Discover how to separate a subject from its identity with our guide to abstract photography
Things aren’t quite what they seem this month, as Ben Pitt turns his eye towards the artistic possibilities of abstract photography
PHOTOGRAPHY ENCOMPASSES everything from holiday selfies to fine art, but what makes a photo a work of art? One answer is when it’s not just the subject matter that’s important, but equally, the way the subject is presented in the frame and the shapes it creates. A photo can transcend its subject matter to become visually interesting in its own right.
Abstract photography takes this one step further. The subject matter becomes secondary, irrelevant, perhaps even unrecognisable, pushing the viewer to concentrate on the shapes, colours and textures that fill the frame.
These photos might not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a useful exercise to improve your general technique. It will help you to spot strong compositions and think creatively about how to frame a subject. It’s also great practice for developing an idea through careful adjustment of the subject, lighting and camera angle. Apply the same objectives and techniques to your normal photography and you might end up being a better photographer.
WHERE TO START
This is a project that you can do almost anywhere. The average home is full of objects that can be juxtaposed to create interesting shapes, although you may find that it will take time and experimentation to sharpen your eye to what might work.
A handy shortcut to making household objects less recognisable is to work with shadows. Direct sunlight through a window provides a bright canvas to work with, and the straight edges of the window frame can be used to add some structure to the image. Then it’s a simple matter of finding objects with interesting silhouettes and positioning them in creative ways.
Expand on this theme by casting shadows on to surfaces that hold some interest of their
own, or interact with the shadows in creative ways. Reflective, translucent and textured objects that let some light through expand the palette beyond light and shade. We got a lot of mileage from a vintage-style glass vase that scattered light into rippling waves.
Human bodies are full of interesting shapes. In most cases they’re instantly recognisable, but with some creative lighting, thoughtful composition and judicious use of Raw processing (which we’ll cover later), it’s possible to create images that are more abstract. It might also be fun to work in the other direction, finding objects such as plants, lampshades and musical instruments that suggest the shapes of a human body.
A slow shutter speed is a handy shortcut to abstract imagery. Moving humans take on a wispy appearance, and moving some parts of the body more than others can reveal recognisable forms here and there. A shutter speed of one to four seconds works well, so you’ll need a tripod and dim artificial light to avoid overexposing the image. If the subject is static, try moving the camera instead. A half-second exposure and deliberate sweep or twist of the camera can create interesting streaks of colour. It’s pretty hit and miss, but that’s all part of the fun.
Another way to make subjects less recognisable is with a macro lens. This lets you reveal images that are often unseen by human eyes, so it’s brimming with opportunities to conceal the subject matter and create abstract compositions. We covered macro photography in Multimedia Expert, Shopper 354, so refer to that issue if you have a copy.
Architecture is a popular subject for abstract photography, with lots of bold, geometric shapes and a large scale that makes it easy to pick out a particular detail. The best architecture has the same aesthetic objectives that we’re looking for here, where the structure is designed to transcend its function to create something beautiful in its own right. The photographer simply has to find the compositions to bring out that beauty. There’s beauty to be found in random textures, too. Rusty metal, lichen-covered walls and peeling paint are favourites for abstract photography.
Check out photo-hosting sites such as 500px and Flickr for inspiration. 500px can show a feed of Popular and Editor’s Choice images, and the Categories drop-down list includes an option to show photos in the Abstract category. Flickr has vast numbers of user-moderated groups, with many dedicated to abstract photography.
I’m not a big believer in rules for what makes a good photograph. It’s better to think of them as conventions: they can be useful, but it’s often more interesting to break than to follow them. Even so, it’s useful to know what they are so you can knowingly follow or break them.
The average home is full of objects that can be juxtaposed to create interesting shapes
The rule of thirds is perhaps the best-known convention for photography. The argument is that placing a subject dead centre looks flat and dull, whereas positioning elements to one side of the frame gives a sense of tension and release. The convention is to divide the frame into thirds, both vertically and horizontally, and to place objects or high-contrast edges on the lines that divide the frame.
For portraits, the convention is to place the subject’s head (or eyes, depending on how near he or she is) at the intersection of these lines, so a third of the way down from the top and a third from the left or right edge. If the subject is looking left or right, they should face towards the centre of the frame. You can use the same approach for abstract images, even when there are no recognisable human forms. Place key elements on the grid lines, and if there’s a sense that the subject is facing or moving in a particular direction, position it so it faces towards the centre of the frame.
The same principles apply for images with more than one key element. Try to establish a feeling of balance between these elements, perhaps by locating them towards opposite corners of the frame. When an object appears more than once, the convention is to include three or five rather than two or four, and this gives a better sense of balance.
Triangles can be a particularly good basis for a strong composition. A triangle with a wide base and point at the top will appear solid and grounded. A triangle with a point at the bottom will be dynamic, dramatic and imposing. It needn’t be a triangular object; the shape can be formed by any lines in the image.
Leading lines are anything that guides the viewer’s eye around the frame. It might be a winding path, the edges of a building or a pattern on the floor. Lines that converge are particularly striking, and so are parabolic curves. Leading lines should guide the viewer’s attention across the frame to the main point of interest.
