Abstract photography is a very wide field of image capturing. Any subject can become abstract depending on the way it’s photographed.
It takes creative imagination and concept to be able to capture subjects in an abstract way. You are only limited by your vision and ideas.
Changing your usual perspective of the subject helps to create abstract images.
Shooting from up-down could allow you to focus on its shape and form. This changes the subjects’ meaning and purpose.
You could even create something from scratch. Photographing an item relying on your off-camera creativity. Other images, such as multiple exposures and ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) need the cameras’ help.
The best part of this area of photography, is there are no guidelines. There are no rules about composition or framing. It all comes down to you, your view and what you find interesting or beautiful.
What you will discover from practicing this field, is the philosophy of subtraction. More often than not, what you leave out of the image is just as important as what you put in. You are the composer in the creation of your abstractions.
Three photographers utlisised and developed this field of photography. Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy started the trend, but Alfred Stieglitz made it popular.
What Is Abstract Photography?
Abstract photography is difficult to define. It is taking a subject and forcing the viewer to look at it in a different way. This may cause the subject to lose its original meaning or purpose.
It may even render the subject unreal, abnormal and not of this world.
The subject could lose all literal meaning and be reduced to only shape, light, texture or colour.
Photographed items could be objects we use in our daily life. They could also be created entirely for the purpose of art.
Both abstract and surreal photography are conceptual fields. But how do they set themselves apart? Abstract gives you a different view, where the entirety of the subject is obscured or unseen.
Here, shape, form and texture play a bigger part than idolising over the full, documented item.
Surreal photography looks at creating something new. This comes from heavy post-processing of images. Or using special effects to create special visuals.
Both could look at the same area of photography. Yet the concept and the final image would be different. Abstraction looks at the subject in an artistic way.
Surreal photography could also include social or political meanings.
Abstract photography is the view of an object where the entire shape is hidden from view. Fine Art photography overlaps the same notion. Yet, fine art focuses on a conceptual look at a subject and its surroundings.
Fine art photography has the ability to work across many photographic themes. The photographer and their vision is more important than the photographed subject.
Abstraction can be a simple macro image without much concept or idea behind it. It is another viewpoint and perspective of an object we might know inside out.
Having a huge world in front of you with infinite possibilities can be as restricting as having none. Where do you start? This all depends on what style you are interested in.
Abstract photography comes from looking at the details of subjects, not the whole. Get close to your subjects to see that it looks like close up.
Textures and patterns are reoccurring themes in this area of photography. So see what the subject or object can offer.
From research, you will see that a suggestion of an object is much more powerful than seeing all it. It helps to create interest and excitement.
By getting closer to your subject, you begin to see it in a different light. Try using a selective, small area of focus to hone in on a detail or texture.
For help at creating a shallow depth of field, see our article here.
Using the light that falls on a subject and the subsequent shadows can be a great way to capture abstract photography.
The act to show areas of texture and patterns, while hiding others.
The shapes of the objects you are looking at can create an image of simplicity. This will have your viewers guessing what the object is.
When you find a subject, keep photographing it. Experiment with angles, perspectives and distances.
Get used to taking accidental images. Learn how not to create them repeatedly, or utilise the abstraction that comes with them.
You will find inspiration in everything. With just a few simple techniques, you can create some stunning images.
Practice with these tips, and layer ideas, such as isolating colour on the curve of an object.
The simplest approaches can have the biggest impact.
By changing the composition of an object, you can change its original meaning. You do not have to stick with the usual rules (there are no guidelines in abstract photography), so, experiment.
Change your angle of view or find a way to light the object so that it loses its original shape.
Here is a selection of abstract photography images for your viewing pleasure.
Feel free to peruse these for inspiration. It will give you a good idea of what other photographers are creating.
Mobile Abstract Photography
If it has a camera, you can photograph with it. At least when it comes to abstract photography.
You might find that lower-priced options for cameras and mobile phones can help to add an abstract quality to your images.
Yet, a camera that has a capacity for raw images allows high quality. Good lenses will ensure sharp images. These are both great for reproducing the work to be used and sold as wall art.
Having a smartphone is great as it is lightweight, portable and accessible. You can use it to get close to objects without having to worry about expensive lenses.
A smartphone as a tool lets you focus on representing your concept easily. Using your smartphone, look for shapes, patterns and textures in your images.
They help to strip the object of its original idea. Use shadows and highlights to show the object’s shape in a different way. This will surprise and confuse your viewer.
Using your iPhone is a great way to take ad hoc images of abstract ideas, on all your daily travels. This tool takes great quality images and it fits right into your pocket.
Look for strong shapes. These add structure to your images. Get up close and fill the frame. This makes the object seem much bigger than it actually is.
A great way to add a visual punch-in-the-face is to focus on colours. Contrasting colours grab people’s attention where complementary colours show creative intent.
