leopard in tree

Photo: Rudi Hulshof/Shutterstock

As the saying goes, a photo is worth a thousand words. But sometimes you don't need a thousand words. Sometimes you only need 100, or even 10, to say something powerful and memorable. A photograph can contain incredible amounts of information, but narrowing it down to just one or two small areas of focus can often have the greatest impact.

In the same vein as black and white photography — which strips away the chaos of color to leave just the lines, textures, shadows and highlights that pull attention toward the emotion of the subject — minimalist photography strips away any subject matter that's unnecessary. The point is to photograph just the bare essentials, to show all that can be said despite the limited number of items in the frame.

Minimalist photography is a challenge in that it is tempting to include more of the scene, to say everything all at once. But the trick to good storytelling is to say just enough, and let the audience fill in the blanks. So it is with minimalist photography: show just enough so that the viewer can pour out his own emotions, ideas, stories and questions into the experience.

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river otter

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

A river otter cuts through glass-calm water at sunrise. With just the otter and the blue canvas of the water with soft ripples trailing away, the scene provides both the action of the swimming animal and the meditative calm of a quiet early morning scene. You can practically hear the soft splash of water as the otter cuts back and forth across the surface.

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pine landscape

Photo: beerlogoff/Shutterstock

Minimalism is about both subject matter and color palette. Keeping both simple is key. Here, a seascape includes basically four elements: a distant cliff, a cloudy sky, the ocean and the scraggly pines on the near edge of the coastal cliffs. Meanwhile, the color palette is essentially three colors: green, blue and brown. Of course, there are myriad shades of tan, brown, cream, black, yellow, green, blue, aqua, grey, white ... But only the three basic colors are competing for your attention, as are the four basic elements of the scene. Yes, it's more complicated when you look deeply, but on the surface, this is a relaxingly simple scene.

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orange silhouette

Photo: Malgorzata Drewniak/Shutterstock

Part of the magic of a sunrise or sunset is how it creates dramatic silhouettes, dark lines and textures that stand stark against a colorful sky. This photo of an egret perched on a tangle of bare branches is compelling because the colors of the scene are stark — black and brilliant orange. The simplicity of the colors lets viewers enjoy the complexity of the black lines.

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foggy bay

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

Fog is a fantastic tool for photographers seeking to capture the bare essentials of a scene. A nice thick fog covers up many distractions, allowing only the subjects closest to the photographer to show through. Heading out on a foggy morning is one of the easiest ways to find gorgeous, moody minimalist scenes to photograph.

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minimal green field

Photo: JMicic/Shutterstock

Cropland is another friend of the minimalist photographer. Hill after rolling hill of the same color and texture lets that one random thing, like a farmhouse, barn, cow, or in this case, tree, stand in contrast against it.

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Photo: andreiuc88/Shutterstock

Like fog, snow has a wonderful way of covering up practically everything distracting in a scene and leaving only what stands out the most, like these leafless trees. When zeroing in on a snow-covered scene, the challenge lies in how you compose your image so that the minimalist scene still holds interest. Using leading lines, such as the gentle curve that guides a viewer's eyes along the horizon in this photo, is an important key to a successful image.

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sun bear

Photo: l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock

The profile of a sun bear against a dark, simple background gives the viewer space to ponder the mood, the emotion, or the message held within the moment. This is often a great strategy for creating a powerful portrait of an animal.

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egret reflection

Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch

A calm pond gives a sharp reflection of a great egret standing on the shore. Dark water provides a mirror that mutes much of the unimportant details in a scene. It doesn't always work, but it's usually worth experimenting with, just in case.

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minimal rock in snow

Photo: Andrey Lavrov/Shutterstock

Minimalist photography allows several isolated elements in a scene to come together and tell a story. The pieces stand alone yet combine to create a whole, and where they are in relation to each other reveals the mastery of composition and the thought that went into creating a beautiful image.

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tree in fog

Photo: Targn Pleiades/Shutterstock

Next time you pick up your camera, challenge yourself to do more with less. Look at a scene and think about how much you can say by taking out objects and distractions. How simple can you make your photograph? How much more engaging can you make your image by simplifying?

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter and Google+. Want to see more great photos? Check out MNN’s photo blog

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

11 minimalist nature photos that will leave you speechless
A photograph can become so much more powerful when the subject is simplified.