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Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

A guide to stunning abstract photography

Abstract photography is a lot of fun (and often jaw-droppingly beautiful). But how can you create gorgeous abstract shots of your very own?

Diving into this photographic genre might seem like a daunting task, and I can understand why: There’s a slew of new concepts and techniques to consider. Remember, abstract photos aren’t just about clicking the shutter; they require a whole new way of seeing and interpreting the world around you.

That said, don’t worry too much. Sure, beginner abstract snappers have a lot to learn, but that’s what this article is for. Below, I share all the essentials, including practical tips, tricks, techniques, and ideas for amazing abstract shots. I also share plenty of inspirational examples along the way.

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know more than how to see like an abstract photographer; you’ll be ready to harness your unique vision to craft images that leave a lasting impression. Let’s get started!

What is abstract photography?

Abstract photography focuses on the beauty of shapes, colors, patterns, and textures. Unlike most other forms of photography, it doesn’t aim to represent reality in a literal sense; instead, creating abstract photos is all about playing with visual elements to create images that might not be immediately recognizable.

Abstract photography

Think about a close-up shot of rust on an old car. The subject might not be clear right away. But the intricate patterns, the vivid colors, and the unique textures can create a captivating image. It’s the viewer’s job to delve into the picture, to explore and interpret.

A great way to understand the concept is to study the work of renowned abstract photographers. People like Aaron Siskind, who found abstract forms in everyday life, or Franco Fontana, known for his vivid landscapes turned into color blocks.

What makes abstract photography special?

Abstract photography

Abstract photography compels you, the photographer, to see the world differently. It nudges you to spot the extraordinary in the ordinary. A stack of colorful papers might seem mundane. But frame it right, and you’ve got a masterpiece of geometric shapes and striking hues. A few bubbles in front of a colorful poster might seem boring, but – as with the photo above! – by using a macro lens to hone in on the bubbles’ shapes, the scene is suddenly far more striking.

Abstract photography offers the same eye-opening, paradigm-shifting experience to anyone who views abstract images. Because at root, shooting abstracts is about finding compelling visual qualities in anything and everything.

Additionally, because abstract photos are so decoupled from reality, they have the power to represent and evoke emotions without relying on conventional meanings. An image of swirling colors can communicate feelings of chaos, while a pattern of calming blues might inspire tranquility.

Finally, abstract photography presents an exciting opportunity: the chance to break free from traditional rules. Forget about straight horizons or centered subjects. Abstract photography urges you to experiment, to push the boundaries. It’s about discovering new ways to create visually appealing images, which in turn nurtures your creativity and artistic growth!

8 essential abstract photography techniques

Now that you’re familiar with what this genre of photography is all about, I’d like to share a handful of the most popular – and effective – techniques for creating beautiful abstract images.

You don’t need to master each and every one, but I encourage you to at least try all of your options and see what you think!

1. Intentional camera movement

Abstract photography

The simplest method for creating abstract photos – and one that’s loved by most abstract shooters – is to blur everything simply by moving your camera as you take a photo. This technique is known as intentional camera movement, or ICM, and it can produce breathtaking results.

The idea is to set your camera to its Manual or Shutter Priority mode. Then dial in a lengthy shutter speed (often in the area of 1/10s, though you can experiment with longer speeds, too).

Start moving your camera from side to side or up and down, then hit the shutter button, and keep moving your camera until the image is complete. You’ll get different results depending on the direction of your movement, the length of the shutter speed, and the look of your subject – but pretty much every image created using this technique looks super cool.

Abstract photography

A few pieces of advice:

First, do your intentional camera movement photography when the light is low. That way, you can keep your shutter speed long enough to capture a beautiful blurry effect.

Second, lower your ISO to its base level (generally ISO 100). That way, you get the longest shutter speed possible.

