With a focus on shape, form, colour, texture and light, abstract photography expresses the ineffable, with images that both perplex and mesmerise.
Getting Started – What is Abstract Photography?
The answer is, there’s no simple answer. Abstract photography is a field that is hard to determine. MOMA defines abstract art as “non-representational works of art that [do] not depict scenes or objects in the world or have discernible subject matter” while the the Tate defines abstract art to be “…art that does not attempt to represent an accurate depiction of a visual reality but instead uses shapes, colours, forms and gestural marks to achieve its effect”.
Imagine a single banana sitting on a table. Photographing the banana as a whole invites the viewer to recognise the representation of a banana. This recognition is tied to certain preconceptions of the banana, how it tastes, how it feels etc. On the other hand, an abstract photographer may choose to visually isolate a fragment of the fruit instead, homing in on its colour or texture. This removal of visual context allows a photographer to investigate and share a depiction of an image that is independent from the subject as a whole.
Why is this important? Because photography investigates the world around us. Being able to work both with and independently from the banana allows a photographer to interpret the world around them without preconceptions that can intrude on the reading of an image. Photographing the banana as an abstract invites a viewer to appreciate the nuances of what makes up our perception of our surroundings and ourselves.
Here are 25 beautiful examples of abstract photography to admire and inspire. Enjoy!
Over time, the walls that make up our modern landscape become a documentary of their surroundings. The muted colours of this wall foster an organic tone which is juxtaposed by the sharp angles of the structure. The construction of the wall also creates an optical illusion, playing with the viewer’s gaze, an interactivity that forges a deeper connection with a viewer.
#2 – Line
Line is a basic tenant of composition in photography and a great way to add depth to your photographs. The evocative lines are highlighted by the gradient of light to shadow. The light reveals detail where the darkness separates the structure. The whiteness of the subject lends an ethereal look to the overall image, as if the subject were a pair of wings.
#3 – Bright Colour
Turning your lens to focus on bright colours is a fun way you can create dynamic abstract photography. A vibrantly coloured abstract image investigates diversity of colours that make up our perception of light.
#4 – Nature
The complexity of organic life is both astounding and diverse. That’s why it makes such good subject matter for abstract photography. Here, the photographer has focused on emphasising warm colours and soft organic lines to create an abstract image.
#5 – Texture
As humans, we associate strongly with our sense of touch. It’s one of our five dominant senses. So how do you think this image feels to the touch? Soft? Rough? Often, abstract photography is about playing with the extent of our senses. In this way, you can bring a photograph to life, adding a new dimension to a photograph through the idea of how an abstract subject could or would feel.
#6 – Repetition
The points meet, the dots line up, the shapes tessellate. It doesn’t matter where you are, there’s something innately satisfying about viewing a well-executed pattern. Repetition in photography can be used to fill a frame with pattern or highlight irregularities. In this image, the shapes tessellate perfectly, so although you can’t define its source, the overall effect is one of satisfaction and intrigue.
#7 – Camera Movement
Camera movement can be the bane of many a photographer’s existence. But the deliberate introduction of movement into an image can create intriguing, painterly effects. Abstract photography embraces experimentation, so don’t be weighed down by the need to make the ‘perfect’ image. Try introducing some movement into your images by panning or sweeping your camera up and down during a long exposure.
#8 – Getting Close
In many situations, if you encounter something of interest, your natural instinct is to physically move in for a better look. Photography is often the same. The closer you get, the more detail you can reveal. Getting in for a closer shot also generates a sense of importance or intimacy in a photograph.
#9 – Industrial Subjects
Industrial sites are great places for making abstract photography. The variety of colours, shapes and textures mean that for an abstract enthusiast, industrial sites are heaven on earth. However, industrial sites can be dangerous. It’s really important that you seek permission first before you enter an industrial premises. Other sites that are easier to access for industrial-looking photography include train museums, car parks, historic sites and re-purposed buildings.
#10 – Architecture
Architecture is a popular subject for abstract photography. Under the eye of the camera, the sculpted form of man made structures brings materiality to life. One of the great things about architectural photography is that it is accessible too, readily providing the opportunity for photographers to explore form and shape in abstraction.
#11 – Soft Colour
We had a look at bright colours in number #3, but soft colours lend their own unique feel to an abstract photograph. Softer colours tend to warm or cool a photograph without overpowering it, giving the subject room to breathe. The muted pallet in this image accentuates the flowing lines of the subject, giving it the effect of a veil. They may not jump out at you as readily as brighter colours, but soft hues are well worth incorporating into your abstract photography.
