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Keeping Things Simple, aka Minimalist Compositions

In January 2020, I walked into the DE LA gallery in Key West. The collection of photos was quite amazing. The thing that really struck me was the simplicity of the photos. By removing all the clutter, Jorge De La Torriente created images that both grab your attention and allows your imagination to kick into high gear. Seeing how this is very different to my typical style of shooting, I found this very intriguing.

For the past two years, I have made it a point to look for some minimalist subjects when out shooting. This could be a tree, lone animal, structure, anything really that can stand on its own and tell some sort of story. For someone like me, this isn't easy since I like to build my photos as a series of layers. I also like to have my subject rather prominent in the frame.

I decided that my guidelines would be the following:

  • The subject needs to be small.

  • The background needs to be consistent.

  • As much as possible, avoid adding other elements to the image.

Sound simple? In theory it is. After all that is the point. In practice, it can be quite a challenge. The thing is, for many of us, this is very different from what we were taught. Think about things like ,"fill the frame," or "have something in the foreground, mid-ground and background." Basically, for me it is moving away from my comfort zone.

The first thing I learned is that subject placement is critical. Without the proper subject placement, it just looks like you shot a scene with the wrong lens. I seemed to get the best results when working the corners of the image. In the following shot, placed the lighthouse in the lower part of the frame, with the sky filling up the majority of the frame.

With this image, there is still some balance and flow due to the one cloud that is on the upper right. For me, there seems to be a need to have something providing balance. Maybe this goes back to all that training, or maybe even for simple images balance is still important. In the next image, the blue sky above the clouds plays an important role in providing that balance.

The point is, even with minimalist images, the background still plays a strong role. I also discovered that it does not have to be completely empty or uniform. In this next image, we have a sunset with a sailboat. All of the elements in the image are towards the bottom of the frame.

I started to experiment with other subject placement. It seemed at first, I was placing subjects in the lower left. Maybe that was coincidence, or it was some pre-built bias. I wasn't sure. This next image, places the subject on the right.

This seems to work just as well. The importance is not having the subject too close to the center. The next thing I tried was different sizes for the subject. If we look at the following image with the tree, notice that even though the tree is larger, the image is still pretty minimalistic.

The conclusion that I came to is that the image really just needs to be free of clutter, have a single subject, and retain a feeling of balance. Here are a few more images.

Here the subject is towards the center of the frame, but definitely lower. The channel markers provide some depth, and I think that without them, the image would not be successful.

In this shot we have the mangroves just below the horizon zone. Certainly the bird adds some context, but is really really small in the frame becoming one of those subtle types of elements.

Finally, we have this tricolor heron going after a fish. The blurred background provides a sense of place without playing too prominent a role in the scene.

The biggest thing that I learned from this is that photos can be kept rather simple, and still provide interest to the viewer. While I am not ready to move away from my typical style of photography, I will still continue to look for opportunities to create some minimalistic images.


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