For this technique, you will need the Slow Shutter Cam App on your iPhone. This app will allow your camera to take images with a slow shutter speed.
Showing movement gives an extra level of creativity in your images. It allows simple objects to become something different and special.
Technical Abstract Photography
Technical abstract photography looks at how you can choose tools and accessories alongside your camera to capture abstract images.
There is no easier way to capture an abstract image than using a macro lens. These lenses allow you to get very close to a subject. This helps to single out an abstraction from the whole subject.
A macro lens is a specialist lens. They can be further extended with the use of extension tubes and the crop factor from a cropped sensor.
Multiple exposures are created during post-processing. As this article suggests, this is also possible within the camera itself.
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III has an option named “Additive”. This allows you to photograph many images at shorter shutter speeds.
The camera processes the images together, giving you a multiple-exposed image. Read our article for more information.
Subjects for Abstract Photography
There is no limit to what you can photograph. Anything and everything is photographable, it just comes down to your creativity and vision.
Here is a list of a few subjects where you might find inspiration and try abstract photography for yourself.
Nature is just one area where abstract photography can flourish. The best thing is that nature photography is never too far away and it gets you out, into the fresh air.
The outside world is full of interesting shapes and textures. It is also a place full of beautiful colours that change all year round.
In this area, you can use water for reflections. When it freezes over in winter, it will add interesting texture.
The body is an object that has many interesting shapes and curves. These are easily abstracted when you look at specific areas instead of the whole.
Just by zooming in on parts of the body, you take away the literal sense. As the body is something we see regularly, putting it in a different light creates interest.
Burning steel wool during a long exposure has become very popular in recent years. It is especially interesting at night when the burning sparks can be seen easily.
This is a great way to make the viewers question the scene. The longer the viewer looks at the image, the more interesting the image becomes.
This technique is a great way to show the landscape. Not just as it adds light to the scene, but also the sparks will bounce off the floor and setting.
Andrew S. Gibson
Landscapes are an interesting subject to look at with abstraction. There are many areas you can look at for inspiration due to the colours, forms and textures.
One specific area is water. It has the ability to act as a mirror of the surrounding environment. These images reflect the scene and show it with added texture.
A way to capture water in this state is to photograph the reflection and flip the image. This shows the scene as being normal, yet abstract due to the painterly effect.
Abstract images are found everywhere. Using something as simple as paper can be interesting, depending on how it is photographed.
Paper can be bent and warped due to its playability. It also comes in many colours and can hold texture or print.
By bending pieces of paper, you create an interesting form and shape. Weights, paper clips and sellotape are tools that will help you organise these into playful shapes.
Showing a suggestion instead of the real subject will help to add interest in creating an abstract image. One good example of hinting towards a subject is by using shadows.
Shadows are interesting to use as they elongate to the position of the sun. They also become warped and disjointed when blanketing the scene.
For abstract photography, shadows show you what a subject is doing without showing the subject themselves. They also give you a contrast between light and dark.
Oil and water do not play well with each other. They don’t mix, which is the exact reason why we find them a good subject for abstract photography.
Here, you create an abstraction through the conflict between these two materials. Both are readily available and inexpensive, which makes for interesting and cheap experimentation.
Photographing two such materials could also benefit from interesting backgrounds. Magazine covers or anything with strong colours works well as a background.
They will create a repetitive design in the oil bubbles.
Movement for Abstract Photography
ICM (Intentional Camera Movement) is a large area of abstract photography. Due to DSLRs being very affordable, many photographers are free to experiment. And experiment they do.
Moving the camera while capturing an image turns the scene into something unimaginable. It strips the image of all meaning and allows the photographer to look at colours and even texture.
This style needs a relatively long exposure and can be used on or off the tripod.
Abstract photography tries to concentrate on lines, shapes, designs, colour, and texture. These attributes are very similar to abstract painting.
Panning is the action of moving your camera horizontally, either left or right. In filming or panoramic photography, this allows you to see more of the scene while keeping the horizon level.
By releasing the shutter and moving the camera left or right, you can capture some interesting results. Your shutter speed needs to be 1/20 of a second or less to capture the movement.
Zooming into a subject allows you to crop a scene tighter by cutting out unwanted surroundings. This works best if you are standing in the same place, only changing the focal length of your lens.
If you zoom into a subject while the shutter is open, you can create something very interesting. This technique blurs the surrounding area, as you focus on the subject.
The subject in the middle tends to have the least amount of blur, whereas the edges of the frame will have the most. The subject becomes the focus, as the blurred lines lead straight to the middle of the image.
By spinning your camera, you can create a circular blur. This technique is very similar to the zooming burst, yet you achieve circular, not straight lines.
You can best achieve this by spinning your camera on an exposure between 0.5 seconds and 15 seconds. Hold your camera in your hand, and turn it while it is exposing.
This can really help to create something interesting out of an otherwise boring image. It allows you to focus on colour while letting the shape and form of the subject through.
