Mul­ti­me­dia Ex­pert

Dis­cover how to sep­a­rate a sub­ject from its iden­tity with our guide to ab­stract pho­tog­ra­phy

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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.


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.


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

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