Experimental photography is excellent if you’re stuck in a rut or trapped inside because of the weather. Here are 10 techniques you should try for a motivational kick.
In this article, I’ll focus on digital photography rather than film-based photography. Most of the techniques you can do without purchasing extra equipment. All you need is your camera, some everyday items, and Photoshop.
What Is Experimental Photography?
Experimental photography is using your camera or post-processing in a non-traditional way. It’s about taking your photographs beyond the norm to create unique art pieces. The sky’s the limit when it comes to experimental photography. It’s all about having fun and making crazy images! There’s no way you can go wrong.
Searching for “experimental photography” or “experimental portraiture” online will blow your mind with beautiful, disturbing images. Some images take a great deal of technical knowledge to achieve. Beginner photographers can also accomplish amazing experimental photography if they have a vision.
1. Intentional Motion Blur
IBM stands for “Intentional Motion Blur.” In this technique, I intentionally move my camera to blur the image. I didn’t have good light at the Agora statues in Chicago’s Grant Park, so I played with IMB. I moved my camera up and down to create this effect.
I set a long shutter speed (about a half second) to create a motion effect and move the camera while the shutter is open. I can move the camera side-to-side or up or down. I can spin the camera around.
Setting my camera with a 100-400mm lens on a tripod, I loosened the collar on the lens. This allowed me to spin the camera while the shutter was open.
Photographers with sure hands can set a two-second timer and throw their cameras into the air. Just be sure to catch it!
Zoom blurs are a sub-set of IBM. I set a 5- to 30-second shutter speed with my camera mounted on a tripod. This technique works best at night. But I’ve also used a neutral density filter to create zoom blurs during the day. I set a two-second timer to give me time to get ready to zoom.
When the shutter opens, I smoothly zoom my lens. I zoom both in and out to get different effects. Photographing the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, I zoomed my lens with the shutter open.
2. Light Painting
Mount your camera on a tripod and set your shutter speed to 30 seconds. While the shutter is open, move a light source through the frame. If you move fast, you will disappear, but the light will burn onto the image.
Run, dance, write. Do anything you’d like!
Incorporate light painting into a portrait for a dynamic background. A stationary person or object will show in the frame.
Popular online are photos of spinning steel wool. The photos are fun, but safety first! If you experiment with this technique, choose a place that won’t catch fire. Be ready with a fire extinguisher if something goes wrong.
In this photo, a friend of mine spun burning steel wool with a cooking whisk held by about a half-meter of string. They started walking from the far end of the bridge towards the camera.
3. Impressionistic Focus
Photographers spend a lot of time trying to get photos in focus. But creating an out-of-focus image sometimes better captures a mood or a shape. Throwing the image out of focus softens the subject, leaving only an impression. This is like Monet painting water lilies.
A very wide aperture (like f/2.8) can create images where most of the frame is out of focus. With impressionistic focus, there’s no need to have any part of the image in focus.
Set your camera on manual focus and experiment with blur. I try to keep some of the shape of my subject, but you can go really abstract with this technique.
This Christmas tree was much more interesting with its lights out of focus. The in-focus version showed details like the wires connecting the lights. The blurred version is much more subtle.
You can use the impressionistic focus effect in experimental portrait photography. Experimental portraits explore a person’s essence or the human form in a unique way. This may mean bending or breaking traditional portraiture “rules.”
I kept one of the flowers in this image somewhat in focus, but feel free to blur everything.
4. Projected Image
Projecting light, shapes, and colors onto a surface adds dimension to an image. The surface can be anything—a backdrop, an object, or even a person. Some photographers place green screens behind their subjects. The green screen is later replaced with fantastic backdrops.
Using a projection technique can create experimental and even abstract portrait photography. Photographer Eric Burke uses projectors to cast shapes and textures onto his models, which creates photographic body art.
Two projectors were used to create the image below. One projected onto the background and the other on the model. The model’s face was wrapped in a piece of fabric that captured the details of the projection.
5. Alternative Filters
Filters can be much more than neutral density or polarizing filters. Anything in front of the lens is a filter. Wrap your lens with a sheet of clingfilm or sheer fabric. Or find an opaque surface: an old window with warped glass, a plastic bottle, or flowing water.
