Abstract photography is a style of photography that involves minimalistic, minimalist or even symbolic imagery. It can be a subtle approach or a bold one, but the end result is usually a photo with very little visual content.
I’ve personally been shooting in this style for years now, and I love it. The images tend to pack a strong emotional punch because there’s so little else going on.
In this article, I will show you how to get started with abstract photography.
1. Once You Remove the Subject, What’s Left?
The subject of your photograph is only one part of a much larger picture. It’s true that “intangibles” like composition, mood, and emotion are often the most important aspects of a photograph.
No doubt, your subject has an impact on these elements. If you’re photographing a happy couple at a wedding, the overall mood of the photo will be upbeat and positive. In other words, you don’t have to only photograph people at weddings to take photos that are pleasant and cheerful. As a result, the underlying mood of your photograph is adaptable and not inextricably linked to a specific subject.
In spite of this, there is no denying that when you take abstract photos, you lose a significant part of the image. You would be justified in firing a reporter who only takes abstract photos of new legislation being signed if that loss is essential.
Removing the subject doesn’t ruin other types of photography, and in fact, it can improve it. It’s still a great time to be an abstract photographer because there are so many useful resources out there:
+ Light: Bright versus dark, harsh versus gentle
+ Color: Warm versus cool, vibrant versus subdued
+ Texture: Smooth, rough, hard, soft, and countless variations
+ Composition: Balanced, imbalanced, dynamic, static, open, closed, busy, simple
+ Emotion: Any mood you can imagine, born of the elements above
Abstract photos can still hint at a subject, such as nature or an industrial scene, which can alter the mood of the image as well. To summarize, abstract photographers have a wide range of tools at their disposal for conveying their ideas.
2. Semi-Abstract Photography
Take a moment to define abstract photography before continuing. Describe your interpretation of the phrase.
Is a picture considered “abstract” if you can’t tell what the subject is despite your best efforts? What if you have a basic understanding of what the photo depicts but are more interested in the image’s lines, shapes, and overall structure?
Abstract and semi-abstract photography can be distinguished by the use of these two adjectives.
Many of the images in this article are semi-abstract, which means that when you first see them, you’ll have some idea of what they depict. Unlike some abstract paintings, these don’t have a clear subject matter other than the lines or colors on the canvas.
Canon EOS Rebel T7i + EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM @ 118mm, ISO 100, 1/125, f/16.0
For this reason, semi-abstract photos are more common than completely abstract ones. There are very few pin-sharp photographs that are so unexpected that it is impossible to figure out what the subject is, especially if you ignore images that are blurred and distorted beyond all recognition.
Although this is a negative, it’s not completely out of the question. There are times when it’s possible to tell that a photograph depicts a building, but that doesn’t mean it’s an abstract photograph devoid of any literal elements. Work that is semi-abstract can have a wide range of strong characteristics.
NIKON D7000 + 24mm f/1.4 @ 24mm, ISO 100, 1/8, f/16.0
Instead of composing your scene as if it were a literal collection of objects, consider your scene as an abstract collection of lines, shapes, colors, textures, and melodies that all come together to form your chosen emotional message. The literality of your scene should almost be a secondary consideration.
This is a recurring theme in many of the photographs that I admire. While the photo may depict a cloud passing over a mountain, something about the composition or the photo as a whole feels detached from the subject matter. You get the impression that you aren’t looking at the cloud or mountain at all, but rather their shapes and tones.
Again, this does not imply that it is always ideal, such as in documentary work or photos where the subject is so impressive or unusual that it already completely anchors the picture.. the image.. However, even when you’re not hiding anything about the subject, having a “abstract mindset” can be beneficial in some situations.
3. Abstract Photography Tips
3.1 Look For Shapes, Not For Subjects
The aesthetics and compositional elements of abstract photography are more important than the subject matter when telling your story through photography.
So, take a deep breath and let go a little bit. Look at the world in terms of lines, shapes, colors, textures, shadows, and highlights rather than individual objects to photograph.
Instead of clouds, the sky is filled with bright blobs. There are no windows or terraces to be seen when looking at a building because the repetition of geometric shapes is all there is. Instead of including a field of grass in your photo, look for a swath of green to anchor your composition. Regardless of what’s underneath, arrange those shapes and colors in a way that they complement one another.
