It takes a different way of looking at the world to see the abstract that surround us. In essence, a photograph can be considered abstract if it doesn’t represent a subject in a plain way, but instead suggests its meaning through form, color, and line.
There are a couple of reasons why you might want to experiment with abstract photography. First, abstract compositions can be very powerful communicators. For some, this might be a good enough reason. But there’s another reason. You can create abstract images almost anywhere, right at home or just around the block. Unlike landscape shooting, for instance, where you must travel to specific locations to capture different types of scenery, abstract possibilities are all around us.
Different ways of seeing
1. Representational vision
This is one level of seeing, and it’s what people normally do every day when they look around them as they live their lives. We see lots of things, but unless they’re somehow strange or unusual, we tend to ignore them. We see the road, the trees, the clouds, and so on, but we don’t stop to actually look at all the intricate meanings they may have.
Here is an image that represents a tree quite realistically:
By just focusing on the familiar, all too often we walk around and only see what we’re used to seeing and fail to notice the beauty and mystery in all the little things around us. You might say “what a nice tree!”, but unless you stop and really look, you won’t capture its small subtleties.
2. Abstract vision
When you look for abstractions, you notice the details and textures that you usually ignore.
So one day you stop and look at a tree and you begin to think that it’s not just a lollipop shape like kids paint. Now you see the branches and all the wonderful angles and you notice the beautiful contrast between the chunky and thin branches and between straight and arched lines.
This level of seeing doesn’t mean seeing something that’s not there; it’s just noticing the small details that are in front of your eyes.
Here is an image that best reflects all these:
When I look at these branches, I’m amazed by the complexity of the overlapping lines and angles that create a unique harmony. You can almost feel its stillness as the tree waits for spring – it’s not dead, just resting until spring when life will burst again after the winter has passed.
3. Creative vision
Creative vision entails looking even deeper and seeing things not as they appear in the world, but rather as they appear to you. Basically, you’re looking for a deeper meaning in them. This level of perception combines what is actually out there with your inner vision and creates a unique vision through an overlapping of the two.
Below is a much more abstract representation of a tree:
While it still looks somewhat like a tree, the image reflects a less literal appearance and instead focuses on other elements like shape, perspective and light.
Ansel Adams wrote a brilliant description of the creative process that I think applies well to abstract photography: “The visualization of a photograph involves the intuitive search for meaning, shape, form, texture, and the projection of the image-format on the subject. The image forms in the mind – is visualized… The creative artist is constantly roving the worlds without, and creating new worlds within.”
The key elements of abstract photography
The three basic elements of abstract photography are form, color, and line.
Form serves as the structure upon which you build an abstract image. Basically, form is the core of an image, while color and lines complement the composition. Therefore, you must start an abstract image with a nice form and objects that have interesting or dynamic shapes.
Here is an example:
Color grabs the attention and triggers the viewer’s imagination. If the viewer’s attention wanders, saturated or intense colors tend to bring it back.
Lines add even more interest to an image by guiding the viewer’s eyes through the frame. There are several ways to use lines creatively in an abstract image. You can use curves to direct the viewer’s attention toward the center of the image, as in the example below:
In this image, you can see how curves tend to guide your attention toward the yellow center of the flower. This strengthens the visual weight of the image and creates a stronger composition.
Another way that lines add interest to an image is to follow no rule at all. In the example below, you can see how there is no apparent rule of composition. The lines do not point at anything in particular. Instead, they simply flow in a graceful and mysterious way.
In the next example, the image has no center of interest, but the lines and curves still manage to lead the eyes throughout the frame:
Composition in abstract photography
Composition refers to how elements in an image are distributed with respect to each other. Abstract photographs require patterns, textures, lines and geometric shapes to create rhythms, mystery and even some unease. Creating abstract images, in a way, is about connecting with the deeper levels of the imagination.
Abstract compositions provide a unique chance to connect what’s visible in the world with the subtle, imaginary realms of infinite possibility. To some extent, abstract photography bridges the gap between the ordinary world and the viewer’s imagination by removing representations.
For example, you can isolate objects from their usual context, shoot at a very small or very large scale, or use layers and multiple exposures to create unique perspectives.
You can discover abstract mysteries right at your feet in simple manhole covers, electric wires and the humblest foliage:
The art of subtraction
People tend to respond to abstract compositions on an emotional level. So, to create good abstract compositions, you need to remove everything that does not support the viewer’s emotional response. This process is called subtraction.
Let’s say you’re looking at an image of a rock and the shadow that it creates. Now, what would happen if you take out the rock and just contemplate the shadow? How much would you strengthen the sense of mystery by eliminating the rock and compelling viewers to use their imagination to figure it out?
Great photography is all about communicating emotions. Your job is to cut out anything that does not trigger emotions. Think about emotion as the driving force of the image and composition as the structure that delivers that emotion.
So, how can you create a powerful image? Here are the three basic steps:
– Choose a desired emotion
– Identify the elements that support that emotion and bring them into the frame
– Eliminate everything else from the image
Here is a good example: In the first image you can see a pretty usual representation of the sandstone scenery found in Zion National Park, Utah:
Next, we have a more abstract composition created using the subtraction method. The emotion triggered is one of grace and beauty revealed by the lines of the sediments and the color of the rock that enhanced the curves:
In this case, the subtraction method required a proper camera positioning and close-up framing. A short walk around the rock revealed the best position that gave the rock this interesting appearance. Plus, the rock was cropped pretty close, which eliminated any distracting elements, (e.g. small dark areas, bushes, etc.) and made it appear as a giant formation.
Another good example of using the subtraction technique:
The key is to isolate objects from their ordinary context and focus on the element by itself. Remember the manhole cover showed earlier? You know it’s a manhole cover, but you don’t normally see it like that when you walk by it on the street. Another creative way to make abstract compositions is to shoot at a very small scale, like in the two examples below:
These are extreme flower close-ups and if you really look, you’ll see them as being entirely separated from the plant and forming a world of their own.
By removing some details and making things more difficult to recognize, you enhance the mystery that grabs the viewer’s attention and communicates an emotion:
As you can see, opportunities to create abstract compositions can be found everywhere around us.
Abstract images can gracefully connect the ordinary with the more subtle realms of the imagination. All it takes is experimenting with different ways of seeing and following your creative vision, by allowing your imagination to mix with your surroundings.