Photographing through alternative filters will create unique effects in your images. You can also create unique bokeh effects by cutting a shape in an index card and holding it in front of your camera.
Look around the house and see what you have to play with. Some alternative filters you’ll like, and others you won’t. That’s the fun of experimenting. It’s all about exploring artistic photography.
Lens Baby makes a series of lenses with unique effects if you want to pursue these types of looks further. I photographed this model through a glass door. The reflections create a hazy filter.
6. Double Exposure
Double exposure is layering two images. Layer a landscape over a close-up of an animal or flower. Layer a cityscape over a portrait. Double exposures can add texture to a picture or add to the story.
Film photographers discovered this technique. A double exposure happens when the shutter is clicked without advancing the film.
There is usually one primary image and one overlay. I usually reduce the opacity of the overlay. Then, I try different blend modes to merge the photos. In the image below, I layered two photos of the same staircase taken from different angles.
Another technique to create double exposures in-camera is looking for reflections. I can create a double exposure by shooting through a glass window. I capture the reflection as well as what lies beyond the glass.
I use this technique to create reflections in the water that may not have existed in reality (but should have!) I copy the image in Photoshop and flip the copy vertically. To make the scene more realistic, I add ripple filters.
Here is a photo of fireworks over the Gateway Arch with a reflection added in post-processing.
I also use the mirroring technique to create unique shapes. In the image below, I mirrored an architectural photograph horizontally. This creates a world that doesn’t exist in reality.
The right side of the image below is at the Chicago Cultural Center. Mirroring the image created new patterns in the architecture.
8. In-Camera Effects
Look in your camera’s menu to see what picture effects are available. You may have dozens of options to experiment with. Here are six of the effects my camera will add to photos.
Montages are photographic collages. Images, or elements of images, are layered together to create a new scene. Some photographers seamlessly layer the images, creating a unique world. Other photographers let the viewer see distinct images as separate yet connected.
This is a montage I’m working on using elements of four different photos (so far). The eye and the legs come from one photo. The umbrella comes from another photo. The arches from another photograph. These are layered (and mirrored) on a river scene.
I montaged this spiral staircase by layering slices using different Photoshop techniques.
10. Photoshop Filters
If I haven’t given you enough experimental photography techniques to play with, this final one might keep you busy for a while. Apply Photoshop filters to images in your back catalog.
Photoshop includes a whole host of filters that can significantly change your photos. Let me show you two popular filters.
Here’s a fairly easy trick if you’ve ever seen circular images online and wondered how to create these. Apply the polar coordinates filter in Photoshop.
Using the photo of the fireworks over the St. Louis Gateway Arch, I created a square crop in Photoshop. Then, I selected Filter > Distort > and Polar Coordinates.
I played with both Rectangular to Polar and Polar to Rectangular choices. I also tried flipping my image upside-down. These options create different effects.
Some images work better than others, and that’s part of the experiment. Here is an Image of the St. Louis Gateway Arch under fireworks. I created this image by using the Polar Coordinates filter in Photoshop.
Many portrait photographers use the Liquify filter in Photoshop. The filter lets portrait photographers change the size and shape of the model’s face, nose, eyes, etc.
You can create Dali-inspired experimental portraits if you go too far with this tool. But I use the liquify tool to add all kinds of distortions to my images.
Selecting Filters > Lquify in Photoshop will bring up a new editing tool. Play with them all! A little change goes a long way.
If you don’t use Photoshop, look at the tools in your post-processing software. Or try a new photo-processing app. My favorite is the free app Adobe Capture.
Here is a before-and-after comparison of a photo taken of the supports under a railway bridge. The bottom image shows distortions created in Photoshop’s liquify filter.
Conclusion: Experimental Photography
These 10 experimental photography techniques will help spark creative photography ideas. There are also plenty of others you can try!
Experimental digital photography is anything outside the norm. It is about exploring what is possible with your camera and even what” can be defined as a “photograph.” Have some fun, and use your camera and post-processing tools creatively!