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Experimental Photography: A Primer for the Curious

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experimental photography.

Want to explore and develop your creative path beyond established photographic norms? In that case, experimental photography might be right up your alley.

Many factors go into the experimental photographic process, including composition and creative flow matter. But just as much, the non-traditional way of using your camera and development techniques defines such images.

What is Experimental Photography?

So what exactly makes certain pictures experimental in technique or look? To answer that question, we will need to examine the principles behind experimental photographs closely. From theory all the way to execution, let’s take a look at the science behind the art!

In doing so, I hope I will be able to instill in you some inspiration for future experimental projects of your own!

The History of Experimental Photography

As long as photographers have been creating pictures, innovators and abstract artists have dared to experiment. Let’s take a minute to look at the diverse history of different experimental approaches to photography.

Dadaist Experimentation and the Birth of Modern Abstract Photography

A Dadaist-style collage of abstract shapes. Experimental photography using color and geometry.

Today’s notion of experimental photography mostly emerged in the wake of the first World War. At that time, the Dadaists, Cubists, and Futurists were the talk of the painting world. Their ideology revolved around a libertine, pacifist, and satirical view of the world that challenged all sorts of established norms.

These aesthetic influences soon bled over into photography as well.

Important Dadaist photographers like Man Ray developed their own unique process for producing abstract, experimental images. Then, the most common techniques in use were multiple exposures, non-standard lighting, and soft focus.

Many Dadaists and Futurists also experimented with collage work, layering multiple images and arranging them in a particularly creative way. This would become a staple of experimental photography in later years.

Experimental Photography Since 1945

As time passed, more wild opportunities for creating experimental photography became available or were discovered. For example, X-ray and infrared photography took off massively after World War II, leading to a slew of notable experimental art in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

An experimental infrared color photograph showcasing eerie shades of orange and blue at a rocky beach.

Advanced forms of image manipulation and alternative processes spread, too. Some artists like Ray K. Metzker would make use of this to take existing expressions further, experimenting with what he would dub “composites”.

These were wildly arranged frames consisting of numerous photographic images, sometimes as many as hundreds. Metzker based this on older types of collage but amplified by the more modern, radical darkroom processes available at the time.

Others would dip their toes into the world of cameraless photography, using chemicals, papers, and brushes as their main image-making tools and working entirely within the studio.

Experimental Photography in the Digital World

The immense power of digital editing means that experimental photographers today can produce pictures that previous generations could have only dreamed of! Thanks to post-processing software, real limitations to radically altering your experimental images no longer exist.

With that said, it’s not really possible to recreate the aesthetic possibilities offered by chemical-based photographic techniques using digital effects.

Because of this, many experimental photographers continue to work across both mediums, film and digital, utilizing the strengths of each.

In-Camera Experimental Photography Techniques

An experimental photograph showcasing a street scene in black and white. Multiple exposure, with darkroom editing creating a grungy look.

Let us now take a look at some concrete examples of experimental photography techniques used by artists past and present to create stunning images!

The following are examples of in-camera techniques. That is, they represent an easy and foolproof way to add some experimental elements to an otherwise conventional photograph by manipulating one particular aspect of how you use your camera.

Deliberate Use of Light Leaks

This technique mostly relates to film photography. Though it’s possible to create light leaks on a digital camera, it might not be as easy as described below.

A light leak occurs when light from the environment reaches the film or sensor – but not through the lens.

Colorful beams caused by light leaks in-camera. An abstract, experimental color photograph.

In many analog camera designs, especially SLRs, there are a series of foam-based seals that keep the body perfectly shut when the film is loaded. By messing with these seals, you can create localized leaks that produce interesting flashes or streaks of color and light on your exposure.

How exactly a light leak will show up on your capture is almost impossible to predict. But, for the experimental photographer, that’s the fun bit!

Soft Focus

Even the earliest abstract photographers realized that you could render an otherwise mundane scene visually more interesting by toying with focus.

Instead of narrowing down the focus to a precise, pin-sharp point, as most of us were taught to do, you can achieve soft focus by focusing slightly in front of or behind your main subject. Playing with unusual aperture settings is also a way to bring the depth of field into a “softer” range for your shot.

Some go even further by using specialized lens filters to blur their subjects further.

A closeup of a flower. Color macrophotography using soft focus.

The controversial British photographer-cinematographer David Hamilton became famous for his photo series and movies shot in the 1970s that all feature a very distinctive “impressionist” soft focus look. Allegedly, he achieved this by smearing vaseline all over his camera lenses!

