Minimalist photography is one of my all-time favorite themes of photography. And the best place I have found on our planet to accomplish this type of photography is in Hokkaido, Japan. And my next chance to enjoy minimalist landscape and wildlife photography will be this winter, or during my annual Hokkaido photography tour in February 2022, our 2021 photo tour in Hokkaido is fully booked for commercial projects.
One of my all-time favorite minimalist photographs is the one with three Red-Crowned Cranes. I had waited 20 years for the conditions to be perfect for capturing this image that I took just as a snowsquall was just letting up behind the birds; it was the perfect snowy curtain, and behind the curtain of snow were other Hokkaido natives, Sakhalin Fir and Sakhalin Spruce trees. The birds and the snow curtain were positioned perfectly. I love this shot because of its high contrast and tack sharpness, and if you look carefully, especially in a large print about A1 poster size, you can see the added dimension of snow falling behind and around the birds, around their feet and legs you can see them stepping and pushing the snow; I love a heavy snowsquall and thunder snowstorms on my Hokkaido Birding Photo Tour portion of my annual photo expeditions in Hokkaido. The snow snowsqualls in Kushiro are mostly predictable, and last on average, 10-20 minutes, then pass and give way to blue skies. On the day I took this breathtaking photo, I was with private clients from Australia, and I remember asking them about 30 minutes before I took this shot for them to please stay close to me because very likely a thunder snowstorm or snowsquall was coming in soon, and it was going to be very cool. Also beside me was a friend from NHK Japan and other photographers with super-telephoto lenses, and most of us already had our snow/rain covers on our camera and lenses, and those who did not were getting ready for the coming snowsquall that all we locals knew was coming. About ten minutes before the snowsquall began, I started looking around for my clients to ready their gear, and help with camera settings. They were gone, "Uh oh, they went into the unknown, where the tourists hang out, shoulder to shoulder,” I thought to myself. The snowstorm lasted about 15 minutes, and my friends and I could not be happier with our photos. Then I went for a quick washroom break and came back ten minutes later to see the faces of upset first time birding clients, who did not heed my warning to please remain by my side. Well, their gear was drenched, we dried their gear off, and one tripod was broken, so I changed it with my spare tripod, and five minutes later they were back in the game enjoying the Hokkaido Photo Adventure experience, and they got some fantastic Red-Crowned Crane photos. But missed a once in a lifetime photo opportunity.
Minimalist landscape photography and other minimalist photography sound super easy and straightforward because it has the word “minimalist’, starting in the theme’s name, easy, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, it’s not. Achieving simplicity is more complicated than most believe, finding complex landscapes or other scenes can be easier for the newbie photographer and, in some cases, even for the advanced photographer. In other words, achieving simplicity takes dedication and the beginner's mindset, which I will get into a little later.
On every Hokkaido Photo Workshop Tour, the day my clients and I are photographing minimalist landscapes or other scenes, at least one photographer will request a singular tree in a field of snow. As a local in Hokkaido and having led Japan photo tours for over twenty years, I know the terrain pretty well, and I have hundreds of winter wonderland landscapes waypoints/marked for an easy find on my trusty Garmin handheld GPS. Once we arrive at the location, most newbies appear a little confused about what to do; this is perfectly normal since it’s not what they imagined the scene would be. To be fair to them, the scene looks pretty plain and not very impressive, nothing like my prints hanging in galleries or posted on my website. First-timers can’t see a photoset; they see a tree in a field. This is normal. I give them time to look around and get a feel for the shot before I step up and do my job; it can be extremely tricky, but most photographers are able to get the photo. Still, often it is not a gallery hanging fine art print when I am not there, or if your mindset is racing and you are plugged into the world around you and filled with distractions, glued to your phone 24/7 for info, even when out photographing, you won’t be excited to get up before daybreak to get that quintessential shot. So minimalist or wildlife photography may not be for you? Or it could be just what the doc ordered! And, don't worry, I have a glove box in our SUV's that locks! Just in case you're tempted...
Photographing simplicity or photographing in the snow, can be trickier than shooting in the sand. It is paramount that you train yourself on how to interpret the shadows and lines in your minimalist landscape, the tree or trees, shrubs, or other objects in your scene will affect the outcome. Even the small contours on a hill in your snowy landscape are essential, and all these elements play into the final phase - the print. One of the other obstacles is photographers not wearing sunglasses during daylight hours. Another setback is gear and the camera meter, which underexposes snow to middle grey making your image dark; I have seen photographers either blow out the scene or darken it to blackness. Most photography instructors teach you that you should use exposure compensation to overexpose by 1 1/3 to 1 2/3 f/stops to adjust for the expected underexposing, which results from the meter’s reading of the snow. For winter landscapes, I usually don’t do this, but I recommend these settings if you are new to winter landscapes and not with an experienced photography workshop leader to help you. Generally, I overexpose manually in the snow by 1/2 an f-stop to 1 f-stop. I like to keep my images a little dark, protecting the shadows and highlights. I tweak the RAW image in post-processing until it's perfect. Master Photographer Jim Zuckerman taught me this technique years ago, and by doing it this way, I never have blown out highlights, and I am able to protect the shadows, underexposing a touch isn't enough to cause unwanted noise with today's digital sensors. Also, while photographing minimalist landscapes in winter, I always have my Lee Filters on hand; they are essential, especially my 30-year-old circular polarizer, that is a thick solid piece of beautiful, strong glass and not today's light multi-coated thin ones, that only last a couple of years at most.
Annually on my Hokkaido Photography Tour, we always have a dusting of snow, but blizzards are even more welcome; this is key for winter wonderland Hokkaido minimalist landscape imagery. Often, I experience fellow visual artists whose focus is on one theme and can only conceive a subject in one way. As a multi-themed photographer and instructor/teacher of the visual arts, I know this is a catastrophic mistake. If they are new or have been in photography for years, I always take a moment to explain the beginner's mindset. As the Zen master, D.T. Suzuki, said, “I like Zen because everything is Zen.” My vision is to explore and always experience life with the beginner’s mind. A beginner sees myriad possibilities in each theme and pursuit, and that is the mindset I bring to each project I participate in. Many colleagues of mine and fellow photographers feverishly hold onto their pride. They feel that because they are experts, they know the best expression of a theme and therefore limit the potential of the photographic subject. My goal is to discover the emotion, the personality, and connection expressed in the subject to myself and fellow visual artists. That subject can be wildlife/birding, landscapes, flowers, or street photography. Virtually anything that has light cast upon it can be that subject, even if I am the author of that light source.