Anyone can go to a pretty place, aim their camera, and click the shutter – but to be great, you need to be able to see differently, to look deeper, and to come up with your own interpretation of each scene. That’s what abstract landscape photography is all about: Taking a standard scene and showing it in a completely new light.
But how do you do it? How do you get great results? In this article, I share 13 tips to get you started, covering:
- Ideas for abstract landscape shots
- The best gear to create stunning images
- How to improve your compositions
- Much more
So if you’re ready to capture breathtaking abstract photos, then let’s dive right in!
1. Look for details
As you approach a landscape scene, don’t just check out the obvious elements: the sunset, the autumn colors, and the massive mountains. Instead, seek out little things that catch your eye. Pay attention to details, colors, textures, and patterns.
Plan on taking a little more time to study your subjects. Abstract landscape photography is not a one-and-done snapshot style of shooting. Slow down, relax, study, and contemplate each setting before you put your eye to the camera. Feel the scene.
Then capture a single shot and study the LCD preview. What might you do to improve it? Make changes, then take another image. Be purposeful and deliberate. You will find this deeper, more contemplative approach can greatly improve your work.
2. Use the right lens
Often, landscape photography is done with a wide-angle lens to take in as much of the scene as possible. But with abstract landscape photography, you shouldn’t aim to capture a broad, sweeping composition; instead, the goal is to frame little pieces of the scene.
Yes, you can crop into a larger image to create abstract images from the master shot – but anytime you crop an image, you reduce the image’s resolution. It’s far better to crop in-camera when composing your shot in the field. It’s also better to see the abstract image from the beginning rather than later during editing.
So what lens should you use for the best abstract landscape photos?
One option is to grab a telephoto lens (e.g., a 70-200mm option). The longer focal length will allow you to highlight little patterns on distant subjects (such as the arrangement of rocks on a distant mountain). Another approach is to use a macro lens, which will allow you to create close-up abstract shots from often-overlooked details, like bark patterns or lichen on rocks.
If you’re not sure whether you want to shoot distant or close-up subjects, consider renting several lenses and see which you prefer. Both are perfectly viable approaches to abstract photography; it’s really about what makes you feel more comfortable.
Pro tip: A zoom lens can help you hone in on a portion of your scene when you’re looking to create an abstract shot. However, don’t forget the “sneaker zoom,” where you zoom with your feet by walking closer to your subject.
3. Look for the play of the light
Good abstract photographers are students of light, observing how light and shadow play across objects to reveal texture and create interesting effects. Sometimes, just the light and shadow can be the subject of a photo all on its own!
So take the time to look at your scene and see if there are areas of interesting light you can isolate. Train your eye to notice highlights and shadows, and test out different compositions that rely solely or primarily on lighting.
You can also plan in advance to shoot interesting light-and-shadow abstracts; head to areas you know will produce beautiful shadow patterns, such as rock canyons and forest floors. (For a variety of opportunities, try heading back to the same location at different times of day!)
4. Consider line, shape, form, tone, and texture
Line, shape, form, tone, and texture are essential parts of nearly every good photo, but they’re especially important in abstract landscape photography (where the scene’s geometric qualities are generally highlighted). Make sure you understand each of these elements and how they affect your compositions:
- Line: The one-dimensional path between two points. Lines can be straight or curved and can lead the eye through an image.
- Shape: A two-dimensional outline of an object. Photography creates a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional world, so all objects in a photograph are shapes. We must create the illusion of depth through other means.
- Form: The simulated three dimensions in a photograph; form is created through careful use of composition, gear, and light. A cube photographed from just one side will have the shape of a square, but when photographed at an angle, the line, tone, and texture will create the illusion of three dimensions (i.e., form).
- Tone: The range of brightness levels from white to black in a photograph.
- Texture: The simulated look of the smoothness, roughness, reflectivity, depth, and feel of an object created by light playing over the object.
Understanding these “bones” of a good image can help you make interesting photos in general and better abstract landscape photos in particular – so make sure you spend time thinking about each of the above concepts as you compose your shots.
5. Photograph water
Looking for an easy abstract landscape photo idea? The unique properties of water – its reflectivity, motion, transparency, translucence, and fluidity – make it a great subject. Thanks to the dynamic motion of rushing water and the smooth-as-glass look of static water, it can even take on a texture of sorts.
In fact, you could photograph nothing but water for years without running out of subject matter! Look for patterns in waves, interesting reflections, and breathtaking colors at sunset:
And when things get cold, try shooting patterns in the ice:
6. Focus on textures
I’ve already touched on the importance of texture in abstract photography, but did you know that texture can be a subject in and of itself? For instance, you can capture close-up abstracts of rocks, wood, and patterns in the landscape, all of which rely on texture to create interest.
When capturing images with texture as the main subject, pay attention to the quality of light and its direction. Light coming from behind the photographer to hit the front of the subject tends to minimize texture, whereas cross light (i.e., light coming from the side) helps to maximize it. If you’re struggling to get good results, try changing your position, or consider coming back when the sun is higher or lower in the sky.
7. Try some shoot-throughs
I use the term “shoot-through” to describe photos that include materials or objects between the camera and the subject. These objects could be translucent, or they could be completely solid. Shoot-throughs can also use out-of-focus objects in the foreground that frame or change the look of the main subject.
By including out-of-focus foreground objects, you can add an interesting abstract feel to your photos. I’d recommend finding a main subject – such as a rock face – before looking around for potential objects you can position in front of the lens.
