Looking for some abstract photography inspiration? Producing abstract images is a great way to elevate your creativity to new heights. It’s also highly accessible; even the best abstracts can be taken literally anywhere – in your home, while on a walk in the park, while shopping at the grocery store – and you don’t need a fancy camera or lenses to get professional results.
That’s not to say abstract photography is easy. Generating new concepts and approaches can be difficult, whether you’re a photo veteran or a complete beginner. If you’re struggling for inspiration, I share a handful of abstract photography ideas in this article, and I also offer plenty of abstract photography examples along the way.
Ready to get excited about abstract shooting? Let’s dive right in!
1. Get as close as you can
For me, abstraction is about removing the world from its familiar context. It involves playing with elements and subjects, and – through careful framing and camera work – taking them out of their usual settings and placing them into new situations so that they become something else entirely.
One of the easiest ways to show the world from a new perspective is by getting close. When you take a familiar subject and you zoom in to reveal previously unnoticed details, it can suddenly look alien – plus, the act of zooming in will often divorce a subject from its usual context.
You can use a close-up approach to photograph literally hundreds of ordinary (and not-so-ordinary) subjects. Here are just a few ideas:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Debris on the road
- Scuffs on walls
- Furniture textures
- Old posters on poles
A dedicated macro lens can be helpful for this type of work, but it’s certainly not necessary. Even smartphones are capable of getting reasonably close to their subjects, and you can also get great results using a point-and-shoot camera or a DSLR or mirrorless model with a kit lens.
In other words, don’t let your gear hold you back from taking a close-up approach!
2. Let your mind wander
“Abstraction allows man to see with his mind what he cannot see physically with his eyes…Abstract art enables the artist to perceive beyond the tangible, to extract the infinite out of the finite. It is the emancipation of the mind. It is an exploration into unknown areas.” – Arshile Gorky
For me, doing abstract photography feels like I’m trying to detach myself from reality and delve into a space where everything is new: new sights, new sensations, or new experiences. And a big part of finding this newness is about being imaginative!
If you can look at the world and let your mind wander, you’ll come up with all sorts of interesting ideas. This should be like seeing shapes in the clouds, but instead of looking at the clouds, you’re looking at the ordinary world.
Open your eyes and scan your surroundings. Try not to think about what you’re seeing. Let your imagination kick in and offer all kinds of ideas about what things look like. Then try to communicate what you see through your images.
To me, the photo above looks like something coming from the cosmos, the beginnings of a new world. In reality, it’s some slime floating around in water, which I then edited in Lightroom.
So use your imagination constantly. When doing abstract photography, don’t let “conventional” thinking get in the way!
3. Seek out interesting textures
Textures are a fascinating abstract subject to explore. For one, when you capture textures, you’ll often give your photos a tactile quality. You’ll make people want to lean in and touch something. Additionally, by concentrating on textures, you can often give very ordinary things – water, brick, wires, or stone – an inviting feeling.
And textures are literally everywhere! Every subject has a texture of some sort: smooth or rough, dirty or clean. It’s your task, as an abstract photographer, to look around, find the textures that interest you, and capture them.
One tip here is to pay attention to the light – both its quality and direction. Softer light is good for displaying details, though harder light is great if you’d like to play around with the interaction between texture and shadow. Also, side light (i.e., light that comes from off to the side of the subject) can help give textures a sense of three-dimensionality.
Also, look for areas that display multiple textures that you can juxtapose with one another. By displaying two or more textures side by side, you can highlight the uniqueness of each one:
4. Photograph the ordinary
“The longer you look at an object, the more abstract it becomes, and, ironically, the more real.” – Lucian Freud
I love to shoot random, day-to-day subjects that I find all around me. I challenge myself to make these subjects seem interesting, and I challenge you to do the same!
For instance, I am always on the lookout for torn posters on a wall – especially when they are bathed in beautiful light – as well as strange things I find on the street at my feet.
Everything, when you pay attention to it, can reveal different qualities than what we first notice. And our struggle as photographers is to find the most interesting way to shoot whatever catches our attention.
I’m not talking about finding an ordinary subject, taking a couple of snaps with your camera, and calling it a day. Instead, it’s important that you figure out a way to make the ordinary look extraordinary.
Maybe you need to take a different perspective – lying on the floor, getting up high, or changing angles. Or maybe, by shooting with the right light, you can take an everyday subject and make it seem fascinating.
The key here is to find a single subject, then experiment with different approaches. Many of the photos might not turn out, but as long as you capture one good shot, you’re golden.
5. Include mystery
“Abstraction generally involves implication, suggestion and mystery, rather than obvious description.” – Robert Genn
The appeal of abstract photos for me is very much about mystery. Creating something that doesn’t look as it should, displacing your subject, mixing up reflections, creating contrasts and jarring juxtapositions – it’s all a fun part of making the world less real and more mysterious.