Now you can use all of the previous elements: light, color, texture, composition and emotion. This is where the fun begins. Your abstract photography will improve as you develop the ability to “see beyond the subject.”
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 95mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/16.0
Although this image shows a sand dune, I only snapped a photo here in the first place because of the checkerboard pattern: dark and light, blue and gold.
3.2. Play With Post-Processing
Due to the fact that only you know how the original subject appeared in abstract photography, you have a lot more creative freedom when editing your images.
It’s not a good idea to go overboard with every abstract photograph you take, or even the majority of your abstract photographs. That is something that is determined by your personal preferences and post-processing capabilities. However, this is your chance to use wild colors or have more control over how your images appear.
For me, abstract photography serves as a justification (in a figurative sense) for taking high-contrast black-and-white photos that appear normal, or at the very least, aren’t overdone. When we can’t tell what the subject of an image is, we’re more lenient with its “realness.”
NIKON D810 + 70-200mm f/2.8 @ 180mm, ISO 160, 1/500, f/10.0
3.3. Isolate A Slice Of Life
There are numerous ways to take abstract photos, but they are all based on simplifying things to the utmost. Cut out everything that doesn’t add to your message from the scene in front of you, even the ability to identify your subject if that’s necessary.
So, how do you make an image more abstract by removing context? Most of the time, it’s about zooming in to focus on a specific feature or getting close enough to your subject to eliminate distracting elements from the shot.
The reason macro photography works so well for abstract art is precisely because of its close focus (more on that later). For those who want to take abstract photos but don’t know where to begin, focus on a small detail of your subject that best captures its essence.
NIKON D7000 + 17-55mm f/2.8 @ 55mm, ISO 1000, 1/50, f/2.8
3.4. Embrace The Mystery
Abstraction is used in abstract photography to keep the subject hidden from the viewer. If the subject isn’t clearly visible, it could be anything. That element of surprise can be a useful one.
When done well, abstract photography can elicit thoughts and feelings that necessitate further investigation. With more time spent looking at your work, viewers may pick up on details they might otherwise overlook. Meaning they are more likely to be moved by the image in some cases.
It’s a useful tool to use in some cases, but it’s not something you have to do all the time. More people will be interested and try to study every little detail to discover the photo’s hidden secrets if you look for ways to eliminate context. It’s a technique you can use to improve the visual appeal of your photography in certain situations.
Does this photo depict a sand dune in the distance, or a hill covered with snow? If you don’t know the background story here, it can be tricky to tell.
3.5. Be Willing to Experiment
When it comes to abstract photography, there are fewer restrictions on experimenting than in other genres.
It’s not uncommon to follow a formula to get good photos of a particular type, such as the right combination of pose and composition with the right lighting and the right focal length and aperture for portrait photography. That notion is completely disregarded in abstract photography.
It’s as if you’re starting all over with photography; there are no guidelines to follow. You don’t have to, and you shouldn’t, go through the same process every time you take a picture. You have more creative and technical freedom to convey your emotional message in the way you see fit. Photographers of non-abstract subjects could benefit from using this technique more frequently.)
Try new things if you’re interested in abstract photography. There’s a lot of room in this genre to experiment and see what works. Expect the unexpected when it comes to your outcomes.
COOLPIX A @ 18.5mm, ISO 100, 3 seconds, f/8.0
4. Ideas And Inspiration
Take a look at this list if you want to go out and take some abstract photos but don’t know where to begin. I’ve put together a list of about 30 ideas for great abstract photography subjects, many of which can be done even at home! This is by no means an exhaustive list, and you should come up with a few more on your own, but it should get you started.
4.1. Macro Photography
It’s no surprise that abstract macro photography has grown in popularity, given how foreign the small world already seems to us. A plant, animal, or object is already shown differently than what we see in our daily lives when we focus on it up close.
+ There are many different shapes and sizes of water droplets, making them an excellent subject for abstract photography. Water is the best friend of the abstract photographer.
+ When we look closely at flowers (and other plants), we can see textures and details that aren’t normally visible.