Note that different apertures will give you very different effects. The wider your aperture, the more blurry your foreground subject will appear, so spend plenty of time experimenting with various settings.
8. Use slower shutter speeds and intentional camera movement
A photograph captures a sliver of time, whether it lasts 10 seconds, 1 second, or a millisecond. And by adjusting the length of your shutter, you can create wildly different results.
Shoot with a fast shutter speed, and you can freeze objects in motion, such as water rushing down a waterfall. This can work for abstract landscape photography, but abstract shooters often prefer to use a slow shutter speed so that moving objects start to blur and streak.
You see, slow shutter speeds combined with moving objects can create abstract images that are unlike anything the eye can see. Moving water can be blurred to create silky waterfalls, and with even longer shutter speeds, ocean waves can be rendered as a blurry fog.
Another fun technique is to dial in a longer shutter speed and then move the camera after firing the shutter. This is known as intentional camera movement, and it’s a great way to produce impressionistic photos:
9. Use focus stacking to improve sharpness
The optics of lenses limit what can be rendered sharply in a single image. We call the extent of the in-focus area in an image its depth of field. How to control the depth of field in a photograph with focal length, proximity to the subject, and aperture is something that all photographers should learn.
But what depth of field is best? That depends on your intentions. Do you purposely want some elements rendered out of focus in your image? Then a narrow depth of field is ideal. However, if you want everything tack-sharp from front to back, you must make adjustments to your approach.
If you’re aiming to capture a relatively close-up composition, you may even need to capture more than one shot in a process known as focus stacking. The idea is to create several files with different points of focus, then blend them together using editing software.
Understanding focus-stacking techniques can be useful in many genres, including abstract landscape photography. Take a look at the abstract photo above, and note how the entire scene is sharp from foreground to background. Such depth of field in a single image would be practically impossible, but – thanks to focus stacking – it became relatively simple.
10. Find fresh perspectives
Good photographers seek to show things in a way we don’t usually see them, and abstract shooters should take this a step further. Consider it a compliment when an observer of your abstract image says, “I don’t know what it is, but I like it!”
One way to approach abstract landscape photography is to find a new and unusual angle for your subject. Get high, get low, shoot from a bird’s-eye or maybe a worm’s-eye view. Look up, look down, mix it up.
Shooting from eye level or tripod height is often rather boring. Dare to be different, and see what you can create!
A great way to get abstract landscape photos is from the air. Drones have brought us a whole new view of the world, and even if you don’t own a drone, you can still get aerial-like perspectives from mountaintops and high structures.
11. Make it monochrome
In a sense, all monochrome images are abstract in that they don’t reflect how we generally see the world. Additionally, black-and-white conversions can emphasize shadows, highlights, texture, and geometry. So consider how you can use black and white to make abstract landscape images!
A dark black sky over an almost white landscape is an abstraction, yet it’s completely possible with a few editing tweaks. You can also try inverting colors and tones for a negative image or shooting with an infrared-converted camera. There are no rules when you shoot abstracts, so I really encourage you to experiment.
Bottom line: A black-and-white composition can remove distractions, focus attention, and give an abstract quality to your image. Don’t be afraid to try a black-and-white conversion (or even to shoot in black and white from the beginning!).
12. Avoid scale
In most photos, particularly landscape scenes, there will be visual clues as to the size of objects. We know the relationships between smaller plants, trees, and mountains. But here’s something fun to try in abstract landscape photography: take away the visual clues that would tip off the viewer as to the size of things.
A tight shot of rocks could be taken from six inches or six miles away, and the viewer might not have any point of reference. In standard landscape photography, you might purposely include a person to lend scale to the image; in abstract landscape photography, taking away this sense of scale can be the key to a great shot.
13. Use minimalism
Unlike still life, portraiture, and most studio photography, landscape photographers don’t usually get to add and remove the objects that appear in their shots. You can remove a tree digitally if you don’t like where it stands in your photo, but you certainly shouldn’t get a chainsaw and cut it down.
Instead, you must carefully select scenes that include what you want in the frame and leave out what you don’t. That’s where minimalism comes in handy; it’s the art of including only what’s absolutely necessary.
Minimalistic photography is a whole subject unto itself, and one I believe landscape photographers should investigate. Not all minimalistic shots are abstract, but by excluding distracting or extraneous elements from your shots, you can dramatically improve your results.
Abstract landscape photography: final words
Abstract landscape photography isn’t easy, and it isn’t a conventional approach to shooting scenics – but it can be highly rewarding.
To quote Minor White, you should learn to photograph things “for what else they are.” Practicing abstract landscape photography will take you to that place and teach you a whole different way of seeing – and that, for a photographer, is an invaluable lesson.
So head outside and look for some abstract compositions. If you struggle, don’t give up! Over time, you’ll get better at finding potential subjects, and your shots will improve in leaps and bounds.
Abstract landscape photography FAQ
Abstract landscape photography is where the subject of the photograph may not be readily identifiable and the focus is more on the line, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern, and/or colors in the image.
Abstract landscape photography teaches the photographer to look deeper, to study the elements that make a good image, and to be creative.
One of the biggest challenges is getting past the need to accurately portray reality. Often the first question someone may ask when seeing an abstract photograph is “What is that?” The nominal subject isn’t important; what matters is how the photograph makes you feel and what it communicates. An abstract photograph is like an instrumental piece of music: it’s a way to create emotion without the need for words.