Abstract photography is the art of creating a non-representative photo that relies on texture, colour, shape or lighting for its effect. Ideally, it should not be immediately apparent what the subject of the photo is (though it can be fun for the viewers of the photo to eventually work out what they’re looking at). The great thing about abstract photography is that all you need to create striking images can often be found in your own home. With a bit of imagination and the following tips, it won’t take long for you to be shooting abstracts like you’ve being doing it for years.
Abstract photography doesn’t necessarily require much in the way of equipment. Abstract photos can shot handheld if need be, though a tripod does help keep the camera steady if ambient light is low. I often just find a flat surface to rest the camera on when shooting indoors. A pile of books is quick to assemble and, with care, just as steady as a a tripod.
What is useful is a macro lens, or telephoto with a decent close-focusing capability. The trick to abstract photography is excluding details that make the photo more representative. Wide-angle lenses generally make it more difficult to exclude visual clues, unless you get so close to your subject that you’re almost touching it. (Or unless your subject is huge…)
Flash is useful, but not essential. It’s possible to press bedside lamps – or better still, an Anglepoise lamp or similar – into service as a source of illumination. (Setting the white-balance to match.) White card is useful to ‘bounce’ light into shadows to even out contrast, or to block light to create interesting shadows across your subject.
The direction and quality of lighting is arguably more important than the source. Window light is one readily available source in a house. A north-facing window will create soft light all day long (except possibly at either end of the day in summer). A south-facing window will create a more direct and harder light, particularly midday when the sun is more likely to be shining in through the window. Side-lighting will help to reveal texture, so this works well for rough or detailed subjects. Backlighting is ideal if your subject is translucent or if you want to create silhouettes.
Finding the subject
Kitchens are great places to look for abstract subjects. You don’t have to look too far to find a piece of equipment or utensil that, from a suitably close distance, will look abstract. Think how odd something as familiar as a fork would be if you could only see a small fraction of its surface area. Bathrooms are another good source of potential subjects, from close-ups of toothbrush heads or water running from a tap.
Rain on windows
Raindrop-spattered windows are great for abstract photography. However, you have to be quick as raindrops generally don’t hold their shape for long as they tend to run downwards thanks to gravity. Use a relatively high ISO, a large aperture and a fast shutter speed to freeze any potential movement. The use of a large aperture also limits depth of field, helping to keep the world outside the window out-of-focus. The longer the lens you use, or the closer you can get to the window, the better. A window that isn’t vertical will retain drops for longer. Roof windows that follow the angle of the roof are great, the sunroof of a car is even better.
Lights. Camera. Action!
Now that the longer nights are on their way (at least here in the northern hemisphere) the more opportunity there is to use artificial light sources to create abstract photos. The simplest option is to de-focus your lens so that your light source is out-of-focus. This works best when you have a number of light sources clustered together, such as a string of Christmas lights on a tree. This also works with street lighting, particularly when using a telephoto lens. (A wide-angle lens will tend to push the apparent distance of the lights further apart, a telephoto will bring them closer together.
Another option is to zoom burst. This is when you alter the focal length of a zoom lens during an exposure. The shutter speed needs to be relatively lengthy – at least two seconds or more – in order to give you time to turn the zoom ring on the lens. However, shooting lights is most effective when the ambient light is relatively dim, such as at dusk. At this time of day, the use of a low ISO setting and a mid-range aperture is generally enough to achieve the right shutter speed. If not, use an ND filter to achieve the right exposure. When shooting, turn the zoom ring as smoothly as possible from one extreme of its range to either. Ideally you want to time the turning so that it takes the same length of time as the exposure. A few practise runs is generally all it takes to get it right.
Getting a wiggle on
Similar to the zoom burst is intentional camera movement (ICM). This is when you deliberately move your camera during an exposure. (And so also requires a relatively long shutter speed.) There is no right or wrong way to use the ICM technique – try moving fast or slow, jerkily or smoothly. Varying your technique will create a wider variety of images. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous you could even combine the technique of zoom burst with ICM for more crazily abstract results.