+ I love photographing the patterns in rocks, from the soft and gentle to the angular and geometric. + Rock textures. Occasionally, it’s difficult to gauge the true size of your subject.
+ Feathers are a popular subject for abstract photography because of their interesting patterning and vibrant colors.
+ The interesting colors and patterns often found in bubbles can also become the subject of your photograph when using this technique.
NIKON D7000 + 105mm f/2.8 @ 105mm, ISO 100, 1/40, f/3.2
4.2. Close-Up Photography
Taking a step back in the same way as macro photography gives you a wider view of your subject, close-up photography does the same thing. Close-up photos, on the other hand, remove context in order to pique a viewer’s interest. Move closer to your subject until all the irrelevant details have vanished before using a macro lens or other specialized equipment.
+ Close-ups of people’s hands, shoulders, arms, lips, and other small details are common. People Abstract (or semi-abstract) images are those that reveal part of the subject but do not reveal the entire picture at a glance.
+ Anything can be “abstracted” in the studio, including office supplies and silverware. If you play around with things like mirrors and backgrounds, lighting, and post-production, you can give ordinary objects a personality all their own.
+ A close-up can include scenes from nature, even if they don’t meet the macro definition. From ice patterns to tree bark textures, the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Canon EOS 80D + EF-S18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM @ 18mm, ISO 100, 1/50, f/7.1
4.3. Long Exposure
Anything that moves will be blurred in a photograph. You can achieve the same effect even if your object doesn’t move by adding camera motion. Because we don’t see the world as a blur, abstract photography has a significant advantage. A long exposure reveals motion that would otherwise be obscured by the scene’s static conditions.
+ Water is an obvious subject for blurring because water is so ubiquitous and always in motion. Make use of a long exposure when photographing water features such as rivers, waterfalls, and the ocean. The results can be both beautiful and eerie.
+ Clouds: They’re technically made of water, but their motion is fascinating, so mention should be made of them. A long shutter speed combined with a windy day produces stunning abstract images of the clouds’ swirling patterns.
+ Photographing moving objects with lights such as cars, trains, boats, ferris wheels and fireworks will yield interesting light trails if you use a slow shutter speed and wait for the results.
+ For the final touch, if your subject is stationary, you can always add motion blur to the image in post-processing (or even in camera) to get an interesting result. If you’re interested in learning more about motion blur, we recently published a guide on the subject.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 78mm, ISO 100, 1/5, f/7.1
We see most of the world at eye level or lower most of the time. Only from a very high vantage point will we look out into the distance, but how often do we look directly down at the ocean, a mountain, or even a river? To do abstract work effectively, aerial photography is essential. It offers viewers a unique perspective on the world.
+ Waves on the ocean: The ocean is a fascinating aerial subject because of the way the light and weather interact there. Photographs of coastlines and other ocean scenes can have an interesting abstract feel when taken from a drone, helicopter, or plane.
+ Aerial views of river valleys show how their fractal nature is similar to that of tree branches, blood vessels, and fabric swaths. My personal favorite subject to photograph from the air is rivers because I enjoy abstract aerial photography so much.
+ Urban scenes: From above, man-made objects such as skyscrapers and roads can look fascinating and otherworldly. Legally, this may be more difficult to accomplish, but some cities offer flight-seeing tours that allow you to take aerial photos of the city.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 120mm, ISO 900, 1/800, f/6.3
4.5. Landscape Photography
It’s not uncommon for natural patterns to inspire artists to turn them into abstract works of art.
+ Did I mention that sand dunes make for excellent abstract subject matter? Lines, shapes, and textures with sweeping patterns create simple but dynamic compositions. There aren’t many subjects that abstract artists find more interesting.
+ Rock formations: Occasionally, you’ll come across unusual rock formations like slot canyons and sandstone strata. This is probably what you’re picturing if you’ve ever seen Antelope Canyon photos.
+ Nighttime landscapes: When the moon and stars illuminate the world, everything appears surreal. Regardless of the subject matter, the mood that nighttime imparts to a landscape intrigues me. After the sun has set, don’t limit yourself to taking pictures of the Milky Way with a wide angle lens; look for more abstract subjects you can isolate.
