Black and white minimalist photography guide

Follow these photography tips to create fine art minimalist landscapes and seascapes. Just add a Neutral Density filter and your favourite black and white sofware…

In our hectic, image-saturated world it’s easy to see why Zen-like minimalist photography has become popular. Simple framing, long exposures, square crops and eery mono treatments can create stunning and visually soothing results. The good news is that they’re also simple to create. Here, we’ll share tips that will help you to get similar minimalist landscapes of your own, including how to use an ND filter to slow shutter speeds, how to avoid camera shake and how to convert your RAW file to black and white.

While many subjects can work for a minimalist composition, scenes that capture the tranquillity of water work exceptionally well. So, with that in mind, we headed to the seaside town of Clevedon in the UK. The brown, muddy water didn’t lend itself to colour images, but looked great in black and white.

Black and white conversions work very well with minimalist landscapes or seascapes; sometimes, less really can mean more. A great exponent of this approach is Michael Kenna, whose approach to seascapes is entirely surreal. Using a square format, and often heavily vignetted, his work is particularly noted for creative use of long exposures. This turns otherwise obvious textures, such as clouds and waves, into soft suggestion by heavy ND filter usage or shooting in extremely low light. It’s this exploitation of movement that creates his famed dreamlike effect.

To master this simple technique we recommend looking for a visual anchor. If you’re shooting near the coast, try using features such as groins or posts, because these lead the viewer’s eye into the frame. We created a symmetrical composition to reinforce the simplicity of the framing and pre-visualised a square crop.

Sometimes the sheer lack of features can be just as compelling. 3-stop, 6-stop and even 10-stop Neutral Density (ND) filters can give much greater control of shutter speed and should be top of the minimalist landscape photographer’s kit list. See our guide to using ND filters for long exposures in daylight.

Step 1: Keep your camera still

To avoid blur caused by camera shake during the long exposure, take all the usual precautions, such as using a tripod, a cable release (or self-timer) to fire the shutter, and locking the mirror in the up position.

Step 2: Use an ND filter to slow things down

Compose and focus your image, then attach a Neutral Density filter to your lens to reduce the amount of light that hits the sensor, in this case by 10 stops. On our shoot, this gave an exposure of 15 secs.

Step 3: Edit your RAW file

Use your RAW editor to make a mono conversion (we used the Black and White Mix tab in Lightroom 3). Create a square crop, then use Graduated Filter to apply an ND Grad effect that gently darkens the sky.

It’s essential to pre-visualise how your whole scene will work as a long exposure and in black and white before you start shooting.

Initially we tried to avoid the people here, but in retrospect they added a haunting human presence that’s surprisingly effective.
A long exposure of 15 seconds and a simple, symmetrical composition helped to create this srong minimalist scene.