Third, if you can’t get a fast-enough shutter speed out in the open, try heading into the shade. You might also add a neutral density filter over your lens. Here, the quality of the filter isn’t hugely important, as you’ll be aiming for lots of blur anyway – so feel free to grab a cheap ND filter off of Amazon or eBay.

Abstract photography

Fourth, look for colorful subjects that will stand out, even when blurred. Flowers are great for ICM photography, as are leaves in the fall, water at sunset, iridescent rocks, and more.

Finally, experiment wildly. Be sure to take various shots while moving your camera in different directions. Then start moving your camera in circles or random wiggles. Over time, you’ll get better at predicting the outcome, though intentional camera movement photography is always a bit of an adventure.

2. Photographing moving subjects

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Action photographers spend all day trying to freeze moving subjects, such as birds in flight, cars rushing by, and sports players in mid-jump.

But what if, instead of freezing the subjects, you deliberately let them blur?

This technique complements the intentional camera movement idea I shared above. But instead of moving your camera while the subject remains still, you keep your camera still and let the subject move!

Abstract photography

As with ICM photography, you’ll need to slow down your shutter speed. I’d recommend starting at 1/30s, though the specifics will depend heavily on your subject’s movement (experimentation is key!).

Colorful subjects work great; I love to photograph fast-moving trains, for instance, with their colorful signs:

Abstract photography

Cars are another nice motion-blur subject, and you can literally spend the whole day standing by the roadside and shooting colorful cars on the move.

By the way, a tripod can be helpful here, especially if you want to capture a sharp background with a blurry subject (as I did in the train shot above).

But you can also do motion-blur shots while handholding, and the effects can be very cool.

A word of warning: Watch out for whites, yellows, and other ultra-bright colors. They’ll fill your sensor with too much data too fast, and they will cover over any other colors that you may have in your shot. Instead, find subjects that feature lots of evenly toned colors, and you’ll get great results.

3. Getting close or zooming in

Abstract photography

Abstract photography is all about focusing purely on colors and forms, rather than grounding your subject in the wider scene.

And while you can always remove key details by blurring the subject, another way to get wonderfully abstract shots is to simply get in close – so close that the viewer can’t tell what you photographed.

Here, a macro lens or a telephoto lens will be a big help. (Though if you don’t have either, don’t worry; simply pick your closest-focusing lens and have fun).

As you get in close, try to think of your subject, not in terms of its real-life identity, but in terms of its geometry and its colors. Aim to use key compositional principles – such as the rule of thirds or symmetry – to create a balanced image. Enhance dynamism with diagonals.

Abstract photography

Do what you can to fill the frame with your subject. Once you’ve filled the frame, it becomes far more difficult for the viewer to understand what they’re looking at – and they’ll start to think about your image as an abstract photo, not a photo “of” something.

Let me show you an example. What do you see below? Just a sea of blue with some lines, right?

Abstract photography

Now let me show you the larger context:

Abstract photography

Looking at the larger photo, you can probably tell that I’ve photographed the ocean (albeit with some motion blur – see the technique shared in the previous tip!). It’s only by getting closer that I’ve managed to decontextualize the scene and capture a truly abstract shot.

4. Shooting through items

You can create a beautiful background blur by using a wide aperture (also known as a shallow depth of field effect).

But did you know that you can also create a beautiful foreground blur using the same method?

When shooting with a wide aperture – and therefore a shallow depth of field – elements close to the camera will be blurred, just the same as if they were positioned far behind the subject. And you can use that to create a beautiful painterly effect.

Abstract photography

Photographers often refer to this technique as “shooting through,” because to make it work, you must shoot through an element toward your subject. And it’s very easy to do: Simply find the subject you want to capture, then reposition your camera so that an element near the lens intrudes into the frame.

Note that your “shooting-through” item can be anything, but for the most painterly effects, I’d recommend using something translucent or patchy. If you like to shoot in nature, you might position a few leaves or flowers in front of your lens, then shoot through toward other flowers, a beautiful landscape scene, or even a bird.