#12 – Black and White
Colour photography is beautiful, but sometimes it can be a distraction too. Although colour is the mainstream of modern photography, many photographers still choose to shoot or process in black and white. By removing colour, we can cut down on the intrusion of the emotional connotations we derive from various hues. A black and white scheme also illuminates the subtle tonal differences within the image, emphasising form and shape.
#13 – Water
Water is both a reflective and changeable surface. Photographically it can be used to reinforce subject matter through reflection or change it up completely with movement. Here, the lines reflected in the water’s surface are disrupted. They take on the form of waves, creating an image with an otherworldly atmosphere where the laws of physics don’t apply.
#14 – Minimalism
Minimalism in visual arts is characterised by the stripping back of form to geometric abstraction, so its no wonder minimalist and abstract photography often overlap. Minimalism is about what you leave out of an image rather than what you keep in. Seek out colour, strong shapes and bold lines to create an effective minimalist abstract photograph like the one above.
#15 – Light Trails
All photography relies on light. But abstract photography means you can experiment with the concept a little more then you would other styles of photography. Light trails, made with a long exposure and a bright light source, make use of painterly gestures to create a photograph, so you’re literally painting with light!
#16 – Star Trails
The long exposure taken to reveal these star trails records each star’s movement in an abstracted photograph, speaking to the nature of time and space itself.
#17 – Reflective Surfaces
Making use of reflective surfaces is a simple way to get into experimenting with abstract photography. With only the slightest adjustment, each movement can create a whole new scene to photograph. Photographing reflective surfaces doesn’t mean you have to stick to mirrors either. Experiment with reflective textures like foil or puddles to create an interesting perspective.
#18 – Macro
With numerous options for those interested in close-up photography, macro photography is becoming more and more accessible. Photographer Robert Capa famously once said, “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” And while Capa was most likely referring to the art of photojournalism, the same can be said about macro photography too. Macro photography conveys beautiful abstracted imagery that is complex and eye-catching, revealing subjects that can barley be seen with the naked eye.
#19 – Urban
The urban landscape is constantly evolving. The colours, forms, textures, light and life all come together to form fascinating photographic opportunities. But urban landscape photography doesn’t always have to be about city skylines and streetscapes. Photographing the details that make up the urban environment documents its history and creates insightful photographic images.
#20 – Bokeh
The term bokeh comes from the Japanese word “boke” which means “haze” or “blur”. According to PhotoGuide Japan, bokeh “refers to the way the lens renders out-of-focus points of light. Depending on the lens aberrations and shape of the lens diaphragm, the out-of-focus quality looks different”. You can try creating a bokeh effect like this by checking out this guide.
#21 – High Key
Photography and light go hand in hand, but high key images take it that one step further. High key images create a clean, airy atmosphere and while some darker tones are necessary for an image to be discernible, high key photographers seek to whittle down a subject to its bare bones, flooding a subject with light and eliminating as much shadow as possible.
#22 – Low Key
On the opposite end of the scale, low key photographs are dark and dramatic, conveying an atmosphere of tension or intimacy. Low key images are predominately made up of shadows with sparse highlights and high contrast. They enhance form by erasing superfluous detail, conveying a sense of unease by appealing to our innate instincts.
#23 – Looking Up
It’s easy to get into the habit of looking straight ahead and missing what’s going on above. Tilting your head back and assessing the surroundings overhead can provide a unique and abstract perspective – especially because most people don’t look up themselves!
#24 – Looking Down
Ever look out the window of a jet at cruising altitude and wondered at the scene below? Aerial shots make for fascinating abstract photography. When taken from a high vantage point, a scene below becomes flattened, transforming a plane of view into a canvas of abstract shape and colour. While there may not be a great opportunity to photograph the scene below from your business class cruiser, experimenting with a radio-controlled drone with a camera can achieve some really interesting results.
#25 – Slow Shutter Speed
Light trails, blurred motion and movement collapsed into a single image reflects the life force of a subject. And the idea that motion can be captured as art is an abstract concept in itself. Shooting with a slow shutter speed uses the camera as a tool to create abstract photography that reveals worlds that are invisible to the naked eye.
As you can see, abstract photography is both a beautiful and complex art form. With an emphasis on colour, light, shadow, texture, shape and form, abstract photography blends photographic disciplines to create imagery that doesn’t have a critical association with an object. This freedom allows us photographers to convey feelings and impressions that draw a viewer in and explore the very nature of photography itself.
If you’re looking to change up your photographic style, getting into abstract photography is a fun and rewarding style of photography. Just remember, as Photographer and Professor of Psychology John Suler said “if you look at a photo and there’s a voice inside you that says ‘What is it?’….Well, there you go. It’s an abstract photograph”.