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Photography, especially nature photography, is the art of capturing a scene to represent a slice – in space and time – of reality. Right? Well, not exactly, not always. That’s definitely part of it, but from very early on in the history of the art, photographers have experimented with the possibilities and limits of technique and imagination to create abstract art. Art that aims not to be accurate, but to let the imagination run free to create an effect disconnected from the obvious.
So what exactly is abstract photography? And can nature photography be abstracted? Should it be?
The word itself comes from the Latin abstractus, which means drawn away or detached, and is often used in opposition to concrete. In terms of art, the abstract is a space for impression and imagination, for the elusive, for fuzzy borders. That doesn’t mean abstract photography is blurry and dim – it can be bright, clear, and sharp. It just doesn’t aim at the common, concrete representation of the world that we’re used to. That’s why abstract nature photography is so intriguing.
By creating a distance from form, abstract art opens up a space to explore associations, feelings, and reactions. Because it lacks an anchor for your interpretation, there is room for an uninhibited association. Through detachment from the concrete, you’re allowed to create your own way.
In nature photography, most work tries to clearly capture an object, a scene, or a process – to the point where the photography might cross from artistic into scientific. Abstract nature photography is obviously different in that it doesn’t try to represent physical reality. Its potential is to create something ethereal from the ordinary, to find something unique in the mundane.
To create abstract nature photographs, you need to step beyond the obvious and try to capture a sensation, a mood, a movement – things that might not be part of physical reality, but are just as real to the artist and the viewer. Think of it as music, using very concrete instruments and elements to create a reaction beyond that of the individual notes and sounds.
To create something abstract, you need to begin with something concrete. Painters create abstract art using concrete tools: their paints, their substrate, brushes or other painting tools, and their imagination.
Photographers use different tools, but a more significant difference is that the artist is inescapably aware of the reality from which the abstraction in the finished work stems. However, the viewer’s vantage point is the same, whether the piece of art is an abstract painting or an abstract photograph.
The camera and your imagination are the only limitations on how you create abstract art. Below I list some easy ideas to begin experimenting with because by now I hope you’re intrigued enough to try your hand at abstract nature photography. To be clear, all of these tips also work for abstract art that has nothing to do with nature photography, but they focus on abstract art rooted in nature photography.
Getting very close to something or far away from it are great ways to create abstractions. We don’t often get that view in our everyday life, so it’s easy to disconnect what’s captured from what’s immediately familiar.
Here is an example from the realm of macro photography:
And an abstract photograph taking advantage of an unusually distant perspective:
Just because something is abstract doesn’t mean it has to be blurry or unfocused, but playing with focus is certainly one way to make a scene abstract. This requires that you use manual focus.
By either squinting or defocusing your eyes, you can get an idea of what the scene might look like as an out-of-focus image. Use that to find an interesting scene – just because something is out of focus doesn’t mean it’s interesting! Play around, and also try combining it with movement (see next point).
Time is always of the essence when it comes to photography, and abstract photography is no exception. By combining a chosen exposure time with some movement you can create some really interesting abstract art. Your exposure time can be anything from a tiny fraction of a second to several minutes (or even longer), and in terms of movement, it can either come from the subject moving (e.g., light painting), or from the camera moving (e.g., intentional camera movement).
Early photographic attempts at abstract art were based on the medium itself: the metallic or glass plates or sensitized paper in combination with the necessary chemicals used to create photographs, and light (without a lens). This kind of extreme back-to-basics experimentation also works with a digital camera.
For instance, through something called refractography, where a naked sensor is exposed to light reflected from a refractive object. It’s both beyond the scope of this article and my photographic experience, so I won’t talk more about it, but I thought it was worth mentioning. A quick warning, though: removing your lens from your camera always exposes the sensor to dust, so doing photography without a lens is obviously not healthy for your sensor. You’ve been warned.
For photography newbies, trying your hand at abstract photography is a great way to get to know your camera and try out different photography techniques: using manual focus, light painting, intentional camera movement, and so much more. For more advanced photographers, it’s a fun way to explore and expand your art and to try something new.
What do you think of abstract nature photography? Have you tried it? Please share your photos and thoughts in the comments below.