I love modern design, and in particular also interior and exterior architectural design. Most recently, I have been focusing on architectural subjects in my photography. It turned out to be a good subject as I live in a bigger city and was still able to take photographs during the “lockdown”.
I also love minimalism. Minimalism as an art form, minimalist design and minimalist architecture. When I was younger, I studied the works of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and other architects, and still own some “minimalist” furniture from the Bauhaus area. Minimalistic design has been highly influenced by Japanese traditional design and architecture, and I personally always loved the Japanese design aesthetic.
But I also became interested in minimalism as a lifestyle / philosophy. Using minimalism as a lifestyle “term” is probably more recent development. Proponents of this lifestyle say that it is all about living with less: less financial burden and less unnecessary expenses. And more about experiences.
I have been applying some minimalist approaches to my photography and thought it could be fun to share some of my experiences and thoughts on that topic (with image samples).
Before proceeding, here some articles from 35mmc that relate to this topic:
Unremarkable architecture photo project (Hamish Gill)
Bremen Ports – industrial architecture (Christian Schroeder)
The beauty of basic – life with one lens (Will Mordell)
The Lure of the Uncomplicated Camera (Hamish Gill)
Minimalism in Photography: Gear
Minimalism means different things to different people. For example, in photography, it could mean to apply minimalism to photography gear itself (versus the art of photography).
For my own journey, I started to consciously limit my lens choices to a 50mm focal length (in full frame equivalent). This meant, I would only bring one camera & one 50mm lens to my photography outings. (With a few exceptions).
Why limit the gear?
Aside from obvious economical reasons to own less, I think the spirit of limiting gear, at least to me, is simplification and piece of mind. In an ideal world, I would just go out and shoot, without thinking about the gear a second. In reality, I still do think about at least two things at the moment: camera body and film stock. If I shoot digital, it’s just camera body for most part. I am not at the 1 body per medium goal yet, but would like to get there.
Once I was out, and I did not have a choice anymore, this felt clearly liberating to me. In the field, my only decisions are the visual “story” with primarily composition and then some basic exposure settings to worry about. With that, I also decided to not work with filters (although I used to work with filters quite a bit). [[I am planning to do more long exposure fine art B&W work down the road, but this will be very pre-planned and obviously will require a tripod and ND filters unless I do it dusk / dawn / low light.]]
I think there is a host of reasons why gear limitation can be useful (this section has been inspired by a blog post from Erik Kim):
- Using one focal length only lets you really learn that focal length; if you are smarter than me, and really only use one lens (versus several as I did), you also will really learn the lens
- Analysis – paralysis – photographers block: I found myself often wondering which lenses to bring, and overanalyzed the gear I was going to bring on an outing or trip. The result: I would often bring way too much gear, and often did not use the extra stuff I brought.
- Using one focal length makes you see the subjects with that focal length
- Bringing one lens/camera is lighter and easier than bringing more
- Not having a choice can paradoxically be freeing, I found this to be very much the case
- If you have extra $$, perhaps consider spending it on an experience (maybe a road trip) versus the next lens
Does one lens make you a better photographer: not necessarily, but it might 😉
50mm works well for my style and I consciously purchased a M3 with that “limitation” in mind last year. This is not the first time that I explored a more minimalist “single lens” approach: last year, my family and I went on a 2 week Europe trip (I am from Switzerland originally), and I had only a 35mm FF equivalent prime lens with me (back then, a Fuji X camera with a 23mm 1.4 prime lens that I have sold since then).
Are there or were there times when I wished I had a wider or longer focal length? Of course. Lenses after all are very powerful tools for overall creative image control. And very often, lenses are much less discussed and reviewed than the “light boxes” (cameras, sensors, film stocks).
So, yes, 50mm works fairly well, but of course is not always ideal. If it wasn’t, I found myself working the composition and experimenting until I found something that worked. More often than not this may result in “NOT” taking the shot.
Other gear limitations?
Of course, the obvious one that I don’t strictly adhere to all the time, is the film medium. Some might argue that this is not a limitation, but a complication. And they might have a point. Aside from the obvious cost, the use of film is limited by film stock (including color or monochrome), and ISO speed and the overall work flow. But then the limitation/choice of ISO and film stock force us photographers to be more deliberate with our approach.
For my personal and professional work, I used to use and still own a lot of gear: digital camera bodies, many lenses including specialized tilt-shift, strobes, light modifiers, LED lights, tripods, mono-stands, light stands, C-stands, clamps, macro-rails, backdrops, gimbals for video work etc. etc. For my personal landscape work, I used to travel with 3 full-frame zoom lenses, 2 bodies, a variety of filters and a big tripod. And while there are no regrets and I did indeed use all this gear, there is a liberating aspect of traveling with (and ultimately also owning!) less!
Of course, the current economic crisis lends itself to pursue such “minimalistic” life style if nothing other than for economical reasons.
In order to work towards using and owning only essential gear, I have been reviewing/listing all the photography gear I own, and have been proactively selling what I no longer consider essential.
(Digression: prime versus zoom
Now, I wanted to briefly discuss one issue that often comes up in the prime versus zoom discussion. Often prime lens proponents seem to talk about “zooming” with your feet and how that would help overcome the limitation of not having a zoom lens or multiple focal lengths. This is simply not true. To make matters even more complicated, many say that focal length determines the perspective of an image. But strictly speaking, this is also not true. Perspective only changes with the photographers location relative to their subject. To keep this digression to a minimum, but if this topic is of interest, I recommend John Aldred’s piece and also a more in depth discussion on focal lengths by Cambridge in Colour. If one is particularly interested in depth of field and out of focus rendering, both important artistic tools, I also recommend Cambridge in Colour.)
Minimalism in Photography: Art
As mentioned, I love minimalism as an art form / style as well. Whether this is minimalist design, sculptures, paintings, or photographs. And certainly, there can be an overlap between a minimalist design aesthetic, and a minimalist life style.
With regards to a minimalistic aesthetic in my own work, I always strive for simplifying my compositions.
I wanted to share some recent 35mm architecture film photographs I have been taking with 50mm lenses, and various 35mm film stocks.
All films have been developed at home, scanned with a Nikon DSLR system (D850, with Nikkor 105mm Macro 2.8 lens), digital raw files converted with Negative Lab Pro 2.0 and edited in Adobe Lightroom.
Of course, the lens (camera) is ultimately just a tool. But to me, it’s important to love my tool, to take care of it, and to also use it regularly. And it has to be easy and intuitive and fun to use.
Ultimately, every photographer has to decide individually what tool(s) work(s) best for their creative vision.
At the moment, I plan to continue my “minimalism” journey. Artistically, this mean continue to work almost exclusively in black and white, probably mostly using the 50mm focal length (possibly 28mm at times), pushing my compositions, and further simplifying my gear.
I look forward to hearing from you. What your favorite focal lengths? Have you been trying to explore minimalism, either artistically and/or as a lifestyle or both or elsewhere?
Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the pictures and perhaps some of the thoughts.
You can find me on Instagram here.
Finally, thanks, Hamish, for letting me publish this little piece.