Soft focus is an amazing fit for portraits. Still, the technique can also render still lives and other types of experimental photography in a fascinating fashion!

Intentional Motion Blur

The idea of using motion blur and intentional camera movement is similar to the notion behind soft focus. It is a way of achieving a blurred, more abstract view of your subject that can be aesthetically more interesting (if less precise) than sharp focus.

The only prerequisite for deliberate motion blur is some moving subject. In the case of static subjects, you may try to move your camera instead.

A closeup of flowers, intentionally blurred using intentional camera movement (ICM). An example of color abstract experimental photography.

You can even try shooting from a moving vehicle (as long as it’s safe, of course)! Creating blur is also relatively easy by itself. Simply aim for a long exposure by modifying your shutter speed to blur your surroundings selectively.

Light Painting

Some photographers have further expanded on the idea of creating a picture with light in motion as the main subject. They became interested in developing a technique where long exposures could be used to create shapes and figures out of nothing more than light trails.

This is called painting with light, and it is particularly popular nowadays in the new era of abstract digital photography.

Neon light trails elegantly painting a black backgound. Light painting. Experimental color photography.

Light painting is highly inventive and can really help you unlock your potential. I highly suggest trying it out as one of your first experimental photography techniques!

Double (Triple, Quadruple…) Exposures

Taking a number of exposures on the same frame is another time-tested method to lend any picture elements of daring uniqueness.

A double exposure is considered the most beginner-friendly option. This is because the difficulty of preventing an overblown image increases drastically the more exposures you use.

An abstract photography achieved with multiple exposures. Experimental photography of a lakeside view overlaid with a yellow balloon figure.

Multiple exposures work best when there are large contrasts you want to exploit in your image.

For example, a first (base) frame with lots of dark areas lends itself well to this technique. A brighter second exposure will show brilliantly against the darker backdrop.

If exposing more than two times in total, make sure to graduate your individual exposures to prevent areas that are too bright from washing out large parts of your image.

Shooting Expired Film

If you’ve been dabbling in photography for a while, you have no doubt noticed the expiration dates on packs of film. Owning a roll or two that have “gone bad” is no reason to toss them into the trash, though! A film that’s expired can indeed still be used.

More than that, you can create some stunning experimental photography with it!

A box of expired 127-format film dated 1959. Ilford brand expired film.

How exactly expired film turns out on your final print is pretty much impossible to predict. It depends on the film stock’s chemical makeup, its age, conditions of storage, and countless other factors.

Sometimes, an expired roll can turn out just like a brand-new film!

Other times, crazy chemical reactions can radically alter the look of your image. Using a film like this is definitely a gamble, but one that can produce stunning results.

It also doesn’t require any special prerequisites, making it very beginner-friendly.

Shooting Photographic Paper

Did you know that film isn’t the only thing you can put into your analog camera? Indeed, some photographers like to experiment by using paper in its place.

This is most easily accomplished on cameras that take sheet film in the same size as common paper sizes, such as 4×5″ or 8×10″.

A pile of boxed photographic printing paper. Kodak brand paper that can be used for paper negatives. Experimental photography supplies.

However, by cutting and forming paper in the darkroom, you can custom-fit it to nearly any camera, given the right tools and lots of patience!

Because photographic paper is intended for printing, its chemical properties and the way it captures light differ strongly from the film.

Everything from sharpness and depth of field to development techniques work differently when using paper negatives. The upside is that highly surrealist, experimental pictures can result, making for a rewarding journey!

The Diverse Possibilities of Experimental Photography Gear

Of course, what makes experimental photography so exciting is that it’s not just about how you use your gear but also about what you use to capture images in the first place!

Owing to their anti-traditionalist roots, experimental photographers from all over the world have photographed with a huge variety of non-conventional tools.

Here, we’ll take a look at a few of those to give you some inspiration!

Toy Cameras

A Diana-type toy camera against a white background. An example of a lo-fi, cheap "lomography" camera.

Especially recently, in the wake of the Lomography movement, toy cameras have surged in popularity. Humble in origins, they can often be had for pocket change at yard sales and flea markets.

These kinds of machines usually offer a minimum of controls, bodies made of bakelite, and meniscus (single-element) lenses.

Because achieving sharp focus is difficult and body sealing often very poor on these kinds of cameras, they are fairly frustrating to use for high-definition, professional photography.

However, those same properties make such toy cameras extremely attractive for creatively using techniques like light leaks, motion blur, and soft focus.

