July 8, 2016
Abstract – or non-representational, conceptual photography – focuses on line, form, colour, texture and shape. The viewer often wonders what the original object was. Abstract photography is not about literal viewing; it introduces the viewer to the emotional connection the photographer had with an object or subject.
When you look at or engage with abstract photography, you should enjoy the way the image makes you feel. In fact, it’s more about emotionally connecting with the image than recognizing the original subject. Photographing abstract images should stimulate your imagination and make you see things in a new light.
Unconstrained by rules
Children are particularly good at creating abstract paintings. They are not subject to the rules we apply to our own photography. As adults, we often neglect to really engage with an issue and only see the ‘big picture’.
On the other hand, photographing abstract images isn’t about blindly taking lots of close-ups hoping one will turn out good. It’s really about looking into the subject, looking for something else that catches your eye and perhaps reveals the essence of something else within the object. “Photo less, see more” is the golden rule here.
Abstract photography takes different forms for each individual, so no photographer will see an object in the same way if they are truly true to their own creative spirit. So there’s no point in Googling, for example, “Abstract photography in my hometown” to see what others have done. It is important to be driven by one’s way of “seeing”.
Abstract photography involves the adoption of one or a combination of these themes: patterns, textures, angles, shapes, lines, tonal variations, color variations, perspective, distance from subject, depth of field, symmetry, geometry, reflections, shadows, contrast, movement (see panel on the next page), exposure time, blur (subject and bokeh), multiple exposure (both in camera and in post), and cropping (ideally in camera).
I use this photographic genre to open my eyes, especially when I’ve reached a plateau with my usual style of photography.
Let’s start with the less is more theory and look at gear. I only ever take one body with me – my Fujifilm X-Pro2 – and two lenses (a 56mm and a 14mm), both of which are primes.
I usually choose Primes over Zooms because zoom lenses make me a little lazy. Rather than exploring a potential subject by looking around and moving around, I simply zoom in or out and don’t always walk around my subject – this often happens when I’m feeling uninspired in my normal work.
Don’t let yourself be restricted
Leave your tripod at home — seriously. A tripod can limit you and hinder you when taking photos, especially in inner-city areas. However, you can use a tripod for some forms of abstract work, e.g. B. Long exposures or intentional camera movements. I usually decide what to photograph before I leave the house.
Speaking of leaving your tripod at home, you can actually start at home — one of the joys of shooting like this is that you can start in your own home or yard.
Work hard on your subject, try shooting from different angles and with or against the light, watch how the textures and shadows change as you move, and watch how the light coming from behind beats the light coming from the front light gives a completely different feeling. Don’t be afraid to push your highlights all the way up or use your exposure to darken the shadows until they’re almost filled in. Extreme high or low key rendering can really bring out the mundane.
After all, as photographers, we are subject to rules regarding focus, exposure, composition and depth of field. Sometimes these conspire against us “seeing” what is happening. If possible, try to forget the rules – use them as guidelines and don’t freak out if you like something you’ve captured that has no real sharpness or doesn’t follow the rule of thirds. Be free to create!
Be brave! Notice how a color subject is rendered when you apply a blue, red, or yellow filter to it in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Don’t be afraid to increase the clarity and saturation – use radial brushes to apply effects to specific areas. Experiment with the filters of some processing software.
where to look
As with most forms of photography, light is your friend. You don’t need the “golden hour” though; Just watch the light work across your subject, highlighting areas, adding texture and bringing the shape to life. Work both with and against the available light.
lines and curves
Lines and curves guide your viewer around the image. You have that power in your hands, but pay attention to the composition as you pick up lines and curves. Pay attention to the spaces between the lines, pay attention to the details and give lines and curves a purpose.
Look for color variations: Tonal color changes are beautiful, while contrasting colors can be stunning. Also think about how the colors could be translated into black and white. When photographing, try to imagine the final image. Saturated colors attract the viewer’s attention.
patterns and textures
Patterns and textures can be great fun and can be found anywhere from the pair of jeans you’re wearing to a skyscraper with hundreds of windows. You see them everywhere. Just use the repetition of the pattern to draw your eye in a certain direction.
Shadows inherently create abstract shapes and patterns. Notice how a pattern and shadow work together – the area may only be small, but remember that small is beautiful, and in the final image no one will have any idea how big the subject is.
One of the most effective ways to create abstract images is to use intentional camera movement (ICM). Look for subjects with strong lines or colors and follow their direction by panning your camera. You may need a tripod.
Use of neutral density filters
Neutral Density (ND) filters are also beneficial when shooting abstract work. Whether on the coast or in the city, the ability to slow down the shutter speed to allow the elements to move and highlight one or more solid objects is a wonderful ability.
ND filters give your work that minimalist style with an infinite sense of space and calm. A tripod is usually essential for the long exposure, although I’ve seen some fun long exposures done by hand holding a camera and running down a street!
You won’t always have your gear to hand, so don’t be afraid to use your smartphone to try out ideas. I always carry headphones and a small smartphone tripod in my bag, just in case. The headphones trigger the camera on most devices.
Five steps to successful ICM images
Learn how to take pictures with intentional camera movement (ICM).
Find a subject with strong horizontal, vertical, or diagonal lines.
2. Choose your lens
In my opinion a longer lens works best for this style as you don’t get the distortion at the edges of the frame that you can see with some wide angles. But don’t let that stop you from experimenting!
With your tripod-mounted camera, practice the amount and speed of movement you need to get the effect you want. Your tripod will help minimize camera shake and deviation from the line if you want to create parallel lines.
4. Shutter speed
Find a shutter speed that maximizes the abstract nature of the images you create.
Experiment with either adding a bit of flash to the image to add definition or using multiple exposures. Check out the work of others for inspiration, such as B. Doug Chinnery or Valda Bailey.
Paul’s top tips
1. No rush
Invest a little time in a topic. Try to work your way through your subject – walk around it and watch the angles and lines change as you move.
2. Start small
The best motifs are often found in the smallest of spaces – perhaps on a small circular path, in your garden or even on a table in a café.
3. Less is more
Try to see more and shoot less. This is difficult in the digital age, but discipline yourself to only take a picture when you feel like the picture was taken without the camera.
Look for repeating patterns. These help guide the viewer through your images.
Don’t be afraid to try new things: multiple exposure, defocused images, rotating your camera – get out of your comfort zone.
6. Be bold and use your imagination
Not everyone will like what you do, so don’t be put off by people who don’t support your initial efforts. Likewise, not every shot will be a winner. But if you use every ounce of your creativity and are genuinely open to seeing the potential in ordinary objects, your visual excitement will know no bounds.
I often like to shoot wide open with an elongated lens. The 56mm f/1.2 lens on my Fujifilm is perfect as it allows me to isolate the subject and create a nice bokeh.
Graduated filters aren’t just for landscapes. I often use a series of Lee gradient filters just to capture specific areas of detail. Also, I can invert them to allow areas to bleed white if the effect is pleasing to the eye.
Kenko Extension Tubes
These tubes bring you closer to the subject and are a real help when capturing detail.
Professional photographer Paul Sanders joined The Times in 2002 and became its photo editor in 2004. In this prestigious role, he was responsible for the newspaper’s overall visual identity. In 2011 he left the company to pursue his passion for artistic landscape photography. Visit www.paulsanders.biz