And if you like to shoot in a studio, you can position a subject, such as food or a bottle, on a table, then shoot through colored glass, tissue paper, and other household items.

The more you experiment with foreground objects, the more interesting your results will become! But make sure to use your lens at its widest aperture, and ensure that the “shoot-through” item is sufficiently close to the lens. (Nailing the perfect distance might take some trial and error.)

5. Multiple exposures

Abstract photography

Multiple exposures is a tried-and-tested abstract photography technique, and it’s also pretty easy to pull off, no matter your camera model.

The idea here is to capture multiple images, then combine them into a final file. You can do this in two ways: in-camera, using your camera’s multiple-exposure function, or in an editing program like Adobe Photoshop.

Personally, I tend to do this in-camera, but if you want more flexibility, working in Photoshop is the better route.

When it comes to actually capturing your photos, you’ll need to take at least two shots for blending. You can work with the same subject (e.g., shoot one image from above and one image from the side), or you can work with two completely different subjects (e.g., a person and a lake).

I generally take one shot of a subject. Then I’ll shoot two more images of the same subject, but I’ll change the point of focus so my initial subject becomes blurry.

The end result is always a bit of a surprise; sometimes I get a soft-focus look, and other times the subject remains fairly in focus. (When the latter happens, I’ll often try to zoom way in to take the subject more out of context and create an abstract result.)

If you work in Photoshop, you can always add additional blur when editing. I also recommend playing around with blend modes; options such as Screen, Lighten, Darken, Multiply, and Soft Light will each create different – and often unique – effects.

6. High-contrast lighting

Abstract photography

Light plays an enormous role in any genre of photography. But in abstract photography, by choosing the right lighting type and direction, you can literally create abstraction.

A great strategy is to head outside when the sun is at its zenith and the light is harsh. This type of high-contrast lighting, you see, casts long, interesting shadows that can alter the appearance of your subjects.

Why is this important for abstract photography? Simply put, these shadows can create abstract effects by shrouding parts of an object in shadow and highlighting other parts of the subject. They emphasize form and shape, drawing the viewer’s eyes to the distinct lines and contours of the subject.

Abstract photography

Remember, it’s all about experimentation. While you can create these shots using artificial light, I’ve found that natural light generally provides that intense, shadowy look that’s perfect for abstract shots. It’s an amazing tool to manipulate for dramatic, attention-grabbing results.

And if you’re looking for extra punch, consider converting your photos to black and white. It’s a simple way to further emphasize the high-contrast tones in the scene over the subject itself. The result? Powerful, abstract images that demand your viewer’s attention.

7. An ultra-wide aperture

Abstract photography

Next up on our list of essential abstract photo techniques: leveraging a wide aperture. It’s a great way to achieve that gorgeous soft-focus abstract effect so many photographers love.

Note: When I say “wide aperture,” I’m talking about dialing in settings like f/1.8 or f/2.8. Such wide apertures will create a shallow depth of field, and everything outside your main focus point will be blurred, like this:

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And here’s the best part: With a wide aperture, you can isolate specific elements in your frame. The blurred background makes the in-focus subject – maybe a single flower petal or an intriguing texture – really pop, which can make your shots even more striking.

By the way, a wide aperture also opens the door to creative bokeh effects. Those are the dreamy, abstract light patterns that can add some additional magic to your photos. Working to generate beautiful bokeh is certainly a great way to give your shots an artistic abstract quality, and the trick is to include bright points of light in front of or behind your subject.

8. Freelensing

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Last, but definitely not least, I want to discuss an abstract technique called freelensing. It’s a little unusual, but it can yield incredible results.

Freelensing involves detaching the lens from your camera, holding it in front of the lens mount, and slightly tilting it as you take photos. The magic of this technique lies in its ability to create a tilt-shift effect – in other words, when you tilt the lens, it adjusts the plane of focus.

