When less is more: how to capture minimalism in photography

Allowing space to breathe can catapult messy frames into timeless images. Pro photographers Joel Santos and Vladimir Rys share their best advice for creating minimalist photography.
Snow falls on a figure standing on the Great Wall of China holding an eye-catching pink umbrella. Taken by Joel Santos.

"Most of my earlier photos were taken on a Canon EOS 300D and an 18-55mm lens," says travel photographer Joel Santos. "Almost everybody is able to move their feet and take elements out of the frame. They just need to be creative. Creativity is within everybody's grasp. You don't need too much equipment, and don't ever feel restrained by what you have." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM) at 28mm, 1/80 sec, f/11 and ISO 800. © Joel Santos

Photographers with an eye for minimalism aren't afraid to strip back their frame and reduce elements of a scene to their essence. The result, when mastered, can be simplicity and grace – something that often brings peace to the complexity of the human mind when witnessed in an image. The concept of 'room to breathe' in a picture can offer great opportunities to professional photographers willing to accept the challenge.

Portuguese travel photographer, documentary filmmaker and Canon Ambassador Joel Santos teams adventure with a fascination for far-flung corners of the world, and the people who live there. He combines landscapes and portraiture, storytelling in places including Mongolia, South Sudan, Indonesia and Ghana. He's authored nine books and was voted Travel Photographer of the Year in 2016.

Award-winning motorsports photographer and Canon Ambassador Vladimir Rys spent his early days in the darkroom and his portfolio spans a range of subjects, but Formula 1 has been his primary field of work since 2005. He takes about 80 flights a year, travelling to locations such as Monaco and Singapore, and was named Photographer of the Year in 2014 by the Italian Motorsport Federation.

Here, Joel and Vladimir share the advice and techniques that have allowed them to experiment with minimalism to get incredible results.

A silhouette of a Formula 1 car, against the sun, taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens by Vladimir Rys.

Vladimir captured this shot during a Formula 1 practice session. "You're directing the observer's focus and using photography as a tool to show a moment and create emotion," says Vladimir. "I love to use a lot of negative space and keep things simple." Taken on a Canon EOS R3 with a Canon RF 400mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 1/12800 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 50. © Vladimir Rys

1. Filter out the noise

A minimalist style can suit any technique, but for Vladimir, cutting through the noise of a scene and observing is crucial to creating space in a composition. "Formula 1 is probably one of the fastest motorsports on the planet," he says. "There is so much going on with the speed and sound, and many times I see people just looking through the viewfinder and they miss a lot of stuff. As a photographer, if you take the exact opposite approach, to be slow and to observe, and to see what the driver does with the car, which racing line he takes – this is exactly what giving images room to breathe is about.

"Filter out all the noise and just focus on the main scene that's happening in front of you, and stay calm and focused. Follow your instincts to capture the right moment."

A man runs up a sand dune in India's Thar Desert, a huge expanse of rippling sand behind him, in a minimalist portrait by Joel Santos.

"You can do [minimalist photography] with a macro lens, a wide lens or a telephoto," says Joel. "It's always about playing with what is inside that square and simplifying it, usually by removing elements." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM) at 127mm, 1/80 sec, f/11 and ISO 800. © Joel Santos

2. Simplify a visual story

"Giving compositions room to breathe is completely tied to the concept of minimalism," says Joel. "It's a strategy to make a visual story simple, not in a way that is just a dot on a white canvas, but aiming for a clear and impactful story. In order to get that, I believe we must escape the most common vision about composition – which is the process of adding elements to a frame. Instead, you need to analyse what you have around you and think about what to take out of the frame."

Through Joel's eyes, images that are simple enable viewers, and competition judges in particular, to understand a photographer's message.

"The world is a complex place to begin with so we must strive to make things simple," he adds. "Why should we do that? Because you're not solely taking photos for yourself. If you aim to share these photos in a contest, for example, you must make sure that everyone else – including the judges – understands what they're seeing without having a caption. If you make a photo too complex, there is no room to breathe."

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3. Experiment with lenses

In minimalism, less is more, and kit limitations can boost creativity. Using prime lenses, for example, can streamline the process. Vladimir used to shoot with zoom lenses for years before he moved to primes. "My style of photography is more suited to this kind of lens where you move around, position yourself and find the framing of your shot, rather than just zooming in and out, which is the difference between me and agency photographers who have to be fast," he says.

