Minimalist Landscapes

No matter the conditions, remove yourself from expectations and focus on what’s there and not on what you wish was there
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This eerie white landscape posed a challenge for Theo Allofs. He used the salt flat as a reflector for the colors of the predawn sky to convey the mood of this desolate, but fascinating location. Salar de Uyuni, the Altiplano, Bolivia.

It’s early morning; your camera gear is packed. With a cup of steaming coffee in your hand, you hike to the viewpoint you selected the previous evening. You’re full of hope that this morning the sky finally will be filled with the dramatic clouds you’ve been waiting for. Without these clouds, the majestic landscape you’ve been exploring over the last few days will lack drama. You want this picture to be perfect, you want nature to cooperate. Twilight comes, and the first golden sun rays are breaking into a star at the top of a mountain ridge to your right. Above your head, the sky is as clear as the night before. Disappointment takes the place of anticipation. You lose interest and focus, dump the rest of your coffee, and hike back to your car.

Star trails can be combined with a strong foreground subject like this saguaro cactus for an evocative image. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

I learned a long time ago not to expect nature to cooperate. Nature does what she wants whenever she wants, not when you want. Expectations can destroy our ability to be creative. Instead of waiting for clouds to show up and getting frustrated if this doesn’t happen, we should explore all our opportunities with open eyes. Use any kind of weather or light condition to your advantage. This is the challenge of nature photography. Instead of walking away, you should have explored your photographic options by excluding the sky and zooming in on landscape details.

Deserts usually lack clouds. If you’re lucky enough to get a cloud-filled sky in the desert, shoot as much as you can, but don’t expect that to happen on the day you’ll be there. Instead of relying on a dramatic sky, use the strong contrast between the sunlit areas of the dunes and the shadows to create dune abstracts. Sand dunes are among my favorite topics in nature for creative abstracts. It’s amazing to see what the effect of the sun low at the horizon can do to a landscape that’s a boring monotone without any contrast at midday.

A telephoto lens is an excellent tool for isolating and flattening the perspective on a scene. North Island, New Zealand.

The opposite scenario can also occur. You can have striking cloud formations, but no grand landscape to match it. I was driving along a very isolated road in Australia’s Outback when small puffy white clouds started to form in the sky. The landscape was barren except for small bushes and drought-resistant trees. I found a tree near the road that somehow would make a nice silhouette. I first photographed the whole tree including some grass and bushes in the very lower part of the frame. Then, I decided there was too much distraction from the beautiful cloud formation. I turned the camera up and included only the top part of the small tree.

A similar situation is demonstrated in the photo where I used a saguaro cactus in the foreground of a clear and moonless night sky with star trails caused by an exposure of about eight hours. The star trails accentuate the background without taking anything away from the cactus as the main subject.

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Left to right: The strong contrast between the lit and shadowed portions of sand dunes transforms a monochrome vista. Namib Desert, Namibia.
The rare mirror-flat lake surface and a dramatic sky create a special opportunity. Lake Eyre, South Australia.
When the landscape isn’t interesting, but you have a good sky, look for an element that allows you to take advantage of what you have. South Australia.

As a general rule, I don’t photograph during the hours when the sunlight is harsh because there’s too much contrast and colors are washed out. However, there are exceptions. In mountainous areas, in canyons and under a dense forest canopy, we can always find spots that are hidden from the sun. Instead of trying to capture a larger scene and having to deal with highlights on leaves, rocks or tree trunks, start to isolate elements within the scene. Switch your vision from a wide-angle to a telephoto mode and look for interesting details in shadow areas. In the Otway Ranges in Victoria, Australia, I was photographing a fairy-tale waterfall that was surrounded by lush green vegetation, mostly, prehistoric-looking fern trees. Unfortunately, the fern trees were partly exposed to direct sunlight, causing disturbing highlights. My eyes then zoomed farther in onto the waterfall itself where they found two vertical tree trunks at the very bottom. I used a long exposure to frame the trunks with a soft blur of water that almost appears to be thin curtains. The unfavorable light conditions of this idyllic forest scene had forced me to focus on the bare essentials this particular landscape had to offer at the time I was there.

Using a long exposure, Allofs created this otherworldly image that distilled an idyllic, but cluttered scene to its essentials. Waterfall, Otway Ranges, Australia.

My favorite lens for landscape photography is a 20mm wide-angle lens on my full-frame camera. I use it almost exclusively for landscapes that contain any kind of small, pattern-like sand ripples, drought patterns or snowdrifts. Getting low to the ground, the patterns become the main element in your image as they stretch all the way to the horizon. However, these images wouldn’t be complete without some sort of an eye-catcher in the background. Although it’s nature, using the power masts helped me solve this problem when photographing mud cracks in the Namib Desert. In the United States, landscape photography is often shunned if it shows anything man-made, but you can often make a high-impact image when you incorporate such unnatural elements in the frame. In the Namibia photograph, using the power masts enhances the visual story by creating a deeper sense of isolation.

When visiting the Salar de Uyuni on Bolivia’s Altiplano, the largest salt pan on earth, I was challenged with capturing this eerie white landscape the way I experienced it. It’s a dead and silent landscape the size of Belgium, where the salt crust stretches all the way to the horizon. Yet, at the same time, this place holds beauty, magic and fascination. I took this image during the dawn moments when the sky was a deep blue and before the sun was up.

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Allofs used a slow shutter speed to prevent the water from distracting from the key elements in this scene, the Moeraki Boulders. Many coastal photographs benefit from this technique. South Island, New Zealand.

To show the vastness and emptiness of the salt pan, I removed all distracting elements and only included the hexagon-covered salt crust and the sky. The monochrome emphasizes the eeriness of the place. Think about the sky just before sunup and just after sundown. When you have a reflective subject like a body of water, a sandy desert or, as in this case, a salt flat, you can bring the color of the sky into the foreground and create a stunning photo.

Shooting on the coast or along a stream or river can yield excellent results, but the images can be a cluttered mess if you’re not careful. Try smoothing out moving water with a long exposure to reduce visual clutter. On the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island, huge round boulders have been eroded out of a cliff and then rolled into the ocean. At high tide, they’re partly submerged in the surf. I didn’t want to freeze the wave action, as that would have distracted too much from the boulders. I needed a long exposure to blur the waves to an almost fog-like appearance that managed to match the sky. I wanted to keep the image as simple as possible to emphasize the importance of the boulders. I had a special challenge for this photo: keeping the tripod from sinking into the sand while the shutter was open and the waves moved in!

Dead calm is a rarity in any body of water. When you have mirror-flat conditions, take advantage of them! After decades of drought, Lake Eyre, a large salt lake in South Australia, suddenly filled with water. I was flying with my powered paraglider to photograph the extent of the flood at Lake Eyre’s southern shore. As sunset approached, dramatic clouds appeared seemingly from nowhere. There wasn’t a ripple on the shallow water. I was about 3,000 feet in the air and risked flying above the lake to photograph the perfect reflection of the clouds in the water without any shoreline or island to disturb this magnificent display of colors.

One of the best tools in your bag for making minimalist landscapes is your telephoto lens. A longer lens naturally leads to a process of isolating the most critical elements in the frame. Don’t be afraid of using your longest focal lengths for a landscape photo—I often use 600mm! Just looking through a long lens while panning and tilting around a scene can lead to surprisingly unique photographic results.

Go to to see more of Theo Allofs‘ landscape and wildlife photography.