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I was recently asked how my approach to photography has changed throughout my 14-year career. And without a doubt, the biggest change has been my embracing of a more “minimalist” approach. It’s driven by my desire to use creative constraints to become more focused and creative. Adopting the “less, but better” mindset instead of the “more is better” meme which drives much of our society today.

The basic idea is that limitations provide us with the greatest opportunity for creativity and inventiveness, and the less distracted we are with options, the more concentrated and resourceful we become as artists.

“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.” –Soren Kierkegaard

Now don’t get me wrong, I love and enjoy the modern tools that allow me to express myself creatively in ways I would have never dreamt of twenty years ago. What I’m referring to is the over-indulgence of tools and technology without clear intentions or goals.

Our greatest asset and uniqueness comes from personal vision and artistry, both of which can easily be diluted, if not sacrificed, by the never—ending distractions marketed to us at every opportunity.

So in pursuit of removing the non-essentials, here’s a definition of minimalist digital photography that I’ve been  practicing for some time. I’m borrowing many ideas here from the excellent books written by Cal Newport.

Minimalist digital photography is a philosophy that helps you question what photography tools and accessories add the most value to your creative goals. It is motivated by the belief that intentionally and aggressively reducing the gear and tools you own (or want to own), and mastering a limited and focused set of tools, can significantly reduce technological stress, and improve your work, self-confidence, and creativity.

Why does this matter? Because in my own experience, the many students I work with, and the hundreds of photographers I interact with online and at trade shows, I hear a common complaint: information and gear overload that promises limitless creative possibility but often leads to shallow repetitive work.

“The imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” says Jonah Lehrer.

Without vision and a sense of what story you want to share, all the potential in the world doesn’t help. Going deep in one specific area does. Visionaries throughout history have shown that being single—minded and focused leads to clarity and meaningful results.

Think of what you could accomplish if you applied the same discipline and constraints to your own creative goals.

  • Spend a year learning everything there is to know about printing
  • Spend a year photographing the same subject or landscape over and over again.
  • Spend a year using just two lenses.
  • Spend a year working on a portfolio of ten images.
  • Spend a year learning a complementary skill that will enhance your photography and compositional skills. Hint: drawing.

What deep work will you commit to over the next twelve months? How can you constrain yourself creatively to get out of your comfort zone and produce work you didn’t think was possible?

I always enjoy your comments and feedback!



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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking post, Robert. I think your list of goals is certainly something I’ll be working on. Especially, working with two lenses or building a twelve image portfolio.

  2. Hi Robert: I took a look at your Gallery and I was so impressed with your images. I had just about given up on Landscape Photography but you have inspired me to try again. All the best to you and your family. Sincerely John.

  3. Robert,

    You sure have me thinking about coming up with a minimalist photography goal for the full year of 2020. I love this idea. Working in branding and marketing all of my career, I could only survive deadlines and exceed expectations by first working with my team and clients to agree on creative boundaries.

    A terrific thought leader on the topic is Todd Henry. You might like his first book The Accidental Creative and his podcast by the same name. I’ve often shared his writings, that structure and creativity are two sides of the same coin:

    “There is the persistent myth that creativity results only from complete lack of boundaries and total freedom. The reality is that we are not capable of operating without boundaries. We need them in order to focus our creative energy into the right channels. Total freedom is false freedom. True freedom has healthy boundaries.”

    In Todd’s book he shared the Orson Welles quote: “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” I’m guessing you know this one well.

    Love your photography and approach. Planning for and dreaming about your workshop at Acadia. Recovering from ACL knee surgery today. But look out 2021! Thank you!


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