This allows you to selectively keep a particular area sharp while the rest of the image remains blurred. And when you’re going for a unique look, this can be a wonderful tool – because by selectively focusing, you can present your subjects in a fresh, unexpected way.

And the power of freelensing goes even further. By pulling the lens away from the camera mount, you can actually magnify your subject to show all sorts of minute details (just as if you were using a dedicated macro lens!). And tilting the lens back and forth will result in artistic light bleed effects, too, which can be lots of fun to play with.

Now, freelensing is an outstanding way to portray everyday subjects in a new light and even add a touch of surprise to your photography. It’s a technique I’ve used myself, and it’s one that I wholeheartedly recommend.

However, when freelensing, you should always proceed with caution. Your lens will be detached from your camera body, and as a result, your camera sensor can be exposed to dust and other potential hazards. So always make sure you’re working in a clean environment – it’s not a technique you should try in a blowing sandstorm, for instance – and whatever you do, don’t drop your lens!

6 tips for beautiful abstract photos

Looking for additional abstract photo tips? You’re not done, and neither am I! Here are some tricks of the trade to help you level up your shots even further:

1. Experiment with different angles and compositions

Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

Changing your perspective can turn an ordinary scene into something extraordinary – and in photography, unconventional viewpoints can make your images stand out. Try getting low, looking up, and exploring close-ups. In abstract photography, daring experimentation is more rewarding than conventional shooting.

Additionally, when you frame each shot, consider compositional elements like leading lines, symmetry, and patterns. These elements can lend balance to the scene, and/or they can help draw the viewer’s eye across the image, creating a sense of movement.

At the same time, abstract photography isn’t chained to reality, and it shouldn’t be chained to rigid photographic rules, either. You’re free to push boundaries, so go ahead and try something different. You’re likely familiar with the rule of thirds; it’s a popular guideline in photography. But while it can work well for abstract shooting, you can also get great results by consciously going against the grain. Try centering your subject or framing it way off to the side. Such bold compositions can make viewers sit up and take notice!

2. Constantly think about color

Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

The power of color in photography is undeniable. It can attract attention, set a mood, or evoke strong emotions. And because abstract photography involves emphasizing the essential visual qualities of a subject over its “real-world” form, the importance of color becomes magnified.

For abstract shooters, this can be a huge opportunity. You can create striking images just by selectively incorporating colors into your compositions.

Ever notice how vibrant or contrasting colors can draw the eye? A bold red against a muted background can create a dramatic impact. On the other hand, contrasting colors can add depth, guiding the viewer’s gaze through your photograph. Experiment with color combinations. You never know what might resonate with you.

Plus, working with a consistent color palette can tie a series of abstract images together, allowing you to create a more cohesive portfolio that you can share on a website or social media. Not every image in the series has to use the exact same colors, but if all the colors complement each other in some way, your series will have a harmonious feel. Try using different shades of the same color, or work with a similar mood, like calming pastels or bold hues.

And if you’re into artificially lit photography, don’t forget about color gels or filters. They can transform a simple scene into something surreal and artistic. A blue filter can give an ethereal quality, while a red filter can add a sense of drama.

3. Try to convey emotion through your photos

Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

Remember how I said that abstract photography is all about expressing ideas and emotions? For the best abstract shots, I encourage you to make a real effort to share your feelings through your images.

Start by asking yourself how you’re feeling as you unpack your camera. Then consider the emotion you want your viewers to feel. Is it peace, excitement, mystery, or nostalgia? Once you’ve decided, consider how form, color, and texture can express this feeling.

Soft curves and muted colors might create a calming mood. On the other hand, jagged lines and bold, contrasting colors could create tension. A dark, shadowy image could hint at mystery or fear, while a bright, vibrant image might evoke joy or surprise. Keep experimenting to find what works for you.

In the end, it’s your emotions and intentions that shape how viewers interpret your images. As an abstract photographer, you’re not just snapping pictures. You’re creating a visual language that expresses your unique perspective. Don’t be afraid to infuse your work with your feelings. That emotional connection is often what makes abstract photography so intriguing and engaging.

