Monday, January 14, 2013

Minimalism, symmetry, silhouettes and textures

Crow on wire.
A few days ago I discovered Anne McKinnell Photography by way of a link to Anne’s post on symmetry, part of her Creativity Booster series.  Then I read them all.  Here’s a woman after my own heart -- for me boldness, simplicity, patterns and abstract views are fascinating, even mesmerizing.

With my new knowledge, I headed out yesterday morning in search of minimalism, symmetry, silhouettes and textures.  It’s been pretty cold lately, and the river is well-frozen and suitable for strolling.  It was -6º F (-21º C), but sunny and incredibly still.

“In photography, images with the most impact tend to have less in them.  They are only about one thing.”  Simple lines are something to try -- so I spent some time with lines of tracks on the river.  But the minimalist photos that I like most are more surprising -- for example an interesting object in an otherwise homogenous or monotonous landscape.  And scale matters.  Snow is about as homogenous as you can get, but these track takes up too much space.  Also, an expanse of snow this size is nothing terribly impressive.  Better a yak on a snow-covered plain miles in extent.
Susannah of Wanderin’ Weeta recently posted a great minimalist shot of shorebirds in fog, a horizontal band of bird-spots with a few dark lines thrown in, almost in the middle of a very gray scene. You should check it out.
Simple compositions of just a few colors or shapes, or just a few elements, qualify as minimalist too.  A wonderful collection of frost ferns had sprouted under the old railroad bridge overnight; I ducked and carefully walked under to investigate.  But I heard some eerie cracking sounds so I backed out and tried another place.  Here was an equally nice collection of fernlike stellar dendrites and intriguing minimalist views of the underside of the trestle.

Even before my recent explorations of photography, I “knew” that symmetry in photos was to be avoided, that there is a golden ratio for arranging things, ... etc.  But not always, explains Anne, with convincing examples.
Architecture and other human-manufactured objects are obvious subjects, but nature too provides objects arranged in symmetrical ways.  “One way to find symmetry in nature is to look for reflections” ... or shadows!
I was wandering through a stand of cottonwoods working on silhouettes (next topic) when the potential for symmetry hit me.  I spent the next ten minutes making portraits of trees and their shadows.

Anne discusses the appeal of silhouettes, including the specific attraction for me (though I wasn't conscious of it ‘til now).  There is an appealing element of mystery to them.  We see mainly shapes, much detail is missing.  Lighting, shape and color are key to making silhouette photos work, as she explains.

At this point, though the camera was doing just fine, my camera hand was getting pretty cold, so I didn’t experiment much.  I did put the Canon Powershot A720 IS (a point-and-shoot) in manual shutter speed (Tv) mode and ramped up the setting hoping to not be overwhelmed by sunlight.  What I didn’t realize until I downloaded the photos was that the black-and-white setting left over from a hike several months ago was somehow activated in Tv mode.  Fortunately it was to good effect.  I suppose black-and-white reduces those distracting details even more.
I thought I might capture a symmetrical view of the sun above the old chimney in the UP railroad yard
(click photo for a better view).
I want to mention that when I first read through the Powershot manual, I found it a little hard to believe that so many settings and manual modes would be useful in a point-and-shoot.  But I underestimated the camera.  They aren’t that hard to use and worth the time to learn ... fun too.

Turns out “textures” are something I’ve been into for a long time (I call them patterns).  A nice thing about textures is that they can be photogenic in the bright light of midday or midsummer.  Here again, Anne is a kindred spirit.  In the Textures post, she gives due attention to the incredible beauty of plants and rocks up close and in the abstract.
Scanned print of a palm frond; 1997.
I found texture in stacks of old palettes, on the way back to the house and warmth.
I think this website will be useful for a photographer like myself -- with some experience, lots of interest, and no real training.  For example, I found a clear and informative post on controlling depth-of-field, though I will have to wait for warmer weather to experiment.  I’m happily reading one of Anne's two free ebooks, 8 Types of Natural Light ..., and may buy the latest, 8 Ways to Accelerate your Photography.

Are my photos getting better?  Who knows ... judgement is so much a matter of taste and perspective and the mood of the day.  But more and more I realize that the pleasures photography adds to looking at the world around me are my main motivation for doing it.  Towards this end, Anne's website looks to be very helpful.
The old packing plant, Laramie, Wyoming.
Vacation memories are all the richer for having spent time capturing them in photos!
Texture in an ancient bristlecone pine; White Mountains, California.


  1. This is such an interesting post and I will look at Anne's post.Your experiments are so good and are such an inspiration, I love the picture of the trees and shadows.
    Sarah x

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah -- for visiting and especially for your comments. Best wishes, Hollis

  2. I especially like the dog in snow, trestle pic #2, trees with shadows, pallets, and the bristlecone wood. Thanks for the inspiration! :)

    1. Thanks, SF! Hope you have some fun with these ideas.

  3. Hi Hollis! I am so glad you discovered my blog and that you found my creativity booster series helpful. It really means a lot to me that you went out and experimented with each of the techniques. It's hard to pick a favourite, but if I had to I would probably pick the black and white image with the lens flare. Lens flare is one of those things that doesn't always work and some photographers take pains to remove it from their images, but it really works in your image. The symmetrical orientation really works in it too.

    1. Thanks Anne! -- for reading and for the feedback. Your tutorial posts are intriguing and I look forward to more experiments.