+ With a telephoto lens, you can bring out small details in any landscape shot, elevating them to the status of focal point. Use a long lens when photographing anything from mountains to oceans if you want to focus on a particular aspect of the scene, such as the lighting, colors, texture, or shape that would otherwise be lost in the overall composition.
NIKON D800E + 70-200mm f/4 @ 86mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/16.0
Abstract photography’s ultimate subject, shadows reflect an object’s shape while hiding most of its other details. I’m not going to go into all the possibilities for abstract shadow photography here. However, there are a few exceptions to this rule that you should be aware of.
+ Capturing a scene as a silhouette is a great way to reveal new layers beneath the surface. The shape of your subject against its background is all you need; no other details, colors, or effects will distract from it.
+ With black-and-white photography, you have the added benefit of simplifying your subject’s structure even further. Abstract images with dark, high-contrast shadows and a black-and-white conversion are very common.
Canon EOS 80D + EF-S18-55mm f/4-5.6 IS STM @ 31mm, ISO 100, 1/50, f/8.0
Urban areas are a photographer’s dream because they provide endless opportunities for creating large-scale abstract compositions using repeating geometric elements and various interesting textures.
+ You’ll find a number of architectural scenes with a sense of mystery, whether they’re indoors or out. Despite their size, buildings are still considered abstract even when photographed. Look up and down to get a different perspective on an otherwise ordinary scene by varying your camera angle.
+ Look for geometrical details in cities, even if you aren’t shooting large architectural scenes. This can be anything from a beautiful scene in nature to a pattern on the ground that catches your eye.
+ Zoom in with telephotos instead of wide-angle lenses when photographing architecture. When using a telephoto lens, you can take advantage of the wider field of view to capture interesting patterns in the landscape. That’s a great composition for capturing abstract images.
NIKON D7000 + 50mm f/1.4 @ 50mm, ISO 100, 10 seconds, f/11.0
You can experiment with out-of-focus blur in your photos to create an abstract effect in addition to motion blur. You can do this with any subject, but defocused photos of lights and colors are particularly interesting. Depending on the lens, some out-of-focus effects will be more noticeable than others. Some photographers even modify their own lenses to achieve the desired effect. See our bokeh article for more information.
4.9. Light Painting
Light painting photography is a great way to create truly abstract photos, with no discernible subject matter. For interesting patterns, use a flashlight (or any other light source) and a long exposure time in a dark environment.
NIKON D7000 + 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 @ 18mm, ISO 100, 25 seconds, f/9.0
4.10. Film Photography
In film photography (and related darkroom work), you may be able to experiment with effects that are difficult to duplicate digitally. It’s possible to make abstract “photos” in the darkroom, for example, by illuminating the paper with a bright light and laying down various objects on top of it.
Everyday objects, such as paper towels or water droplets on a sheet of glass, can be moved around or held at different angles to produce a wide range of results. After that, you can create intriguing abstract images by altering the development process (for example, by only developing part of the paper or by developing it more in certain areas than others).
NIKON D810 + 150-600mm f/5-6.3 @ 850mm, ISO 100, 1/50, f/11.0
Abstract photography ideas can also be found in other areas of science, such as astronomy and physics, where you can capture a wide range of unique images that challenge our perceptions of reality.
+ An intriguing subject for abstract photography is the microscopic world, which can only be seen under a microscope. While this type of photo isn’t accessible to everyone, if you do, take advantage of the opportunity.
+ The night sky has been captured in some stunning abstract photography, from comets to nebulae. Even though specialized equipment is required for much of this photography, there are some subjects that will work well with the cameras and lenses you already own (such as a solar eclipse).
+ Light wavelengths: When it comes to taking pictures, who says you have to stick to visible light only? Certain light wavelengths are expensive to photograph, but the results can be astounding if you have access to the necessary equipment. Even common infrared cameras can reveal a world that is vastly different from what we are used to seeing, making them ideal for creating abstract photography.
Hopefully, the tips in this article will give you a good foundation to start practicing abstract photography, a genre that is almost limitless in its possibilities. If you’re looking for inspiration, too, go through the ideas above and see which ones strike a chord with you.