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Simplicity – the ultimate sophistication?

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

Leonardo de Vinci is sometimes credited with saying, 'simplicity is the ultimate sophistication', but whether he did actually say this or not is debated. Even if he didn’t say these words, the sentiment is a good one – whatever it is, keep it simple!

My study of photography is about trying to become proficient in the art of photography, trying to learn as much as I can so that I will be pleased with the photos I take and be motivated to continue. This blog, on the other hand, is more about what photography is teaching me – the lessons I am learning about photography and about life through the pursuit of photography. In that sense the blog is not strictly photography, but yet I can credit photography for bringing me many new insights. I have referred to some of the life lessons offered by photography in earlier blogs, but a main goal that keeps cropping up in life, and in photography, is to ‘keep it simple’. According to American poet Walt Whitman, “Simplicity is the glory of expression”.

Sometimes a simple image can conjure up feelings that are absent when viewing a more cluttered image.

As a life skill, keeping it simple is a very positive, life enhancing skill. It urges us to stay in the moment, to appreciate the little things but also not to sweat the small (irrelevant) stuff! It encourages us not to over complicate life or create unnecessary drama and to have gratitude for what we have. In art too, simple can be best, but it is not always easy, nor always successful. To quote Steve Jobs, “Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains”.

Minimalism in photography

In everyday life the term minimalism has become popular in recent years. Minimalism is really the act of cherishing what is of most value to us, and discarding the rest. Many people nowadays are embracing minimalism in their lives, whether in de-cluttering, simplifying daily routines or trying to reduce consumption of material things for environmental reasons. The mantra ‘less is more’ has become a popular one in many sections of society. If minimalism in general is about cherishing what we value and leaving the rest, minimalist photography is about composing images that focus on a simple subject, leaving out all other distractions. This style of photography is popular on platforms like Instagram, particularly as it works on small screens.

In my photography practice my preferred style is simplicity in images. While it is sometimes good to take a sweeping landscape (assuming you have the right equipment for that) I find that I tend to prefer shooting small parts of a scene, finding something unusual or something that might normally be missed. Having looked back over my image collection of the last year I realise that I have a lot of images that are simple in composition and, although I don’t think I would like to shoot entirely in this way, I have found myself embracing minimalist photography techniques on many occasions. However, taking a minimalist approach has to be a creative choice otherwise we simply end up with a boring photograph with too much empty space, as I have done on a few occasions! To this end, how we compose our images is very important in minimalist photography and the challenge is in choosing a strong subject and deciding what to leave out of the frame. I try to make this decision while I am shooting rather than cropping unwanted parts of the image afterwards. I like to try and think in a minimalist way when doing this type of photography. Using a shallow depth of field can help in isolating a subject from the background.

In these images I wanted to focus on the raindrops on leaves in my garden. Often we miss the beauty after the rain!

It is important in all types of photography to know what it is we want to say through our images; to be clear as to the message that we would like to convey to the viewer. I love to watch birds in flight, to admire their grace and the freedom that their flight conveys. In this image I focused on capturing just the bird in flight, nothing else was of value to the image.

I tried cropping this image to place the bird in a more pleasing position in the frame. Unfortunately this affected the quality of the image so I reverted to the original.


In employing a minimalist style in art or photography the subject in an image is kept simple, but simple should not mean boring. As already said, the subject choice is important as it will be the strongest element of the shot, even though it does not take up most space in the shot. The ‘negative space’ itself will also be significant; this can have blurred colours through the use of a wide aperture or have a background colour that accentuates the subject ( At times, shooting against a blue sky provides a good contrast to the subject.

In this image the negative space conveys a sense of the vastness of nature compared to our human structures.

In these images the negative space provides a context for the subject.

Colour and Texture

Colour can provide a focus for our photography and can give us a way of keeping images simple while providing a sense of mood. Concentrating on one colour helps concentrate our minds as to how that colour speaks to us. Strong colours, complimentary colours and contrasting colours are all useful tools in minimalist photography

Texture too often provides a good subject for minimalist photography. I often like to capture the textures on walls and door handles, rather than always capturing entire buildings.

Angle and Perspective

Finding the right angle from which to shoot is important from a minimalist standpoint – do I shoot straight on or do I shoot high or low? Each of these choices will have a different impact on the final image. I often find that shooting high and capturing the highest part of a building makes an interesting minimalist shot.

In this shot I had to adjust my angle to shoot the part of the subject that I wanted.

A minimalist approach can be employed to good effect in nature photography. It is relatively easy to isolate a good subject in nature – flower, leaf, twig – and again, angle of shot and depth of field will make a difference. There could be a tendency to assume that any subject in nature will be a good one and this is not necessarily always going to be the case. As in every area of photography, a subject in nature must be a strong visual image, particularly in minimalist photography where it needs to ‘speak’ to the viewer.

An autumn leaf hanging onto its branch despite a whirling wind deserves to have its image captured!

Visual Storytelling

Minimalist photography can be used in visual storytelling in that a simple image can speak to the viewer’s emotions. When there is not a lot of clutter in the frame the viewer has the space to think about what is happening in the image – the story!

The image is simple - the story is up to the viewer!

These three beach images, although simple in content, each has its story to tell.

Sometimes a leading line can be the entire image, and this is full of suggestion as to where it is leading.

Minimalist photography can be a very subjective form of photography, and what may appeal to one person may not be appreciated by another, but for those who enjoy this type of photography it can be very rewarding and can lead to some very interesting shooting.

Below is a link to 50+ examples of minimalist photography, many of which I admire greatly. When I compare my efforts to these images I realise that my own are lacking in similar visual appeal, but these examples do set a bar for me to aim towards.

Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that's creativity.

Charles Mingus


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