Why You Should Give Abstract Photography a Try

“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.”  – Minor White

“Empty Head” – Photo by Minor White

“I like it, but what IS it?”  That might be the kind of response you’d get from many people when you show them an abstract photograph.  Perhaps it’s like jazz music, it has its true fans, others might like just a few songs, and then there are some people that don’t like it and just don’t “get it.”  So should you as an aspiring photographer try your hand at abstract photography?  At the risk of some people “just not getting it,” I believe so, if for no other reason than to expand your skills and challenge your creativity.

An abstract image is not a literal representation of a scene or object like a flower, a landscape, or a person which is readily identifiable by the viewer.  Instead, it is a way to look at the world creatively, emphasizing the shape, form, tone, color, texture, pattern, composition, and overall “feel” of the image, rather than simply a visual record of a scene or object.  The viewer may be able to identify the subject, or not, – that’s not the point.  Even when the subject is identifiable, the abstract photographer strives to show it in a different way than it would ordinarily be seen.

Photo by Dan Mottaz

Why make Abstract Photos?

Let’s discuss some reasons you might want to explore Abstract Photography.

Expand Creativity –

First is the means by which it will expand your creativity.  You will learn there are no boring subjects.  Even the simplest or ordinary of things can make for a great image when seen through the eyes of a creative abstract photographer.  When you turn your focus from accurately making a photo that represents the object to finding ways to look at the subject in unique ways, your creativity will be engaged and you will begin to see things with new eyes.

Photo by Rick Ohnsman
Create something Uniquely Yours
The patterns of nature are an endless source for abstract photos. Photo by Rick Ohnsman




How many landscape photographers want to travel to the iconic locations and make the same photo they’ve seen others do, to get that classic shot of the _______ (fill in the blank).  That’s ok and if they are creative, they may be able to make a shot with different light, a slightly different angle, or something so it doesn’t look like a thousand others.  When making abstract photos however, there is little chance anyone else will have an image like yours.  Making a stunning shot of the simplest of things and infusing it with your unique vision can be truly satisfying.

Compositional skills still apply when making abstract images. – Photo by RuthAnn Greene.
Polish your Composition Skills

When the “raw materials” of your shot are form, structure, light, shadow, line, color and such, you strip away trying to capture the subject and instead can concentrate on pure composition.  Training yourself to see the basic components of an image will help you better use these techniques when the subject is not an abstract.

Common household objects and a little imagination are all that's needed to make abstract photos. What do you see here? Photo by Rick Ohnsman
Opportunities are Everywhere!
When your cellphone camera is in your pocket, you're ready when an abstract photo appears to you. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman

For many kinds of photography, you must go where the “action is,” where the scenery is beautiful, when the light is just right, or where you can use a studio and model to get the look you seek.  When doing abstract photos, everyday objects can become your subjects, the kitchen counter works just fine as a place to shoot, there’s no travel required and whatever free time you have works just fine.  In fact, you will find many times abstract photos will “find you” when you are open to possibilities and employ a creative eye.  Many of my abstract photos have presented themselves while I was shooting something completely different and just saw how the light was playing on something, how the shadows fell, how a reflection altered the image or how the colors popped under certain light.  I have even had moments when while having coffee, the morning sun came through the window and made interesting shadows on the wall.  If there’s any danger in embracing abstract photography it’s that the more you practice it, the more you will see things.  Soon, you will attract the curious stares of strangers who wonder why you are on your hands and knees taking photos of cracks in the sidewalk!

Olive oil and water are “liquid fun” when making abstracts. Check out my article on this technique! – Photo by Rick Ohnsman
No Rules, Just Right!

Abstract photography throws most of the rules out the window.  Sure, there may be times when some of the compositional rules used in regular photography may help you make a more pleasing image… or not.  This is your world, your vision, and who’s to say what is “right?”  People will know if the sky or a skin tone is a little too green in a photo or the colors oversaturated in a landscape, but with abstract images, you can, for the most part, do your own thing.  Often the final image you create will evolve through the shooting and editing process, the fun being in not always knowing where you’re going when you begin a shot.

How does this image make you feel? That can be the power of an abstract image. – Photo by Harold Hall
It’s All About How it Feels

You’ve heard the photo quote, “Don’t Shoot How it Looks, Shoot how it Feels.”  Yes, that’s a good thing to keep in mind for any photo, but with Abstract Photography it’s even more important.  Without the connection to the literal subject, the viewer will more respond to the almost subconscious factors in your photo.  Abstract images can appeal on an emotional level using only shape, color, and the other creative elements you have to work with independent of a “subject.”

What are some Techniques for Making Abstract Photos?

