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Abstract Photography for Beginners: Tips for Stunning Results

10 min read

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tips for abstract photography.

Most of us first began approaching photography from a purely rules-based perspective. I’m not going to just go ahead and bash rules-based photography instruction for the sake of it. Of course, the laws of conventional imagery can be more than helpful. They’ve raised entire generations of photographers, so they better be!

Still, there is a reward to be had in going beyond the routine and expanding your horizons. That’s what today’s lesson in abstract photography is going to be all about.

Note that this is a very experimental niche and one that can seem to be coming from weird angles at first. But trust me, if you share any interest in going beyond the established boundaries of mainstream photography, the world of stunning abstract images is going to amaze you and suck you in. Without further ado, let’s explore!

What Defines Abstract Photography?

First, let’s see what exactly we are looking at. What makes something an abstract photograph?

The Myth of the ‘Abstract Subject’

You might think abstraction is all about photographing uncommon objects in strange, unusual environments. Think again.

Everyday objects have been turned into amazing abstract photography since the very early days of the art form. Just look at the image below for one example!

A colorful umbrella serving as an abstract photography subject, viewed from below.

Is Abstract Photography a Matter of Technique?

In short, not really. There is no one special “abstract photography technique” that serves as the borderline between mainstream photography.

We will take a look at some technical theory in just a bit, but don’t go in believing that details of composition or camera settings can single-handedly make you a proficient user of the genre.

So, what is it then that defines this niche? Ultimately, that’s a very deep question, but let me provide a working definition.

Let’s consider abstract photos in the following way: fine art photography minus the main subject.

If You Remove the Subject, What’s Left?

Let me explain. For a photograph to be abstract, it must emphasize its themes without literal reference. A straightforward photograph might communicate a theme of “aging” using a portrait of an elderly man or woman.

An abstract can do the same thing and allow the viewer the same immediate association between visual content and meaning without matching thematic and literal subjects. Sticking with our example of aging, consider peeling paint, watches, reading glasses, dust… the possibilities are endless!

If you are familiar with the “show and tell” principle used in creative writing studies, this is very similar. Whereas mainstream photography tends to show more, the abstract image is more about telling.

How Abstract are Abstract Images, Really?

This all raises the question of just how “abstract” one needs to go to really fit into the genre – or whether such photography even needs to be abstract to be compelling.

Abstract photography ideas don’t emerge from the void. Photographers invent them.

An abstract shot of a bridge, displaying beams and wires against the backdrop of a cloudy sky.

Ordinary objects don’t “become abstract” through magic tricks or physical manipulation but by the various creative techniques and processes that the artist uses to depict them.

As soon as you grasp the basics and key elements of the craft, intriguing abstract images will emerge naturally from your creative process, method, and imagination.

All this is just another way to say: there are as many ways to create abstract images as there are abstract photographers!

The Overlap Between Abstract Art and Surrealism

Especially as you develop more of a familiarity with the camera settings and the techniques used to capture abstract images, you will likely start seeing a lot of parallels between this discipline and what is normally called surrealist photography.

Surrealism is a way of depicting subjects in a manner that is deliberately removed from the context of real life. This has much less to do with technique or composition and much more with how your subjects and props are presented to the viewer.

An abstract, surrealist black and white portrait of a young woman featuring smoke, body paint, and creative use of masks and filters.

“This is not a pipe” is just the beginning. Surrealist photography can range from the slightly quirky to the outright cryptic!

Such surrealist elements may or may not appear together with abstract photography ideas. The choice is up to you, and the possible combinations are infinite!

Gear Choices for Abstract Photos

A photographer viewing the rear LCD of a mirrorless camera with a lens, cap, and hood mounted.

Before heading out into the field and actually taking pictures in an entirely new, fresh format, many photographers’ first question will likely be, “what gear do I need?”

In principle, abstract photography is a self-sufficient vehicle. It doesn’t strictly demand any specific kind of equipment for successful results. I would even like to say that trying to express yourself in abstract ways with whatever equipment you may already have is a great exercise in creativity.

However, some people will definitely want to invest in a dedicated setup for abstract photography, and of course, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Let’s take a look at some of the most specialized and effective gear items to take your work to the next level!

Focal Lengths for Abstract Pictures

Because abstract photography relishes the non-literal, the strange, and the unusual, many artists working in the genre deliberately shy away from standard lenses and their neutral perspectives.

