Minimalism in street photography

Introduction

While photography is amazingly wide art form, with many interesting niches, I always found all the opportunities a bit overwhelming. Lately though, looking back at my work, I slowly started to realise a common pattern. This was not coincidental though. Occasionally, I have been reading and educating myself about minimalism. Without consciously applying the philosophy of minimalism into photography, it’s principles slowly crept their way in. The more I learned about it and the more I analysed my work, the more deliberate was the process of implementing minimalism approach in photographing streets.

Below I tried to summarise how minimalism in street photography helps me focus, adds purpose to my photography and how I stay dedicated and motivated with the help of minimalist mindset. Even though I did not start purposefully implementing it right in the beginning, you can. 😉

Minimalism – what it is to me

This might not exactly follow the explanation of purist minimalist, but to me it is about making things simpler. It is about what I choose to wear, simplifying my morning routine, simplifying the photographic process, composition, simplifying the gear I use.

It is also about designing my environment (our home, my workspace, closet, desk, etc.) and hence influencing my future decisions. Our home is (for the most part) quite tidy and clutter free. For some reason, and you might have experienced this too, as long as my desk is clean I find it easier to focus, edit, write, etc. Same applies to carrying equipment on photoshoot. If I take one lens, I am not tempted to switch back and forth. I need to figure out a creative problem with what I have.

How is this beneficial to me? Helps my decision making process. If my wardrobe is simple = minimalist, it is very easy to choose what to wear. If my morning routine is simple, I prepare my breakfast very fast and don’t need to think about it, therefore having more time for other things. Moreover, it motivates me to do it every day. If my composition is simple (at least by my own definition and standard), it gives my photography direction. If I make things simpler, minimal, I can see my way from A to B. Something I was looking for for a very long time.

So to me, minimalism in photography is

  • owning less gear and working creatively around constraints of the one I have
  • creating minimalist compositions
  • shooting black and white
  • shooting street with one lens only (I would not take more than one lens for – a photowalk, I do own more lenses, 3 actually – a wide, 35 and 85mm)
  • going out with a certain mindset
  • editing in “soft” way, no HDR, etc.

Tools in minimalist street photography

If you want to give minimalist street photography a go, I would suggest start easy. Take one camera and one lens and go out and shoot as you would normally. You will experience the need to change lenses for some scenarios, I do too. Acknowledge the feeling but push it back and instead, think about how to photograph the subject with the lens you carry. Walk closer or further away, change angles by getting higher or lower, or even crop in post, if that gets you closer to your goal.

The challenge of clean compositions. If, like me, you live in a cluttered city and you like your compositions to be clear, there are again some things you can do. You can block the cluttered spaces by moving close to a solid object and block part of the frame with it. You can use reflections of windows, mirrors, busses or trams. You can also use your own cell phone. While turned off, place it close to your lens and observe the reflections on the screen through your viewfinder. You can get similar looking compositions to this one.

You can also make your compositions simple by using light itself. Go for high or low key photography and hide the clutter there. For example, during mid-day when the sun is up and shadows are harsh, use very fast shutter speed (like 1/4000s or higher) and create rich black shadows in your shot. You can hide just about anything in those. Hence the minimalism again.

Monochromatic photography as a tool in minimalist street photography

One of the very effective tools is shooting monochromatic, or black and white. Should we follow my definition of minimalism, which is making things simpler, eliminating color is a way to go. With colorless images, eye is directly drawn to the content of the image = the subject and the composition. Some say a black and white is the color of photography. Moreover, black and white picture lets you use your imagination and look at the picture with your soul. This way, the image does not dictate all of its contents, it lets the viewer decide. To me, the mystery of black and white is very attractive. Or as Eliott Erwitt puts it “Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” – Eliott Erwitt

minimalism in street photography

Once you finish reading this article, check out how it was for me, when I decided to shoot black and white only, for a year. You can do so HERE

“Color is descriptive. Black and white is interpretive.” – Eliott Erwitt

Color as a tool in street photography

On the contrary to using black and white, color can also be utilized in minimalist (street) photography. One might want to show the interactions of colors on the streets, the reflections, the nature and color of the light, or the juxtaposition of colored elements in the frame – think red umbrella with red bus, etc.

Using backgrounds, colors, compositions, shapes in minimalist street photography, contrast, angles

Minimalism is street photography can be approached in many different ways. I wrote about using one lens, shooting black and white or color, but still there’s much more to how one can approach this. Here are few more examples:

  • Look for interesting, but clean backgrounds and put your subject in front of it
  • Shoot one color only
  • Use shapes and geometry to create interesting compositions, such as leading lines, curves, shadows.. To be more exact, use stairs, buildings, pathways, signature on the ground like pedestrian crossings, alleys, etc.
  • Be creative and look for unique spots, go to them during different time of the day and see what they look like, how is the light shaping them – what looks boring now can look stunning in early morning light  

The benefits of having a minimalist’s mindset

Again as before, this is what I tell myself to wrap my head around photography as such. I believe that shooting with minimalist mindset helps to:

  • create cleaner and more meaningful compositions
  • find compositions more easily
  • add interest by elimination (deliberately placing elements outside the frame)
  • have better direction
  • be more consistent with my work
  • keep my focus

Challenges of minimalist approach in street photography

It goes without saying, yet here I am doing it, that putting these kind of constraints on yourself bring about quite a few challenges. Those are, at least to me these:

  • visual clutter
  • busy backgrounds
  • sometimes I really need that other lens to create exactly what I want (I would need to come back another day I guess)
  • it takes time to develop skills enabling us to tell engaging stories with less

What is your definition of minimalism in any kind of photography? Leave a comment below, or if you are thirsty for some inspiration, check out these, not only street, maybe not even minimalist, but great photographers on Instagram:

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minimalism in street photography