Abstract nature photography is strikingly beautiful; it often ends up on the walls of art collectors and galleries. But what actually is it? And how can you create gorgeous abstract nature shots of your own?
In this article, I share everything you need to know to get started, including:
- A handful of abstract nature photo ideas
- Simple techniques to make your nature shots look more abstract
- Plenty of examples!
Ready to let your creativity run wild? Then let’s dive right in, starting with the basics:
What is abstract nature photography?
Abstract nature photography is all about portraying natural subjects in unrecognizable ways. Abstract shooters use various tools – such as close-up lenses, interesting light, and clever framing – to detach a physical subject from the viewer’s perception of it.
For instance, a standard photographer, when presented with ice on a window, often captures an image that clearly says, “This is ice on a window.” But an abstract photographer makes creative choices that show the ice in a different light. For instance, they might use shallow depth of field effects and a sideways angle to highlight individual pieces of ice. Or they might use a macro lens to capture a whole world of tiny detail, as I did here:
Contrary to popular belief, abstract nature photos are not all blurry and shadowy. It’s true that abstract art is a space for impression and imagination, but the photos themselves can be bright, clear, and sharp.
Note that, by creating a distance from the world’s physical content, abstract images open up a space to explore associations, feelings, and reactions. Through detachment from the concrete, the viewer can find their own meanings in each photo!
The best subjects for abstract nature photography
While you can technically capture abstract nature shots of just about any subject, it often helps to find items with clear patterns and/or plenty of tiny detail.
For instance, photographers love to capture close-ups of ice and snow. A macro lens will help you highlight the intricate detail present in each tiny snowflake or ice crystal; hence, it’s possible to create breathtaking images of ice on windows, snow on trees, dripping icicles, and so much more.
Water is another great abstract nature subject. I recommend using a telephoto lens to ensure you fill the entire frame with water. And head out in the morning or evening. That way, you can capture plenty of beautiful water reflections (which are produced by the low sun).
You can also use a macro lens to create abstract flower and leaf shots. The closer you can get to your subject, the better; aim to highlight various details, such as the line of a flower petal or the veins of a leaf. It often helps to use a shallow depth of field, which will create pleasing bokeh and put emphasis on the in-focus areas.
Abstract nature photography: the basics
To create abstract photos, you must start with a concrete subject. After all, if you don’t have a subject, you’ll have nothing to photograph!
Once you’ve found your subject – and I shared lots of ideas in the previous section – analyze it for a few moments. Recognize the conventional ways you can take a photo. And then do what you can to go in another direction.
For instance, you might:
- Find a new vantage point (down low or up high)
- Get in close (via a macro lens or another macro technique)
- Shoot from above (using a drone or a helicopter)
- Wait for the light to create interesting shadow patterns (usually in the early morning or late evening)
- Try a creative technique (such as intentional camera movement)
(Note: If you’re curious about any of these techniques, I explore several in greater depth throughout the article.)
You can use my suggestions, or you can try out ideas of your own. What’s important is that you spend time testing out creative approaches. Don’t be afraid to fail, either; abstract photographers often capture many misses for each hit.
And as you go along, make sure you frequently check your images on the LCD. That way, you can ensure you’ve nailed the exposure, plus you can evaluate whether you’ve successfully abstracted each subject. If the results aren’t quite what you hoped, then make some tweaks to your approach and try again!
How to capture beautiful abstract nature photos: 5 tips
In this section, I share a handful of tips and techniques to help you take amazing abstract shots.
1. Distance makes a huge difference
Abstract nature photographers have plenty of options, but one of the quickest ways to start producing stunning abstractions is by changing your distance. In other words, get very close to your subject, or get very far away.
If you can get up close, you can show the viewer all sorts of details that are barely visible to the naked eye. And they’ll have an intense experience as your photo reveals a whole new natural world.
