Learn to See Abstractly

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Learning to see abstractly is one great way to add interest to your images. One of our forum members Andrew Raimist (see his blog here and flickr account here) submitted the following tutorial and images on the topic.

Learn to see abstractly by looking for geometrical forms and compelling compositions despite the “subject matter”. A good way to sidestep preconceived images is to consider a subject that’s commonly photographed, a well-known icon.

To learn to “see creatively” we should approach the subject in a more personal yet more detached manner as if you were a child experiencing it for the first time. This manner of “seeing” isn’t natural for many. We “know” what the Statue of Liberty, Washington Monument, and Gateway Arch “look like.” We need to reconsider these subjects “abstractly” as two-dimensional forms without reference to its well-known image.

Arch base

Look for suggestive forms, shapes, and lines for creatively framing you image. The actual “subject” is secondary. Your task is creating a compelling photograph. Use ambiguity to achieve a meaningful level of abstraction. By abstraction, I don’t mean, “Something no one can possibly identify.” Rather I mean forms suggestive of other things eliciting emotional reactions.

Frame the subject from an unusual viewpoint or limit the image to a fragment of the subject. Work to perceive the two-dimensional forms displayed on your screen as an interesting composition on its own grounds.

arch

The above view of the Gateway Arch was taken looking up one leg and then adjusting my view until the arch’s top touched the corner of the frame.

It takes a focused effort and intentional experimentation to find new ways of perceiving things you “already know.”

View from the Arch

A DSLR’s LCD display is helpful. Use the framed forms in the display to test possible compositions. Look for shapes suggestive of other objects with multiple references like an ear, tongue, road, or other identifiable form.

A higher density of references enhances a photograph’s potential richness and power. Try shooting in series.. Become fully engaged visually and physically. Move around adjusting view, position, zoom, etc. Continue exploring alternative viewpoints until you feel perhaps you’ve accomplished a step in the right direction. Evaluate your images later on a monitor rather than trying to prejudge what is good or bad on site.

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  • I believe that once a new photographer truly learns how to ‘see’ his subject as Andrew explains in this post, there is no holding them back. Once you ‘get it’, there is no turning back. After learning how to compose well, it’s difficult not to compose well if that makes any sense.

    Andrew, I try to make objects lead off into the corner of the shots also…somehow it just completes the shot, and makes it ‘feel’ right. Great post!

    Here is a link to some of my abstract-style images taken recently.

  • When I started taking photos, the first thing for me was architectural abstracts.
    It was easy for – My only guideline was to always try and remember that photos are 2D so I pictured my surrounding in the same way.
    After learning to “alter” my vision according to desired result, I tried to implement the same rules on different things, like nature for example. It worked 🙂

    Here is New York in semi-abstract http://www.ilanbresler.com/2008/07/simcity.html

    And here is nature shot – http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/02/fractures.html

  • Thank you for putting this so well into perspective.

    For some reason I also appear to have this “into the corner” taste for composition.

    I also find that breaking the horizon, shooting into diagonal by trying to have another line that the horizon aligned with a border of the frame (a perspective from the side of a building for instance) gives more dynamism to the result.

    Like in this album for instance.

  • Too many link on my previous comment apparently, so It’s awaiting moderation. My bad :S I’ll leave only one.

    When I started taking photos, the first thing for me was architectural abstracts.
    I found an easy technique – My only guideline was to always try and remember that photos are 2D so I pictured my surrounding in the same way.
    After learning to “alter” my vision according to desired result, I tried to implement the same rules on different things, like nature for example. It worked 🙂

    Here is New York in semi-abstracthttp://www.ilanbresler.com/2008/07/simcity.html

  • This tutorial on abstraction was clear, informative, and interesting. And your photos clearly illustrated your point. Thanks for the information. Well done.

  • I recommend your tutorials to a lot of beginner photographers as it is really clear and easy to follow. Once they master thier compositions, they never look back.Thanks

  • Well, I must be doing something right… I have one from the Arch very similar to the one you have here! I took this 11/07.

    Great article! I need to be looking for more abstract shot opportunities!

  • Bim

    Good article. I always take my photos abstractly. Lining up things and looking at the contrast between different buildings and objects.

  • This is one of those things I could definitely work on… I seem to get stuck in a rut of shooting from the same angles or perspectives!

  • Solo

    I am fairly new to photography though I do have a good working understanding of most visual media. Reading this tutorial and other articles in the popular photography press is leaving me a little worried, as there seems to be a lot of talk about ‘creativity’, ‘art(y)’, ‘response’ etc without much in the way of informed or instructional visual communication.

    I am sorry guys but shooting without purpose and deciding ‘what it means’ after, is very very easy, notwithstanding that these and other images I see often demonstrate advanced technical ability. But is that enough?

    Are photography communities happy to be technicians who need to explain the meaning in their work, if there actually is any? Even something as recognisable as a portrait can be planned to lever known principles relating to composition, presentational codes, even lighting, and yes there are rules and conventions that can be learned and then applied in highly creative ways. Beyond a hunch or a gut feeling.

