Abstract photography, and abstract macro photography, refers to an image that has no obvious connection to the real world of solid, easily recognised objects.
Such images exploit the use of patterns and colours. They arrest the eye and invite the viewer to explore the image for its own sake.
Occasionally, you’ll hear the term ‘abstract’ applied to a photo that’s turned out very badly. But for the most part, photographers deliberately shoot abstracts.
You can, of course, create an abstract image entirely on your computer in creative applications such as Photoshop. But starting from a blank canvas can sometimes be difficult unless you receive a spark of inspiration.
For this reason, it’s often helpful to begin with a real world subject. And then photograph it in an unusual way.
You can find material and inspiration for abstract photos almost anywhere. Repeating patterns and colours can, for example, easily be found in large man-made structures.
And many smaller scale objects, both natural and man-made, also provide a wealth of intricate shapes and textures. For many of us, these are less familiar and therefore, more ‘abstract’.
Most people are not in the habit of closely examining objects with a magnifying glass. Therefore, up close photographs of everyday objects can easily form the basis for some interesting abstract compositions.
The trick is to get close enough to the subject to make its image on the sensor big enough to be useful.
If you try to move in close to a small subject using a standard lens, you’ll find that as you get closer, you’ll reach a point where you’re no longer able to focus on the subject.
If you want a sharply focused image as the basis of your abstract composition, this would normally present you with a problem.
Since we’re talking about abstract images, it’s worth trying to photograph some colourful objects up-close without worrying about the lack of focus.
This can generate some abstract images whose nebulous forms emphasise the subject’s colours.
Remember to set your lens to manual focus as your camera might otherwise refuse to take the photo on account of it being unable to achieve focus.
To see both colour and texture, you will need to be able to focus with the camera much closer to the subject than the normal minimum focusing distance and there are several ways to do this.
Some of the techniques are outlined in this article, on the difference between macro, micro, and close-up photography.
Of the various methods available, use of a dedicated macro lens gives the best results and the addition of extension tubes will increase the available magnification even further.
Here’s a shot of the previously out-of-focus subject. This time, I used a relatively inexpensive EF-S60mm USM f/2.8 macro lens with a Canon 50D.
At about the same distance, the intricate form of its crystalline structure can be fully appreciated.
The photo above is an image of the chemical element Bismuth – a heavy metal with a low melting point. It can easily be crystallised to produce some fascinating terraces of iridescent colour.
Bismuth crystals are easy to photograph as they are quite large. This sample is, in reality, about one inch across. You don’t need a high magnification or a complicated lighting setup.
And you can easily buy bismuth online or at any gem and mineral show.
Many minerals exhibit very different patterns and colours depending on the angle of the illumination. Here are two images of Labradorite.
The first is lit from behind using an LED light panel and the second from the front using an LED ring light.
The following images are from a specimen of polished Labradorite about one inch across. I lit them with a simple LED light, hand-held to achieve a burst of iridescence at the critical angle.
Other Macro Photography Ideas
Not everyone has a lump of bismuth or a piece of labradorite on their mantlepiece. But there are plenty of household objects you can use to make colourful macro images without using coloured lighting.
The colours we’ve seen so far are not generated by dyes or pigments. They come from oxide layers that have a similar thickness to the wavelength of visible light.
This creates an interference effect that selects vivid spectral colours from the white light. It’s what creates the colours in a butterfly wing for example.
The Humble CD
The microscopic pits that encode digital audio on a CD are also comparable in size to the wavelength of visible light. This makes it another source of abstract spectral colour. All you need besides your camera, is a tripod and almost any small white light source.
In this image, I placed a few drops of water on a CD and used an LED ring light as the illumination source. I mounted the camera on a tripod and moved the light by hand to achieve a good burst of colour.
A fairly common technique is to photograph either oil or water on a sheet of glass. This time, the background provides the colours. I’ve placed it several inches behind the glass so that it’s thrown out-of-focus.
Usually, the background comprises a collection of colourful objects lit by either flash or some continuous light source. We’re only using this to provide some diffuse colour, so let’s keep it simple.
Instead of lighting the background, make the background the light source itself. Most people have a tablet computer, either an iPad or an Android pad, that they can use to display photos.
Simply select a colourful photo on the tablet, lie it face-up on a flat surface and set up a glass plate a few inches above it. Then drop some water or oil drops onto the surface of the glass and take some macro photos of the drops.
You can easily move your background photo around on the pad to achieve the background colours you want.
Using Oil Drops
Instead of applying water directly to the surface of the glass, try placing a glass dish on it and adding a mixture of water and oil, Make sure the oil forms isolated drops on the water surface.
Each drop forms a tiny lens that distorts the background image to make abstract images.
Abstract Flower Photography
Most macro flower photography involves taking fairly standard images of the details of the petals and stamens of living flowers – often including an attendant insect or two.
Lighting can be a challenge. The camera often blocks some natural light as the macro lens gets really close to the subject.
To compound the problem, the high magnification and shallow depth-of-field often require you use fast shutter speeds and a small aperture.
This often forces photographers to use specialised flash equipment such as the twin-head macro system below.
Dedicated macro flash guns are not cheap. If you’re just starting to explore macro photography, there are other ways to take macro photos of flowers – especially if you want a more abstract result.
One simple way to make abstract macro photos of flowers without expensive equipment, is to use a relatively inexpensive LED light pad. An A4 size light pad will provide a clean white light source that’s really versatile.
Don’t press your tablet into service as a white light source. You’ll see red, green, and blue pixels instead of a plain white screen.
For this image below, I sandwiched some petals between a glass plate and the illuminating LED panel. This is a very simple type of macro photo.
The illumination is adequate, the subject isn’t moving and the there is no real depth-of-field problem. Everything is sharp and in-focus.
Once you have this setup in place, try photographing thin slices of fruit or vegetables – oranges, kiwi fruit, cucumber etc.
The average kitchen has a variety of gadgets and utensils you can use for abstract patterns with their interesting shapes and shiny surfaces.
Try using the tablet computer trick to provide some coloured reflections as in this cheese grater.
These are just some ideas to get you started. Once you get into the abstract macro way of thinking, you’ll begin to see new artwork all around you…
Why not read our creative photography ideas article or creative DIY uses for your digital photos? We have a great one on creating cool glitch art photos too!