Frames within frames are where an object in the photo frames the main subject. It might
be something obvious such as a doorway or an arch, or it could be a tree or anything that creates an interesting border.
One rule that works particularly well for abstract photography is to keep it simple. One or two bold shapes on a featureless background helps the viewer focus on the shapes rather than the subject matter. Try to achieve a sense of balance between these elements, and don’t be afraid to use lots of space in the frame. Sometimes known as negative space, this absence of subject matter can become the subject matter in its own right.
It’s really helpful to be able to control the light in your scene. You could use off-camera ⬆ A half-second handheld exposure of this sunset gives it a dreamy quality that resembles a painting
⬅ The rhythmic repetition of the gulls and posts has an abstract quality to it. This shot required a few attempts, but this one – where the tops of the posts are in line with the side of the lake – worked best as it helped the gulls stand out. We used Lightroom’s Linear Gradient tool to overexposure the horizon, creating three distinct strips of lightdark-light across the frame flashguns or just a selection of lamps to bring out the shapes in your composition. Illuminating subjects mostly from behind to reveal the outline and just a bit of detail is a handy way to disguise the subject matter, simplify the scene and concentrate the viewer’s attention on bold shapes.
You should also think about capturing your shot from an unusual angle. Drone photography excels for this, particularly when pointing the camera straight down. It’s an angle we’re not used to seeing so familiar subjects can look unrecognisable.
We’re not too worried about realism here so we can go to town with image-editing settings. We always recommend shooting Raw but this is especially true here, and will let you apply far more radical settings without image quality suffering too much.
Raw-processing software such as Lightroom is in its element here because its non-destructive editing tools mean you can jump back and forth between the
various tools without having to commit to anything until you’re finished.
Cropping is a critical part of the process. You may have carefully composed the shot, but we often shoot a little wider and leave the final crop to be done in software. If nothing else, it gives some room for manoeuvre when displaying the image at an aspect ratio that doesn’t match the original shot. For highly abstract images, it’s also worth rotating just to see if it reveals anything interesting.
Lightroom’s Straighten tool is great for aligning straight lines with the edges of the frame. This can help an image appear punchier, and make subjects appear more abstract. There’s a choice of Level (horizontal), Vertical and Full (both), plus a Guided option that lets you define what should be aligned.
It’s worth getting creative with exposure and colour controls. Under- or overexposing some parts of the frame can help to clean up the composition. Boosting the Contrast and Vibrancy will exaggerate colours, and Lightroom’s Dehaze tool can generate vivid, high-contrast colours from the flattest of colour schemes. Another trick for livening up colours is to use the White Balance colour picker to neutralise the colours in the main subject, and then boost the Vibrancy and Saturation to bring out the colours that deviate slightly from this neutral palette.
Dramatic colour correction tends to increase noise, so it’s worth zooming in and checking the noise reduction settings. Ramping them up to maximum settings can also help to clean up and simplify the scene, as the noise reduction will also gloss over fine details. This is particularly effective for long-exposure images, giving the streaks of colour a wispy quality. In Lightroom, turn the Noise Reduction and Colour Noise Reduction settings up to 100, and reduce the Detail and Sharpening controls to zero.
You might also want to use the Clone and Heal tools to remove unwanted distractions from the scene, or to rearrange elements to improve the composition. You could even use a layer-based image editor such as Photoshop to incorporate elements from multiple photos.
⬆ This nude shot was taken with a single lamp behind the model. Heavy processing in Lightroom reduces the shot down to two simple shapes, with only a hint of subject matter’s identity
➡ This barn conversion creates some interesting shapes with its beams and windows. The resulting shape in this shot reminded me of a grasshopper’s head Some people might consider this cheating – you wouldn’t be allowed to enter a composite image in a photo competition, for example – but if you’re making a work of art it’s up to you which tools you allow yourself to use.
THE SLOW REVEAL
Abstract photography rejects the notion that a camera never lies. Here, reality is relegated to second place or disregarded altogether. However, there’s always a lingering question for the viewer: what is it? Teasing at the truth can be part of what makes an image interesting. It’s also fun to mislead the viewer about the subject’s identity: inanimate objects that look like faces, human forms that resemble rolling hills, folded paper to give the impression of modern architecture. The more layers of meaning an image has, the more rewarding it is for the viewer.
⬆ There’s a strange new fad to hammer coins into tree trunks at the nature reserve I visited. Boosting the saturation reveals a range of colours where the coins have begun to rust. The tight crop and lack of context makes for a more abstract photo
⬆ Photographing this mushroom from above disguises its identity a little. The original photo was rotated and cropped so the stick-like foliage suggests a chalice-shaped base holding up the red orb. We used Lightroom’s Heal tool to clean up the...
⬆ More shadows, this time with a vase that creates some interesting textures as light passes through it. Simplicity is key in this image
⬆ The trees were captured with a -second exposure and deliberate upwards motion of the camera to create a motion blur
⬆ Creating shadows with household objects: in this case a toy figure, tripod and glitterball to create the spots of light. The shadow’s interaction with the door frame it’s projected on to gives some added interest
⬆ Photo-hosting sites such as Flickr and 500px are useful sources of inspiration