evening at Mekong river near Luang Prabang, Laos. | Nikon D300 • 300 mm • 1/500 s • f/11 • ISO 320
Lizard tracks in the desert sand of Tunisia. | Nikon D70 • 36 mm • 1/200 s • f/10 • ISO unrecorded
The colors and shapes of the desert as well as the interplay of light and shadow on the sand make this setting an inexhaustible reservoir of subjects. I walked around carefully before I finally settled on this portrait-format composition of a dune in Erg Ubari, Libya. | Nikon D700 • 70 mm • 1/250 s • f/8 • ISO 200
The wide Wadden: This lighting on the beach of St. Peter-Ording, Germany, resulted from a mixture of evening sunlight and low-hanging rain clouds. The pole serves as an attention grabber and also acts as a vertical foil to the horizontal lines of the sand, shadows, and clouds. | Nikon D70 • 105 mm • 1/200 s • f/7.1 • ISO 200
A study of shapes with splotches of color: Volcanic slopes, snow fields, and nine hikers on Deception Island, South Shetlands. | Nikon D300 • 270 mm • 1/1000 s • f/8 • ISO 400