The Power of Large-Format Photography

In many ways, large-format photography is king when it comes to experimental photography techniques. Because large-format film only comes in single sheets, developing and processing using advanced techniques becomes a lot easier than with rolls and spools of smaller formats.

A large-format view camera focused on a flower. Focusing screen photography using large format film.

The physical size of the negative also makes it much more convenient to contact print instead of enlarging. That further opens up possibilities for certain post processing techniques which may not work well otherwise.

Selective Focus with Camera and Lens Movements

Using a large-format camera in itself is a totally different experience from what you’re probably used to. It’s many times slower, more antiquated, in a lot of ways, far less convenient.

However, it also offers you unprecedented levels of creative freedom, not just in the darkroom!

Most large-format designs are view cameras, where the lens board and the image plane are linked by bellows and rails. This allows them to move at any angle and distance relative to each other (or at least as far as the bellows allow), unlike regular solid-bodied cameras where the two are always parallel.

By making use of the power of bellows and lens movements, you can create effects of depth, fine selective focus, and much more that is hardly possible with smaller, less flexible gear.

For many, that’s a fair price to pay in exchange for the cumbersome, heavy, and slow nature of large-format photography!

You Don’t Need a Camera to Take Experimental Photos

Some hunt for the most elusive specialist gear to take experimental photographs with. Others choose to go with nothing at all!

That’s right – there is a school of experimental photography that deals with cameraless art, created entirely without the traditional construct of lens, shutter, and such.

For example, by utilizing cyanotypes, you can expose objects directly on paper using sunlight or an artificial UV light source. Essentially, you are “contact exposing” your image, much like contact printing a negative!

A cyanotype print created by placing a flower on photographic paper and exposing in the sun.

This type of art is called a photogram to distinguish it from a photograph taken with a camera. While cyanotypes make a cyan blueprint, you can explore countless other processes that will produce photograms with a different look.

Altering Experimental Photographic Images with Processing Techniques

As I already mentioned, much of the magic behind any experimental image occurs after exposure in post processing. Here are some basic techniques you can use to bring out the most desirable features of your art!

Avant-Garde Printing Processes

In a similar vein to processes like cyanotype photograms, other avant-garde printing techniques can allow artists to experiment wildly with their own vision.

Take, for instance, gum printing. An old photographic process first developed in the 1800s, it doesn’t use silver emulsions like the kinds of mediums we are familiar with today. Instead, it is based on a few different salts and proteins.

Alternative experimental photography created using the gum bichromate process. Alternative film development for experimental photographs.

Experimenting with gum prints is like learning photography all over again. The results are also quite unlike anything else you’ll ever see!

There are countless other processes out there that you can explore, from printing with platinum to developing in red wine (no kidding!). Take your time to explore this strange world and see what sticks with you!

An Experimental Photographer’s Favorite Recipe: The Film Soup

One process that I have grown particularly fond of is the so-called film soup. In souping, you immerse your roll in a homemade “soup” of liquid ingredients after having exposed, but before moving on to developing.

A strip of 35mm film negatives after souping. An example of using household ingredients to transform images for experimental photography.

The ingredients you can soup with can be almost anything. Proven examples include green tea, vinegar, all kinds of spices and herbs, fruit extracts, and more. Your imagination is the limit here!

Souping can create all kinds of different effects, and it’s easy to experiment with, so I would especially recommend this one to beginners.

Painting in the Darkroom

For more advanced and daring photographers, there are techniques like chemograms, or as I like to call them, “darkroom paintings”.

In a chemogram (and other related processes), you paint on your photographic paper in much the same way as you would paint on a canvas. But instead of watercolors, you use developer and other photo chemicals!

This can result in extremely unconventional images, especially when exposing objects in double exposures or in non-traditional settings and angles.

Blending Art Forms and Expanding Your Horizons as an Experimental Photographer

Ultimately, the bases covered in this short guide represent nothing more than simple, abstract techniques to get you started in the world of experimental photographs.

An old SLR camera with photographic prints on a table. Color analog retro photography.

Start with what you’ve learned today and choose to go beyond. Many of history’s most successful experimental photographers grew their portfolios largely by deciding on a unique artistic vision, a framework for their aesthetic output.

I recommend trying to use the techniques we looked at today to construct such a framework. This can give direction to your craft and help you set clear goals.

Most important of all, don’t forget to practice as much as you can! There’s a lot to learn in experimental photography, and none of it will sink in over the long term if you don’t expose yourself to it regularly.

With that, I wish you good luck and a lot of fun experimenting! Till next time!

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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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