You can combine shapes together to create something that makes no real sense, yet it will still spark curiosity and ideas in the mind of the viewer.
In fact, the most successful abstract photos often get the viewer to spend long seconds (or minutes) trying to figure out what, precisely, the shot is about. In the end, the viewer may figure it out, or they may not, but what really matters is that they engaged with the image!
In the photo below, I captured this reflection of a man on what I like to think is a moon landscape inhabited by interesting-looking creatures:
At least, that’s what I see when I look at the photo! What do you see? It might be completely different, and that’s completely okay.
Note that you can create mystery through various approaches, such as:
- Deliberately underexposing
- Allowing your subject to be covered by shadows
- Including confusing reflections
- Juxtaposing foreground and background elements
Of course, you can also come up with approaches of your own. The great thing about abstract photography is that there’s no one way of doing things, and the more you try new techniques, the better your images will be.
6. Aim to capture the feeling of your subject
“Of all the arts, abstract painting is the most difficult. It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for colors, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.” – Wassily Kandinsky
In my photo teaching, I talk a lot about having a heightened awareness and sensitivity to the world. This is because if you want to find incredible photos wherever you go, you must have the ability to see more of what’s around you than you can when you are lost in your thoughts.
Now, with that heightened sensitivity comes increased feelings and impressions of what you see.
And thinking about the feeling you have when you look at your subject is so important. If you aren’t feeling anything, you won’t be able to communicate anything in your photos.
But if you do feel something when you look at your subject…
…you can channel it into the photo for a beautiful result!
I like the sensations I get when I look at the photo above. It’s perhaps a sense of awe at the water and the beautiful colored stones. I can almost feel the water, and that feeling is translated through the photo.
In the photo below, perhaps I get a feeling of fun, thanks to some bright colors on what I remember to be a dull London day:
Remember: It’s not about finding breathtakingly dramatic scenes that fill you with powerful emotions. Instead, it’s about recognizing the way more ordinary scenes make you feel and communicating that in your photos.
7. Find subjects that stop you in your tracks
If you’re struggling to come up with new abstract photo ideas, I strongly urge you to cultivate a sense of wonder. You see, I think we often get so jaded by the world around us – that is, we are so busy with our lives and worries and things to do – that we stop finding things awe-inspiring. It takes more and more to make us stop in our tracks and say “Wow!”
But we photographers have a gift:
We are visual people.
We just have to make sure we’re always refreshing our vision and our sense of wonder at the world around us.
And we must go seek subjects that make us feel awe.
I believe that we don’t always need new subjects and exotic locations. We can be impressed by things that are right on our doorstep. Therefore, going out with the intention of finding something that makes you go “Wow!” or “Cool” or “Interesting!” is a great thing to do.
Work on always trying to refresh your eyes so that you can be impressed by mundane subjects (these also refresh the spirit!).
In the photo below, the faded street markings look like a sign in an unknown language. Maybe even a secret message.
I find that the easiest way to refresh your eyes is to go out with the goal of having fun in your photography. Try to find something that makes you laugh.
In this shot of gnarly wood below, I might have photographed a frog, or maybe an alien!
That, for me, is the essence of abstract photography:
Creating a new world, a new vision, and a new experience from this very familiar (yet still awe-inspiring!) world around us.
8. Use perspective for an unusual take on your subject
Adjusting your perspective is a fantastic way to divorce a subject from its surroundings – plus, by changing perspective, you can create cool new images of otherwise dull subjects. Buildings may not be terribly interesting on their own, but if you look up at just the right time, you can capture images like this:
And by shooting upward and not focusing on the entire scene, I captured this photo:
So make sure you don’t always shoot using the same boring, eye-level perspective.
Instead, mix things up a bit! Experiment with changing your vantage point or your angle, and see what you can achieve.
9. Break down the world into elements
In photography, you must learn how to see the world as a series of elements, and then learn to arrange those elements in pleasing and interesting ways. (By elements, I’m referring to basic shapes, textures, and lines.)
Ultimately, if you can see the world as a series of elements and not as a vast, interconnected whole, you’ll be far better equipped to capture some beautiful abstract shots.
This is relevant to all genres of photography, but gaining a sense of control over the elements you place in your scene, what elements you use to support your subject, and what elements you remove from the composition is a great way to improve your abstract photos.
If you’re struggling to see the world in terms of its elements, by the way, I’d recommend putting down your camera and just looking around. See if you can identify various lines and shapes in the area around you, and consider how they interact with one another. It can be helpful to do this exercise every so often, especially when you’re just starting out; that way, you can develop your eye.
Abstract photography ideas: final words
Hopefully, you’ve found some exciting abstract photography ideas to try – and you’re ready to get out and start shooting!
So grab your camera and take some photos.
And make sure to have lots of fun while you’re at it!
Now over to you:
Do you have any additional abstract photography ideas? Share your thoughts in the comments below!