Vladimir switched to Canon's mirrorless cameras for their speed, and he now uses the Canon EOS R3 and EOS R5 alongside a kit list which includes his favourite lens for minimalism, the Canon RF 50mm F1.2L USM, which he uses for portraits, trackside, landscapes and everything in between. "I also use prime lenses because when you shoot wide open with small apertures such as f/1.4, f/1.8 and f/2, you can create a cinematic look which I love," he continues. "It can be used as a tool for minimalism because you can kill the background and direct the observer to the subject you want."

Joel, who shoots with the EOS R5 as his main body due to its ideal weight, favours the Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens because it is "optically superb and is like a pack of primes". "The more you train yourself, the more your gear becomes an expression of your body," he adds. "I have lots of prime lenses but if I had to choose one, I would take the Canon RF 35mm F1.8 MACRO IS STM because it's so discreet. It's not too long that you crop out what you're shooting if it's an environmental portrait or a landscape, but it's also not too wide that you get too much within your frame and lose depth. You get that simplicity you're aiming for. One lens can enable so many interpretations as long as you move your feet and play with the strengths and weaknesses of your gear."

A salt miner's reflection is visible in the water, while a caravan of dromedary camels walks through the middle of the frame in a minimalist photograph by Joel Santos.

"An image has a finite space to work with and everything in the image must have a purpose," explains Joel. "For me, composition is not about all the things you can put in an image, but what you can take out in order to make the story as striking as possible." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS II USM) at 1/200 sec, f/4 and ISO 200. © Joel Santos

4. Use negative space

The tried and tested method of using negative space is also a technique Joel recommends for creating striking images. "If you want your subject to be the protagonist, it is more impactful if you have more negative space around them," he says.

Joel's background in economics and his love of mathematics also influences the way he composes his images. "I like to use odd numbers," he explains. "An odd number by itself draws your attention, but when there's a reflection, as in the photo above, the duplication makes it even. This interplay between odd and even is something I like very much and use a lot to make my photos more minimalistic. But at the same time, they get richer somehow, because they're multiplied by elements within the photo."

A low-light, minimalist portrait of a man leaving a mosque framed by dark shadows. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-700mm F2L USM lens by Joel Santos.

Joel captured this portrait of a man leaving a mosque in Niger after prayers, taking advantage of the exceptional low-light performance and dynamic range of the EOS R System and RF lenses. Taken on a Canon EOS R with a Canon RF 28-70mm F2L USM lens at 28mm, 1/160 sec, f/4 and ISO 6400. © Joel Santos

5. Choose light as the main ingredient

"When you use light effectively – such as having a very dark background so that just the main protagonist is lit – you can create extremely minimalistic photos," says Joel. "It's very achievable – you just need contrasting light.

"In an era where everybody wants to make HDR photos to see all the details, sometimes it's good not to have all those details. That way, you can make a strong silhouette or the inverse, which is what I was doing with the photo I took in Niger [above] featuring a man walking away from a mosque after prayer."

A leafless tree silhouetted against the starry night sky, shot in black and white on a Canon EOS R5 by Mauro Tronto.

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A distant Formula 1 car travels on the left side of a race track, captured on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II by Vladimir Rys.

"I always wanted to be a crisis or war photographer, but I found my niche in Formula 1," says Vladimir. "I think there are so many similarities in a way, which sounds strange, but it's because you have to be fast, you have to predict and be prepared for the picture before it even happens." Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/5000 sec, f/2.8 and ISO 50. © Vladimir Rys

6. Try panning

One of the most common and favoured techniques in racing photography that can be used in all genres is panning with a slow shutter speed, says Vladimir. This can create a minimalist effect with clean lines. "When you follow the subject with your lens with a slow shutter speed, you basically kill everything else and try to keep the subject you're focusing on sharp," he explains. "That's one of my favourite techniques for minimalist pictures.

"The technique is a challenge, but mirrorless cameras can help you to get good results much faster, especially using the Panning Assist tool, which helps you get a better hit rate. But the whole challenge of this is concentration, a steady hand and sometimes holding your breath so that you don't move. It can take time to get it right because every car has a different speed or different racing line, so it's not an easy task. But if you get it right, the results are really rewarding."

These are just a few examples of the incredible results you can achieve if you adopt a minimalist approach to your photography – whether you're removing elements from the frame or experimenting with light and shadow, less is often more when you allow your images some room to breathe.

Lorna Dockerill

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