Less is more!

August 13, 2007

Some people say that radio has the best pictures, because the listener creates the visuals in his/her head. A still image leaves nothing to the imagination – or does it?
Of course there are many factors that create a compelling photograph, but there is a type of picture that can only be described as minimalist, because it gives just enough visual information for the viewer to create the rest of the scene in the imagination.  Basically, the photographer shows a detail that gives an impression of the whole. The picture entices us not with what we can see, but with what has been left out.

This might seem easy. For example, I could shoot a leaf lying on the floor with the aim of triggering an image of a tree in the viewers mind. But it doesnt quite work like that. For a start, a leaf lying by itself wouldnt trigger the image of a tree; there would need to be an extra factor. In addition these pictures rarely work unless there is a human element, however tenuous, to bring the picture to life.  Finally, the leaf picture would be very dull. The successful minimalist photograph needs to be a compelling photograph in its own right, through the elements contained within it or the composition.

Like many areas of photography there is no formula, because every situation is different. Success will rely on the photographers power of observation to spot  detail in a context that creates exactly the right links, giving the viewer a spark to fire the imagination.


Close up pictures of hands are often used to give an impression of the whole person or a situation, but wouldnt work with any old pair of hands. David Grays photograph, above, demonstrates this very well. A Chinese worker with his hands behind his back pauses while working on a railway link for next years Olympics. The gloves are so tattered, and his fingers so grimy, that they tell us how hard the man works and because he seems to be overdue a new pair of gloves we are given a clue about his working conditions.


This type of image doesnt necessarily need a human body part to actually be in the picture. In Lee Celanos picture above, showing the shadow of democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama at a public meeting, we cant see the man himself, but because he is holding a microphone  it is immediatley clear that he is addressing an audience .  The atmosphere is increased by the distorting effect on his hand by the curtain, as it appears to creep tantalisingly towards the hand of the secret service agent, which itself is a detail to further fire the imagination.


Shadows tend to be a recurring theme in this type of photograph. Brian Snyders photograph shows a youngster using dance to develop self-esteem, creative expression and imagination. The image is reinforced by the leg dropping in from the top of the picture, and the two elements work together to help us create our own picture of the part of the scene that falls outside the frame of the photograph.


Damir Sagoljs photograph of a US soldier patrolling in Baghdad doesnt need additional information as the shadow is so detailed. The seemingly deserted street works with the shadow and effectively conveys a sinister atmosphere. This gives us an impression of the fear felt on those streets, whether it is felt by the soldier or the local people. This impression is much more powerful for being left to our imagination. Also note the composition, and the way the eye is drawn from the right of the picture to the left by the direction of the weapon and the white barriers.


Sometimes the familiarity of the person in the picture is essential for us to make sense of it, such as this photograph by Jessica Rinaldi, showing a silhouette of a figure we instantly recognize as Tiger Woods. But the story is told by the body language, which suggest that Woods is not having a good day. The shaft of the club adds the finishing touch to the image.


The image above by Yannis Behrakis, of Israeli security forces taking cover behind their shields during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron, would have been a meaningless still life picture of shields if it wasnt for the hand, introducing the human element into the picture and bringing it to life. But the hand makes the picture appear forlorn, and we are left to draw our own conclusions about what is happening out of sight below the transparent part of the shield.


This photograph by Pascal Lauener, of a beach volleyball game between the US and South Africa, is nothing more than three hands and a ball. But because of the positioning of the hands and fingers, and the straining muscles, we know that the players are competing ferociously and its easy to imagine the action taking place beneath the hands.


Finally, as an exception to the human element rule, this well observed and well shot photograph by Darren Staples,  of the helmets belonging to members of the Indian cricket team sitting on the field during the fourth day of the second test match against England,  gives very little away, and leaves so much to our imagination.  Are the players having a break? Why did they place their helmets in a line?


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[…] Less is more! A Reuters column, by John Voos, examines images that show less, while suggesting much more. I don’t think that all of the images work particularly well, but it is a good addition to the conversation about powerful image-making, and applies to video as well as stills. […]

Posted by Notes from a Teacher: Mark on Media » Monday squibs | Report as abusive

First image and the third do not work at all but the rest are good examples. thanks for the info.

Posted by RIF | Report as abusive

Well done John.
A good read. The pictures are not bad as well.
Keep it up .

Posted by DMO | Report as abusive

I completely agree with your article. But for a new amateur photographer is very very difficult to do it.
I think in order to master the “less is more ” is neccesary a lot ofexperience.

Best regards
Jose Ramon Atxutegi

Posted by joserra | Report as abusive

“Why did they place their helmets in a line?”

Because if the ball hits a helmet, you concede 5 runs. Therefore you’d want to make the helmets as small a target as possible (if you have time, you’d want to get the helmets off the field completely).

Posted by T | Report as abusive