Capturing abstracts

AJ discusses the art of abstract photography and looking beyond the obvious scene...

By Andrew James

When you hear the word abstract art or photography, does it fill you with absolute dread or creative excitement? Either is possible because just like Marmite, lots of people either love it or hate it. But I think that lying somewhere between those two polarised positions there are quite a few us who enjoy the challenge of shooting it. I know there are a number of Buzzers who are very good at it too.

So let’s try to define what abstract photography actually is as that gives us a good starting point. I think it differs slightly from abstract art. Abstract art is art that isn’t trying to be a direct representation of what’s real. Instead it uses colour, shape or texture. It will even distort reality (think Picasso) to change our perception of something.

We can use all these things in abstract photography – colour, shape, texture and even distortion but we have less immediate creative flexibility. So how do I define abstract photography?

I think it’s about capturing a subject in a way that is less obvious to the eye. We may use many of those same elements – colour, shape, etc – as a fine art artist would – but we have to find a way that’s interesting, engaging and ultimately successful to compose and display our image within the constraint of not being able to totally deconstruct the object and throw reality out of the window. 

If you ever come on a workshop with me I will always be trying to challenge your thinking. And that is very much the starting point to successful abstract photography – the ability or rather the bravery to look a little closer at the scene in front of you. I call it the ‘scene within a scene’ scenario.

There is always an obvious photo and that will undoubtedly represent the reality of what you can see. And then there is breaking that scene down into chunks and exploring the possibility of each piece of the jigsaw. 

I’ll try and show you what I mean. What do you see in the photo below?

I’ve shown this picture to a number of different people and asked them to interpret it. I've had answers that range from – "water flowing around a blue rock” to "an alien baby embryo” and while nobody knew for certain what it was they all added something along the lines of: "…but it’s rather beautiful”

The fact is, unless you took the photo you don't really know what it is or the scale of it or the viewpoint from which it was taken. I can tell you that it was shot on a wide angle lens, 24mm to be precise, but even that doesn't help. You have no reference for its origin and therefore it is nothing more than colour, tone, shape and texture. It is purely abstract.

Now look at an image of where it was taken.


The image above shows FotoBuzzer Chris Gough trying something similar inside the ice cave we visited in Iceland. You can see now the first 'abstract' picture is purely a detail of the icy ceiling complete with trapped air bubbles and sediment. The way the light was illuminating it was incredibly beautiful and if we’d had the time then we could no doubt have spend many hours just exploring these shapes and textures. To my eye at least, they are equally as beautiful as the shot we went into get – which was this... 

I think the cave photo is also beautiful but you have immediate references for your brain to work out what you are looking at that allows you, within a few seconds, to understand what you are looking at. There is a clear structure to the photo, a ground, sides and a ceiling. Then we have the figure framed within the opening of the cave. It gives us scale and helps us to understand that we are looking inside to out, since there is a landscape beyond. Incidentally, in case you haven't seen this photo before it is an HDR images made up of several different frames to capture all the detail from highlight to shadow.

Here is another similar abstract image from the few frames I took in the ice cave.

What do you see? Well, first I'm pretty sure you are seeing frozen bubbles in a ceiling of ice because you now have a reference point firmly implanted in your brain. After that, maybe your imagination will let you see something else. I see jellyfish!

So rule one in the abstract photographers guidebook is that removing context immediately makes your image to some extent, abstract. But it's not about the focal length, it's simply about the framing. As I said this was shot on a wide angle lens but before you knew what it was I think you'd have believed me if I said it was taken on a macro because you'd have nothing to judge its scale by. 

So does every image have to be completely out of context to be an abstract one? I don't think so. I think it's quite possible to take a photo where the viewer can recognise its origins but it's still abstract. Let's try another image. What do you think it is?

I expect your brain immediately thought 'architecture'. And it would be right. But I've chosen to isolate, using a telephoto lens, just a small chunk of a building; the bit that I thought because of its shapes, colour and tones, was interesting. Therefore to me, this is also abstract even though it's still reasonably obvious what it is. But we can go more obvious and still be abstract? I think so...

You can see this photo is boats or rather, punts. But the actual subject isn't really important because this image is about the pattern they make. Again, it's the crop that accentuates this but there is no doubt that this image is about shape and tone. I've not intended this to be a picture of a row of punts in a literal sense. It's not as 'abstract' as that ice cave picture but it still fits within the framework of my original definition. And to save you reading back, that definition was: Capturing a subject in a way that is less obvious to the eye. We may use many of those same elements – eg colour and shape etc – as a fine art artist would – but we have to find a way that’s interesting, engaging and ultimately successful to compose and display our image within the constraint of not being able to totally deconstruct the object and throw reality out of the window. 

The image above fits into this categorisation. You can see a ladder, some kind of metal structure and a sign. But you don't actually know what it is. The picture is about shape, colour and form, not the objects themselves. 

Shooting abstracts really does test your brain when it comes to composition. The best advice I can give you here is not to rush and try to make some kind of harmony out of the shapes you have. If it feels balanced and that the arrangement has a sense to it then it will be successful. In truth, the more abstract the image is, the harder it can be to find that harmony as, like the viewer, you have no real references to work around. Wherever possible, I still like to use some of the tried and trusted compositional tools, like rule of thirds, to help give the image some structure.

The image above could have been shot in numerous ways but I recall spending quite a while exploring different options before settling on this one. It's the same with every shot, including the one below. I liked the fading colours and textures in this image and framed it with the hole that reveals a bit of wood behind it to add a focal point. Again, it totally lacks context because it's not about what it is that's important. It's just an arrangement of colour, shape and texture.

Of course, one of the really great things about shooting abstracts is that the camera and lens really doesn't matter! You just choose the lens to fit the framing you want to do. Focusing can sometimes be an issue, especially if the scene you have chosen lacks contrast. Quite often I find myself manually focusing to get around this issue. If I am working on a tripod then invariably I'll also employ Live View. If you have a macro lens then this will give you a great tool for abstracts since by delving into the world of close-up leans perfectly towards this genre. 

As always with these little articles I like to leave you with a bit of homework. This time it's pretty simple. Next time you are out with your camera and you have found the obvious shot, take it and then stop. Look at the image on the back of the camera and then walk into the shot itself and go looking for the less obvious abstract images and see how many you can find. Once you start looking, it's hard to stop!

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