Abstract photography can be hard to grasp. Before we get into the technique it might be useful if we define what an abstract image actually is. Abstract photography, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a means of depicting a visual image that does not have an immediate association with the object world.”
When we look at the photo we’re given an image that may not immediately click as “tree,” “mountain,” or “person.” And even if it does, it may be such an unconventional view that it’s intriguing nonetheless. Abstract images can be as simple as splashing water or complex as an aerial view of a floodplain.
Move Beyond the Subject
What if the subject of the photo isn’t the subject? Hear me out on this one. Great abstract images aren’t always about what’s in the photo. Take this photo of water during the sunset Golden Hour. It’s not really a photo of water. It’s a photo of the complex patterns made by the waves and light. This is how you want to be thinking when you try for abstract photos.
Macro Abstract Photography
One of the best styles for creating abstract nature photos is macro photography. Macro photos are all about the up-close and personal. We make fine details the main subject, be they insects or the grain of polished wood.
Having a good macro lens is critical to creating good macro photos. When shopping for a macro lens you want to look at the magnification ratio. Most lenses don’t go beyond 0.3x magnification. Anything beyond this is decent but true macro lenses give 1:1 magnification. This means the subject is reproduced onto the image sensor at life-size, rather than reduced in size.
1:1 reproduction means incredibly fine details can be brought out in your images. And these fine details can be just as fascinating as the main subject. The world of nature is especially great for abstract photography because of the variety of textures that exist. With a single walk in the forest, you can come away with a variety of textures and colors. Just remember that we don’t want the subject to be instantly recognizable. A macro of a section of discarded butterfly wing will be full of iridescent scales. It’s a great nature abstract that may not be immediately obvious to a viewer.
→ Related reading: Macro Photography 101
Some of the best abstract images come to us in a moment of instant inspiration. We may not even be intending to take that particular picture yet when you look you instantly see the pattern and decide to play with the composition. Some of my favorite abstract images have been photos that would have been junk otherwise.
In this image, my intended subject wasn’t this glitter of reflected winter light. My subject was the dry grass and I was experimenting with the depth of field. But when I saw the result I immediately decided to play around with the out-of-focus reflections. All of my attempts fell short of this original mistake.
Abstract photos can, and perhaps should break all of the well-established rules of photography. The Rule of Thirds and Golden Ratio can go right out the window. While books have been published on how pleasing these mathematical yet natural proportions are it’s also undeniable that this field of ice is stunningly beautiful without following any established rules.
Landscapes can also be a source of abstract images, especially with the changes of seasons or the weather. Elements like fog or snow can obscure familiar elements enough to create an entirely different perception. In the case of landscapes, both form and textures are a good place to try and obscure the exact subject.
Break ALL of the Rules
When I said “break the rules,” I also meant those concerned with abstract photography. While the definition I gave demands that there be no immediate association with an object that’s not always possible or desirable. While the image of the frozen field is certainly abstract anyone living in a climate that experiences snow has a fair chance of instantly recognizing it for what it is.
Another way to think about abstract photography is composing your images in such a way that a large amount of information about a subject is excluded in favor of emphasizing other aspects.
And how you do so can involve adjusting your camera, the field of view your lens covers, your exposure settings, or even the color hues. By using a long exposure this photographer smoothed out the water and clouds to create a perfectly still mirror. By choosing monochrome there’s even less information from which to draw conclusions from. There’s still a recognizable human form yet the photo still falls into the realm of an abstract image.
Abstract photography is very hard to pin down because it specifically works to break the rules. But that also makes it one of the most creative and enjoyable types of photography because the subject possibilities are infinite. While macro lenses are a good place to start simply being in the right place at the right time can result in lucky photos if you have an eye for abstraction.
Photo license link: CC0