It's not about the subject, but rather the shapes, tones, textures and colors. That's the essence of abstract photography. Photo by Harold Hall

As I previously said, there are no rules for making abstracts and what you consider an abstract is up to you.  There are some things that work however that might help you:

  • Simplify – Often an abstract image works best when it is simple. Isolate the subject, avoid clutter, eliminate distractions.
  • One might not typically think to make a photo of a pile of old tires, but moving in close makes this about shapes, lines, tones and textures. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

    Get Closer – To lose the connection with the literal, try a tight shot of a small part of the object, letting the viewer perhaps see something in a whole new way. Rather than show the whole toothbrush, how about a tight macro of just the bristles?  Maybe a tight shot of the texture of a leaf, or the bark on a tree.  Explore views of things people don’t ordinarily see.

  • Get Further – An extreme example of this can be aerial shots. The patterns of the ground can be fascinating.

    Try a long shutter speed and purposely moving the camera, a technique called a “swish pan” to make abstract images like this. Photo by Rick Ohnsman
  • Create Some Motion – We typically work hard not to have blurry photos, but when making abstracts, blurred shots may be what we seek. Moving the camera during a long exposure for a “swish-pan” shot or leaving the shutter open to a longer time to allow things to blur or leave light trails are techniques to try.
  • Look for Reflections – What and how things reflect in shiny objects can be a great source of abstract photos.  Water, metallic surfaces, mirrors or glass, anything that can reflect light and possibility distort the image all offer great abstract possibilities.
  • When seeking subjects for abstracts, try unique perspectives. Sometimes your photo might be straight up. Photo by Patti McGarvey.

    Unique Perspectives – Too often, photographers take their images holding their camera at eye level or from a tripod, also at eye level.  This advice would apply to all photographers, but especially to Abstract Photographers – Shake it Up! Start looking at the world from unique perspectives, get high, get low, birds-eye or worm’s eye view, look through things, straight up or down, whatever you have to do to get a unique view.  The whole idea of abstract photography is to break with the literal and seeing things from angles not normally seen is a prime way to do it.

Photo by Rick Ohnsman

What Kinds of the Subjects Lend themselves to Abstracts?

Abstracts can be right at your feet as this shot on the beach shows. Photo by Rick Ohnsman

When you shoot to create an abstract image, the only limits are your imagination.  That said, here are perhaps some things to jump-start your creative exploration:

  • Patterns of Nature
  • Reflections

    Architecture can provide an abundance of abstract photo opportunities. Photographer Greg Stringham added a little reflection at the bottom to further enhance the look.
  • Architecture
  • Light and shadow

    The light through the window blinds, rotated sideways for a different look. Photo by Rick Ohnsman
  • Patterns
  • Textures

    This started as smoke photography and then was flipped, mirrored, and colored in the computer. Check out my article on Smoke Photography. Photo by Rick Ohnsman
  • Smoke
  • Household objects

    A macro lens can open a whole new world of abstract image opportunities. Photo by Ernest Shook.
  • Macro
  • Light Painting
  • Bokeh
  • Blurred motion

    Weathered and worn objects can make nice abstracts. – Photo by Rick Ohnsman
  • Old, weathered, or worn objects
  • Liquids
  • Mechanical things

    Rock on! Get out there and make some Abstract Photos! – Photo by Dan Mottaz

Just Do It!

My personal opinion is that if you’ve not tried abstract photography, you’re missing out.  I’ve mentioned in past articles that I am an active member of the Boise (Idaho) Camera Club.  We have taken to having “Abstract Fridays” on our club Facebook page and it’s always a treat to see what the other members will post each week.  The images in this article that are not mine are from fellow club members, many of them posted on past Fridays.

Abstract photography is truly a way to express your creative vision, to open your eyes to things you’ve never noticed before and to make the unseen seen.  Finding the wonder and beauty in all things and sharing that with others is one of the joys of photography.  There’s no reason to let your camera sit with the excuse that “there’s nothing good to photograph.”  You are only limited by your imagination.  Now as the slogan goes – Just Do It!

Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes….Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.”
― Arshile Gorky

My friend and fellow camera club member, Harold Hall has an outstanding collection of Abstract Photos.    Go check out his work!



12 thoughts on “Why You Should Give Abstract Photography a Try”

  1. James Fernandes

    Your article expresses what I’ve always tried to tell someone when they would ask me what type of pictures I took. I really found it hard to find the words, but I never thought of it as abstract. It was just a different way of looking at things that people would walk by every day. I saw little value in taking the iconic photo of a place that hundreds, thousands have done before me, unless it was just to show someone where I was. I would enjoy it when I would be lining up a shot a someone would be watching me and trying to see exactly what it was I was photographing. Thanks for a very interesting piece.

  2. The DNA of some people will not allow them to simply enjoy the beauty or art of a photo. They must know what the photo is of and if they cannot relate to it, they do not like it. The photographers in this collection of abstracts certainly a wide range of subjects and broad imaginations. For me, it is OK to challenge the viewer or leave them mystified as to the precise subject of the photo. I may even prefer it. Thank for sharing your techniques.

  3. Josephine Earley

    Thank you for this article! It’s what photography is all about! A different perspective, a new way to look at things.

  4. Love the article. This actually happens to be one of my favorite forms of photography. Subjects are plentiful and it really encourages looking at the world in a manner that you might otherwise not.

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