Especially lenses that feature higher-than-normal amounts of distortion caused by the wide angle of view (something usually frowned upon in most areas of photography) are widely employed in abstract photography to create weird angles and abstract patterns.

This of course also extends to fisheye lenses, though it should be said that these are notoriously tricky to handle, and abstract photography is no exception to that rule!

Getting Close and Personal With Your Subjects

Apart from going wide, another fascination shared by lots of abstract photographers is that of high magnification. I’m not talking about long focal length lenses here!

Rather, the idea is to lend abstract images another edge by dabbling in macro photography.

Dandelions dripping with dewdrops. An example of abstract macro photography.

These days, many common zooms have enough of a close-up capability to serve this role fairly well. But if you want to get serious, a dedicated macro lens is a must, for sure.

Macro lenses allow you to view the world from a totally different perspective. They can add depth to otherwise shallow details, reveal interesting textures in geometric shapes and raw material, and further help to distance and abstract the physical objects you use for composition from your subject matter.

The Strange Beauty of Tilt-Shift Photography

A tilt-shift lens resting on a flat surface. Perspective control indicators and knobs clearly visible.

Another unusual option that entices many to enter the world of abstract photography is the use of tilt-shift lenses. You may also know these as PC lenses (short for perspective control) under some brands, like Nikon.

The idea is that such lenses can manipulate the angles between the lens elements and the sensor or film plane, much like the bellows on a large-format view camera.

This allows you to control depth of field, focus, and perspective in ways that would otherwise be impossible using conventional means.

By carefully practicing the use of such lenses, you can create stunning surrealist and abstract photographic results!

Taking Abstract Images Using a Smartphone

A modern smartphone leaned against a colorful wall in a surrealist studio setting.

Unconventionality is the heart of abstract photography. So why bother limiting yourself to the tried-and-true DSLR when you could just as well use something like a camera phone?

Sure, smartphones still lag behind in capability compared to just about any dedicated digital camera. But maybe you can make use of that deliberately?

In particular, the narrow dynamic range and tiny sensor area – traditionally named as criticisms of phone cameras – can be creatively utilized to create beautiful abstract photos.

Add to that their extreme portability and phones actually look pretty enticing for those daring enough.

Why not give phone photography a shot? It could very well show you a different side of the same art you know and allow you to approach the same images from a different angle.

Try Drone Photography

An aerial landscape abstract photograph taken by drone.

Likewise, another opportunity often neglected by mainstream photographers is using drones. Rather than concerns about image quality, what deters most from this experiment is the high upfront cost.

Some may also perceive drone-based aerial photography as “cheating” since it goes beyond natural human perspective and ability.

However, that is precisely what makes drones so interesting for abstract photography.

By leaving behind many of the physical limitations that come with handheld walkabout photography, drones can let you create images that literally go beyond what the viewer’s eyes can see.

Reinterpreting Camera Shake

An interesting interplay of light and color caused by a long exposure combined with deliberate camera movement at night.

Let me give you another example of how reversing pre-existing ideas of image quality can lead to dramatic and fascinating abstract photography results.

Consider camera shake. An annoying and unavoidable side effect of the physical nature of shutters, it’s something most of us do our best to avoid. Whether you use shutter priority mode, stabilize your camera on a tripod, or via some internal stabilization, it’s all the same.

Ultimately, the idea is to render our image as crisp as possible and create the highest definition we can.

But what happens when you reject that and welcome motion blur instead? Intentional camera movement is indeed used quite often in abstract photography to lend an image interesting patterns of light and color.

This kind of abstract effect can put a whole new spin on the focal point of your composition, making the visual effect itself the main subject if you pull it off right.

Start with this idea and see where it leads you. How many other presuppositions of “classic” photography can you manage to turn on their heads and create amazing abstract art with?

Dipping Your Toes into Lo-Fi Photography

An old "lomo"-type lo-fi scale focus film camera, stood on a flat surface with the lens pointing at the viewer.

For some, that train of thought leads them into the realm of what is called at varying times lo-fi photography, lomography, or other names depending on the source.

The concept behind lo-fi photography is a perfect example of abstract photography ideas condensed into one genre.