4. Simplify, simplify, simplify!

Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

Here’s a key abstract photography secret: less is often more. When you’re setting up your shot, keep in mind that any unnecessary elements in your frame might pull the viewer’s attention away. It’s like a room full of clutter – too much stuff, and you can’t appreciate the beauty of the space.

So what’s the fix? It’s simple. Examine your frame. Look for anything that doesn’t add to the story or mood you’re trying to convey. If an element isn’t contributing, it’s likely detracting. Change your angle, adjust your frame, move closer – do whatever it takes to remove those distractions.

Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

Minimalism is your friend here. By keeping your images bare-bones, each line, shape, and color will play a crucial role. As you embrace this approach, you’ll find your images gain a certain power. The compositions will resonate with viewers and leave a lasting impression.

On a related note, always think about negative space as you shoot. This is the empty or “quiet” space around your main subject. It might sound simple, but it shouldn’t be underestimated. In fact, careful use of negative space can really emphasize the importance of your subject. Think of negative space as a sort of stage – it’s there to put your main character in the spotlight. The more negative space you have, the more your subject will stand out, and the more the audience will pay attention to what you want them to see.

5. Look at the work of other abstract photographers

Essential Abstract Photography: A Guide (+ Tips)

If you keep capturing abstract photos but can’t seem to improve, one effective strategy is to study the work of those who’ve already mastered the art form. Established abstract photographers have a lot to teach you; looking at their images can provide you with fresh inspiration, expose you to different styles, and ignite your creativity.

Don’t just glance at the photos, though. Immerse yourself in them. What feelings do they evoke and why? Are there patterns or recurring themes? Take your time to digest the details. You’re not just enjoying the view; you’re unraveling the photographer’s creative process.

Don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone. Explore work from photographers with different styles. Even if it doesn’t align with your taste, you can still learn something valuable. You might just pick up a technique or idea you hadn’t considered before.

Remember, this isn’t about copying someone else’s work. It’s about expanding your photographic vocabulary. It’s about drawing inspiration and incorporating it into your unique style. In fact, as you expose yourself to the creative approaches of others, you’ll find your own vision and voice growing.

6. Have fun with post-processing

You know how people sometimes complain about photos being overprocessed?

While overprocessing can be a problem – especially when beginners crank up the saturation and sharpness to an unbelievable level – in abstract photography, it’s not really something to worry about. Instead of thinking about overprocessing, look at abstract editing as a time to cast off your processing restraints and have fun.

For instance, try softening your images to make them more ethereal (by adding Gaussian blur or negative Clarity):


Or apply different color effects (by adjusting color temperature sliders, using a color-grading panel, or working with overlays).

Here, I used the white balance tools in Lightroom to create three different versions of the same shot:


Once you’ve imported your photos, go wild!

A guide to abstract photography: final words


It’s essential to remember that abstract photography is not about capturing a perfect snapshot of reality. Instead, it’s about turning the lens onto the world in a way that lets you show the viewer your unique perspective. It’s an invitation to play, to experiment, to examine the visual qualities of the world.

Those are a few of the many reasons it’s a ton of fun!

So grab your camera, step out, and let the world be your canvas. The essence of abstract photography lies not in the rules, but in the breaking of rules. Remember the tips and techniques I shared, and with persistence, your photos will turn out amazing.

Now over to you:

Which subjects do you plan to photograph first? Do you have any tips that I missed? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

A note on authorship: This article was updated in July 2023 using original contributions from Peter West Carey.

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Jaymes Dempsey
Jaymes Dempsey

is the Managing Editor of Digital Photography School, as well as a macro and nature photographer from Ann Arbor, Michigan. To learn how to take stunning nature photos, check out his free eBook, Mastering Nature Photography: 7 Secrets For Incredible Nature Photos! And to see more of Jaymes’s work check out his website and his blog.

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