    What if the portrait of a high powered politician or business man needs to show vulnerability, or confidence in the portrait of a fragile octogenarian? How do we tap into the decoding mechanisms of our audience, plan to elicit a calculated response that might be offered without the need for an explanation?

    I am not trying to offend here, but I am struggling to find informed approaches to meaning beyond great technical execution. Help me out!

  • Thank you all for your comments ! I will return to the comments section to response to your inquiries.

    I’m not sure why my blog post here is listed just as “Guest Contributor”. Previously, I thought it had included my name and contact information.

    Andrew Raimist
    website: http://RaimistDesign.com
    blog: http://AndrewRaimist.com

Some Older Comments

  • Andrew Raimist March 12, 2010 04:16 am

    Thank you all for your comments ! I will return to the comments section to response to your inquiries.

    I'm not sure why my blog post here is listed just as "Guest Contributor". Previously, I thought it had included my name and contact information.

    Andrew Raimist
    website: http://RaimistDesign.com
    blog: http://AndrewRaimist.com

  • Solo May 4, 2009 05:35 am

    I am fairly new to photography though I do have a good working understanding of most visual media. Reading this tutorial and other articles in the popular photography press is leaving me a little worried, as there seems to be a lot of talk about 'creativity', 'art(y)', 'response' etc without much in the way of informed or instructional visual communication.

    I am sorry guys but shooting without purpose and deciding 'what it means' after, is very very easy, notwithstanding that these and other images I see often demonstrate advanced technical ability. But is that enough?

    Are photography communities happy to be technicians who need to explain the meaning in their work, if there actually is any? Even something as recognisable as a portrait can be planned to lever known principles relating to composition, presentational codes, even lighting, and yes there are rules and conventions that can be learned and then applied in highly creative ways. Beyond a hunch or a gut feeling.

    What if the portrait of a high powered politician or business man needs to show vulnerability, or confidence in the portrait of a fragile octogenarian? How do we tap into the decoding mechanisms of our audience, plan to elicit a calculated response that might be offered without the need for an explanation?

    I am not trying to offend here, but I am struggling to find informed approaches to meaning beyond great technical execution. Help me out!

  • Chelsey May 1, 2009 02:17 am

    This is one of those things I could definitely work on... I seem to get stuck in a rut of shooting from the same angles or perspectives!

  • Bim April 28, 2009 07:22 pm

    Good article. I always take my photos abstractly. Lining up things and looking at the contrast between different buildings and objects.

  • Dory April 27, 2009 05:01 pm

    Well, I must be doing something right... I have one from the Arch very similar to the one you have here! I took this 11/07.

    Great article! I need to be looking for more abstract shot opportunities!

  • photo retouching April 26, 2009 10:09 pm

    I recommend your tutorials to a lot of beginner photographers as it is really clear and easy to follow. Once they master thier compositions, they never look back.Thanks

  • Dulcie Andres April 26, 2009 06:11 pm

    This tutorial on abstraction was clear, informative, and interesting. And your photos clearly illustrated your point. Thanks for the information. Well done.

  • Ilan April 26, 2009 03:05 am

    Too many link on my previous comment apparently, so It's awaiting moderation. My bad :S I'll leave only one.

    When I started taking photos, the first thing for me was architectural abstracts.
    I found an easy technique - My only guideline was to always try and remember that photos are 2D so I pictured my surrounding in the same way.
    After learning to “alter” my vision according to desired result, I tried to implement the same rules on different things, like nature for example. It worked :)

    Here is New York in semi-abstract - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2008/07/simcity.html

  • Guillaume Lemoine April 26, 2009 02:54 am

    Thank you for putting this so well into perspective.

    For some reason I also appear to have this "into the corner" taste for composition.

    I also find that breaking the horizon, shooting into diagonal by trying to have another line that the horizon aligned with a border of the frame (a perspective from the side of a building for instance) gives more dynamism to the result.

    Like in this album for instance.

  • Ilan April 26, 2009 02:40 am

    When I started taking photos, the first thing for me was architectural abstracts.
    It was easy for - My only guideline was to always try and remember that photos are 2D so I pictured my surrounding in the same way.
    After learning to "alter" my vision according to desired result, I tried to implement the same rules on different things, like nature for example. It worked :)

    Here is New York in semi-abstract http://www.ilanbresler.com/2008/07/simcity.html

    And here is nature shot - http://www.ilanbresler.com/2009/02/fractures.html

  • Dave Kozlowski April 26, 2009 12:50 am

    I believe that once a new photographer truly learns how to 'see' his subject as Andrew explains in this post, there is no holding them back. Once you 'get it', there is no turning back. After learning how to compose well, it's difficult not to compose well if that makes any sense.

    Andrew, I try to make objects lead off into the corner of the shots also...somehow it just completes the shot, and makes it 'feel' right. Great post!

    Here is a link to some of my abstract-style images taken recently.

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