By deliberately restricting yourself to low-fidelity gear, such as old cameraphones, millennium-era digicams, or cheap, plastic-bodied film cameras, you can introduce a lot of visually interesting subjects and factors into your compositions that you would otherwise never benefit from.

These can range from optical “flaws” – such as aberrations, internal reflections, and deficiencies in focus or depth – to ergonomic and aesthetic differences that make lo-fi photography a totally different experience from the refined, professional-level craft that most of us are more familiar with.

Moving Beyond Conventional Mediums

A large format wooden view camera being carried by a handle outdoors.

As part of this quest for the best subjects and gear options to achieve your abstract photo goals, consider dabbing mediums that you so far haven’t worked in.

Whether crossing over from full-frame digital photo collages to 35mm film half-frame diptychs or transitioning from 120 medium format photography to Fujix instant squares, the possibilities are probably far greater than you might think!

Different mediums and formats can not just instantly give your abstract photography a new look. The ensuing changes in cameras, lenses, and other gear will also make you approach your creative process differently.

How to Compose Abstract Photography

Let’s talk a bit more deeply about the theory of the abstract image. You know by now that this genre is rich in experimentation and benefits from a creative mind in many ways.

But how exactly does an abstract photographer approach his composition? Let’s note down a few key points so you may gain an idea of how famous abstract photographs acquire their distinctive look.

Look for Shapes, Not for Subjects

An abstract photograph expressed as a study of geometric lines and sharp angles.

One widespread technique that abstract photographers frequently use is to look for interesting geometric patterns instead of traditional subjects. This ties directly into what I went over earlier concerning the lack of the subject in the explicit sense in this genre of photography.

Instead of the usual people, buildings, or large, prominent elements of natural geography, look for another object that can serve up interesting patterns, colors, or other visual elements.

Of course, feel free to manipulate the scene before you as much as you like to achieve that goal. Drops of ink or food coloring in water or other liquid are an age-old trick that, if timed and shot well, can instantly make a mundane scene seem otherworldly.

Light and Shadow in Abstract Photos

Playing with contrasts is an especially popular motif. Your initial choice of the light source is equally important as how you balance out light and shadow in post processing.

Like in any abstract painting, manipulation of light can produce interesting colors and make any original subject look even more impressive than in a neutral environment.

An abstract photograph built around gradients of light and dark, using shadows for effect.

How you choose to play with light and dark is up to you. You can set up a complex indoor lighting system or photograph intriguing objects in situ outdoors and utilize the power of post production to bring out their defining features.

The degree to which color, light levels, and contrast can be manipulated in digital photographs these days – even if you don’t shoot RAW files – makes this an extremely simple thing to fool around with.

Perspective in Abstract Photography

An abstract architectural photograph showcasing advanced uses of perspective and geometry.

Interesting patterns and surrealist results in non-standard photography often benefit from unusual perspectives.

Since most photographs keep being composed at eye level to the subject, parallel to the horizon, consider going against the grain.

Whether it’s Dutch angles that interest you or bird’s eye compositions (note the potential of drone photography again, as I mentioned just before), try to think outside the box and define new possibilities for camera placement relative to your subjects.

Light Painting and How it Relates to Abstract Art

A field of visual expression that features many overlaps with all abstract art, especially photography, is so-called light painting.

This is where you combine slow shutter speed, carefully choreographed subject motion, and creative motion blur to create a picture. The appearance of motion blur itself serves as the paint if you will.

An example of light painting photography. A person standing in the middle of a great ring produced by molten metal and tube lighting.

Because this style entirely goes against how we see our day-to-day surroundings with the naked eye, light painting is a highly abstract art form. It can be seriously beneficial to any abstract photographer’s portfolio.

The Dadaist movement of the 1930s was hugely influential in laying the groundwork for light painting in photography, and the contributions of Man Ray to the medium have remained an inspiration for generations since then.

Perfecting Abstract Images

As a challenging and unconventional discipline, abstract photography demands full control and complete competence in almost every area.

From sheer technical prowess to skills in post processing, lighting, set dressing, and craftiness in “creating” and designing your own abstract subjects, it can be a long way to go until you feel comfortable working in the medium. But that’s okay!

The very nature of this non-standard, freeform kind of photography encourages practice and experimentation on established norms. There is no ultimate right or wrong when creating an abstract photo. Just follow the basics you learned today and see where you end up!

Good luck, and have fun experimenting!

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.

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