The best way to do close-up abstract nature photos is with a macro lens; it’ll offer outstanding sharpness, beautiful all-around image quality, and excellent handling. Unfortunately, macro lenses are pretty expensive, so if you’re on a budget, I’d encourage you to consider other close-up techniques, such as reverse-lens options. The image quality won’t be quite as good and the handling can be tough, but you can still capture pro-level shots, especially if you lean into the optical defects introduced by the process.
Getting far enough away from your subject to create an abstract shot is more difficult. You’ll generally need a drone, though a helicopter is another good option. Here’s an image of the ocean taken from high above:
The key is to get high enough so that your subject is no longer recognizable. Then create compositions using the patterns and geometry that are visible from high above.
2. Don’t be afraid to miss focus
Not all abstract nature photos are out of focus…
…but if you do get the focus wrong on purpose, the results can be incredible.
For this, you’ll need to switch your lens over to manual focus. Find a subject – the more colorful, the better – then turn the focus ring until you’ve created a beautiful effect:
It also helps to use a longer lens and a wider aperture; that way, you get plenty of blur. I’d recommend working with at least a 50mm lens, and a 70-200mm lens is another great choice (plus it’ll give you more framing options).
If you’re struggling to find potential subjects, try squinting or defocusing your eyes. It’ll give you an idea of how the scene might look when out of focus. And once you locate a good subject, be sure to take plenty of shots (remember, abstract photography can be very hit and miss!).
3. Experiment with different shutter speeds
Time is always of the essence when it comes to photography, and abstract nature photography is no exception. More specifically, by carefully choosing your shutter speed, you can create gorgeous abstract art.
For instance, if you lengthen the shutter speed to 1/30s or greater, you can capture a beautiful moving-water blur. You can also photograph slightly moving subjects – like flowers trembling in the wind – and get stunning results. And by changing up your shutter speeds, you can create a series of very different shots with the same moving object.
Another option is to move your camera instead of the subject. Pick a longer shutter speed, hit the shutter button, and drag your camera right to left or up and down. It’s a great way to photograph flowers, ocean scenes, and forest landscapes. It’s how I captured this flower shot:
4. Use a shallow depth of field
The wider your aperture, the shallower the depth of field – and the more interesting the result.
By dialing in an aperture of f/2.8, f/1.8, or even f/1.4, you can take photos with a tiny focus plane. The viewer can anchor themselves on that tiny sliver of sharpness, and they can appreciate the impressionistic blur in the foreground and background.
When working with a shallow depth of field, I generally recommend shooting handheld. Because it’s very easy to accidentally miss focus, take lots of photos (you can even try using your camera’s continuous shooting mode). And I’d also encourage you to try focusing manually; it’ll help you set your point of focus in the perfect spot.
5. Look for color combinations
When you’re just starting out in abstract nature photography, it makes sense to focus on creative techniques. You must learn how to capture your subjects in a whole new way – by using lengthy shutter speeds, by getting up close, and by working with a shallow depth of field.
But once you become skilled in creative techniques, you should focus on another key element: color.
You see, by carefully choosing and combining different colors in your photos, you can create different moods. You can add balance or tension, emphasize contrast or unity.
I’d recommend starting with the basic color wheel. Learn how opposite colors, such as red and green, produce contrast. Learn how similar colors, such as blue and purple, produce harmony. Then look into more advanced color combinations.
Then, when you’re out shooting, look for different colors. Don’t forget about creative techniques, of course, but instead incorporate the colors into your abstract shots. Let the colors enhance your images. Make sense?
Abstract nature photography: final words
If you’re just getting started with nature photography, an abstract approach will help you get to know your camera, try out different techniques, and capture beautiful photos in the process.
If you’re a more experienced nature shooter, an abstract approach will help you explore and expand your creativity.
Regardless, remember the tips I’ve shared. Don’t be afraid to adjust your focus, carefully choose your shutter speed, and pay attention to color.
And have plenty of fun along the way!
What do you think of abstract nature photography? What subjects do you plan to photograph? Please share your thoughts and images in the comments below.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- How to do Abstract Nature Photography
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES