Ah winter, with your muted color palette and your blanketing snow, you call to my inner minimalist in a way that the more riotous seasons don’t. Spring heavy with budbreak and flowers. Summer with its riot of wildlife. And fall with its panoply of colors. They don’t make it easy to strip a scene down to its essentials the way winter does. There’s too much competing for a photographer’s eye and, unless you work at it, arriving at a truly minimalist image is tough. Don’t lose hope though, you can start to develop an eye for minimalism during the season that helps you see it best; winter. And once you have some practice time it will be easier to spot these scenes during the more clamorous times of year.
For me, minimalism is about removing extraneous elements from the image. Textures, shapes, colors must all be simple and stark to some extent. Often it comes down to providing the viewer with just one element to focus on – a color or form or texture. A single element, or a very few of them in a conspicuous pattern. Simple backgrounds.
My first go-to is always the small scene and so let’s look at that first. The season’s first snowfall made these flowers in my yard really stand out. The trick was to find a group that was isolated. Once I located some, I needed to use a lens long enough to carve out small scenes without trampling them. Remember to get the focal plane (film or your sensor) lined up with as much of your subject as you can. Because macro or telephoto lenses have narrow depths of field you can accidentally have parts of your subject out of focus which may not provide the strongest image.
Snow makes it easy to notice tiny things. It automatically creates a uniform backdrop. And it’s easy to clean up any tiny bits of debris that might otherwise distract from your main subject. Spot and blemish removal tools are quick and easy enhancements to a minimalist image.
Sometimes a streak or pop of color will be enough to create something eye-catching, but making an image even stronger takes some processing. I love this shot of some rock cap fern curled in the cold, but as I shot it the line was straight up and down and was boring; too static. A bit of cropping and rotation in Lightroom and I got a more interesting visual just by tilting things so that the fern forms a diagonal.
Never underestimate the power of a good diagonal!
As you look through the images here, you’ll also notice I follow the rule of thirds with most, if not all, of them. When you’ve isolated your subject so severely it’s doubly important to create a harmonious and balanced scene. The rule of thirds is an easy way to make sure your shot is as pleasing to the eye as possible and one you probably already use every time head out. If you can’t quite get the shot in camera, use a wider, more inclusive angle of view so you can crop the image with the rule of thirds in mind. Using your software’s cropping guide may also be helpful when you do this.
Stepping back a bit, but still armed with my medium telephoto lens, I start to see larger scenes that still remain simple, stark and dramatic. Shadows can help a lot with this and once you start noticing them, more and more will pop out at you. Don’t get lazy though, move those feet to find the best angles that eliminate everything but your subject.
Can you sense a theme here?
Going farther back, and using a wider angle requires an even more discerning eye. The lone tree to the right is the obvious draw, but to make the image even more dramatic, I adjusted the blue channel after converting to black and white. By sliding luminance and saturation to their lowest values, it rendered the sky nearly as featureless as the snow. It reinforces the bold quality of the trees and makes them pop.
So that’s a quick look at how winter can help you hone your eye for the minimalist photograph and so to recap –
- Choose a medium telephoto to isolate your subject
- Align your subject with your focal plane
- Clean up snow debris in post processing
- Focus on color for instant drama
- Use strong lines, like diagonals, to keep things from being too boring
- The rule of thirds is your friend
- Look for repeating patterns (shadows are great for this)