Showing movement in a still image helps to create something a little more relatable to the viewers. As photographers, we are not confined to only showing the world as frozen slices of time.
Creating blur intentionally adds that urgency to the image and gives it a speed. Daily life is busy and fast, and using this technique shows this side of life on the street.
Here are a few techniques, allowing you to be as creative as possible. Even just holding the camera during a long exposure can create enough shake in the image, giving the subject a little more life.
Composition for Abstract Photography
Composing your abstract photography is no different to composing any photographing image. How we compose our subjects adds interest and helps the viewer see the important area of the image.
For abstract photography, due to the experimental concept, basic rules apply. The rule of thirds isn’t as important as patterns and filling the frame takes precedent.
Lines are a great addition to any abstract image. The lines draw the viewers eyes into (and out) of the frame. they can also lead their eyes to the important subject in the scene.
These lines can also repeat in the image, adding extra interest by creating a pattern and texture. they can even add depth, depending on what the lines are showing us, and how big they are.
Curves can add a dynamic background to your image. Eyes follow and flow along them, keeping the viewers entertained as they try to make sense of the image.
Patterns add a lot of interest to your abstract photography. Our entire visual life is full of patterns and textures that help to create a mood or an atmosphere. Scratched paint gives us an impression of age and impressions left by people.
As this medium is free of rules, you are free to experiment. We are visually drawn to patterns, as they present us with a graphic element. They look appealing and interesting.
Using patterns as a compositional technique is a great way to show a small area of the ‘real’ subject. It also works well with macro lenses to add more interest and suspense to your viewers.
The rule of odds suggests that having points of interest as an odd number is more interesting than an even number. One concept of this is that by showing an even number of subjects, our brain splits the image in two.
As this cant happen with odd amounts of subjects, we are more connected with the image and what it is trying to show us.
This technique will work across all genres of photography and can help to boost images that lack enough interest.
Using Tools for Abstract Photography
Refractory imagery works in the same way as a kaleidoscope. By holding up the tube to the light, the tiny objects with the help of mirrors created wonderful patterns and shapes.
For this technique, you will need a light source, a camera body (no lens is needed), a tripod and an object. Coloured gels are a great addition to help add colour into the image.
The camera body should be pointing up, with the object above it. The light source hits the object at a 90° angle, which refracts and hits the camera sensor for capturing. Neat, huh?
Photoelasticity is a way to show stress in plastic which appears as a wonderful multicoloured pattern. This is done by using a pair of polarising filters. One fits on the camera and the other on the light source.
There is a world of plastic out there, many items you will find in your home. Plastic cutlery, cups or glasses work well, as do rulers. They need to be transparent to be able to see the effect.
This is a handy technique that doesn’t require any special shooting mode. Just make sure the light is captured in a perfect exposure.
A Physiogram is a photo of a light pattern captured during a long exposure photograph. The lights can be swung or spun to create an interesting, abstract image.
For this technique, your area needs to be free of ambient light. Outside during night time or in a dark room in your house.
Perspective Abstract Photography
Your perspective plays a large part in abstract photography. It is the way that you shoot your subject, from what angle and height. This is the Point of View or PoV.
By simply changing your perspective of everyday settings or subjects, you can create something very interesting. This is due to it being a different view of a subject. A view they rarely see.
Use this to your advantage for interesting ideas.
The perspective of your image comes down to your point of view, and how the subjects are arranged. By changing the height at which you photograph, you change the size, shape and feeling of a subject or image.
Looking up at an object can make it seem bigger and therefore stronger and more powerful. Looking down takes away that power as the subject looks smaller.
The perspective gives the still, 2D image a sense of depth. By changing the way you photograph an image, you can turn it into something confusing for the viewer.
This means they spend more time encapsulated by your photograph.
Aerial photography is a great way to show off landscapes and settings. As humans, we are not used to seeing the world underneath us. We rarely have a birds-eye view of the world.
Immediately, this adds interest to images as we are not used to this perspective. From looking down on a subject, its meaning changes.
Perspective, as we have seen above can help to add depth to an image. Aerial photography strips the image of its normal depth, which creates a flat version of a 3d world.
Post-Production Abstract Photography
A glitch is the result of a digital system malfunctioning. They cross images, videos, sound files and all types of software or hardware.
A Digital photographic image transferred badly can give you a glitch. This happens due to the file missing information.
Created digitally and with intent, these add an interesting, artistic layer to your image. It reminds people that they are looking at the representation of an image, not a physical print.
Megan Kennedy – megankennedyphotographer.com
In this article, we show you how to create an abstract portrait. The program we use to make this is Adobe Lightroom, which is a great tool for all processing needs.
Techniques you will learn here will expand your editing knowledge. It will also help you to understand the possibilities that post-processing software can offer.
The images that you use do not have to be of high-interest value. Effects and digital manipulation will add the interest.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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