Want to know how to capture beautiful abstract street photography?
You’ve come to the right place.
So in this article, I’m going to share some tips, tricks, and ideas to enhance your abstract street photos.
And hopefully, the next time you’re out, you can capture some awesome photos of your own!
What is abstract street photography?
There is no one definition of abstract street photography, which is a relief. That way, you can make the genre your own.
For me, abstract photography means that you are removing the context of the subject so that what you’re looking at isn’t always clear. In abstract photography, you are re-forming the world to make your own subjects, making things that are not what they appear to be in real life.
And abstract photography is also most significantly about the emotion of the image – what mood, feeling, or atmosphere are you creating?
“Photography isn’t about seeing, it’s about feeling…If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.”– Don McCullin
Now, street photography often involves capturing candid moments of life out on the street. I like to keep the idea of street photography pretty broad, though – to include any imprint of humanity, any aspect of life, whether we see people or not!
Ultimately, when we take the idea of abstract photography out onto the street, we can have a lot of fun capturing the spontaneous, often chaotic, ever-changing nature of humans and life.
We can let our imaginations run wild and recreate the world around us.
So let’s get started!
Abstract street photos take work
Before I dive into my tips and tricks for abstract street photography, there is one thing I want to clear up:
Abstract street photography takes real work.
People sometimes presume that, because abstract street photos look simple, capturing great shots is easy, and that you don’t have to work hard to get a good result.
I would counter that taking an interesting photo is challenging in every genre – and perhaps even more so in abstract street photography, because there are no confines, no rules, nothing to aim for. Everything in your images is a reflection of what you can see in the world.
Your imagination is essential
For me, abstract street photography is pure imagination, because you are creating something almost from nothing. It relies on your ability to see the world creatively, not realistically.
Most of us are caught up completely in the real world, the things we have to do, the places we have to go, our responsibilities and tasks. So it’s easier to take a nice portrait than to go out and shoot something where you almost need to detach yourself from the real world that you live in and enter a state of pure creative imagination.
Abstract street photography is about capturing a feeling
The most important skill you should develop is the ability to be present in the moment when you are out shooting.
We love to escape the moment with continuous thoughts about the past and the future, about what emails we need to write, what we need to say to our annoying neighbor, what happened yesterday at work, etc.
We can also get too involved with thinking about how we are shooting – are we in the right spot, should we go somewhere else, did we bring the right lens?
But while some analysis of what we are doing is essential, it can also stop us from experiencing and seeing what’s happening all around us.
When we are fully in the present moment, and not thinking or planning, we can really appreciate our experience, and we can connect more fully to what’s happening around us.
When we see a brooding sky that gives an ominous feeling, we can capture that. When we see something weird and a little gross on the floor that intrigues us, we are more likely to notice it.
And if we see a man walking to work looking a little downcast, we can capture it:
And by being totally in the present moment, we are more likely to bring the feelings of what it’s like to be there and see what we are seeing into our photos.
Abstract street photography is your interpretation of the world
Photography helps me become more of who I am. It helps me see more of the world and really encourages me to pay attention. When I shoot, I allow myself free reign to follow my curiosity.
Abstract street photography is one of the most fun and joyful photographic genres. For me, it’s about playing, about just walking around and looking at things while thinking:
That reminds me of what I think the texture of the moon is like.
Those dark shadows make me think of a spooky story I read as a child.
A part of that sculpture looks like an elegant painting.
I am particularly fascinated by things I find at my feet. I have endless photos of weird things I’ve seen: crushed, burned burger buns, smashed fruit, accidental paint drippings, and more. I am entranced by these oddities.
“I really feel sorry for people who think things like soap dishes or mirrors or Coke bottles are ugly, because they’re surrounded by things like that all day long, and it must make them miserable.”– Robert Rauschenberg
Find what entrances you out in the world. Find what makes you go, ooh, that’s super interesting!
The more curious you are, the more you’ll find. And the more it will become your photography, your interpretation of the world.
Composition in abstract street photography
How can you create beautiful abstract street compositions?
It’s useful to draw from all of the traditional compositional rules and techniques, such as negative space, leading lines, and the rule of thirds. But I’d like to mention a few other guidelines that are particularly useful when we are creating abstract street photos, starting with:
I often like to say that composing a photo is more about removing and reducing what is in the frame. It’s extremely easy to overcomplicate your photos, to have complex backgrounds, to include elements that detract from your subject, to not notice things in the corner of the shot.
This is particularly true with street photography, because there is always so much going on in the city. Yet we often don’t actually notice all of the visual information because our brain spends a lot of time blocking most of it out. If we noticed everything, it would be very overwhelming for us. Our brain can only deal with so much, so it’s selective about the information allowed inside.
But when we are shooting, our camera notices everything! So we can end up with unwanted elements, or not really see the complexity of the background until afterward.
Ultimately, we have to be really aware and conscious of what we are placing in the frame.
When out with the camera, I encourage you to ask yourselves:
What can I remove from this photo? What is unnecessary? What distracts from the subject?
Breaking the world down into elements
One way to really help your brain deal with the visual complexity all around you – and to help your eyes compose beautiful, striking, and intentional photos – is to look at the world not as one mass of things, but as many elements.
When you break the world down into elements, you see a collection of shapes, lines, forms, etc. And you don’t see the world in 3D surround sound where everything is joined together.
Can you look around at your environment now and see each thing as one singular element? Try it! It’s an exercise that helps you become more intentional about what you are placing in your frame.
Celebrating the purity of light, form, and shape
I love abstract photography because you can focus on the singular elements of light, shape, and form.
Shapes can be fascinating as shapes, not as anything else:
When we focus our attention on something small that holds our interest, we can find fascinating worlds to photograph.
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”– Henry Miller
What does the photo below make you think of?
How about this one?
As you can see, I am not a black and white street photographer. I am an unashamed lover of color, and I love to celebrate all that color brings to our world.
My favorite photographer of all time, Ernst Haas, said:
“Color is joy. One does not think of joy. One is carried by it.” And I couldn’t agree more.
Abstract street photography is almost an excuse for me to just celebrate the power and joy of color. To let colors attract my attention and totally dominate the photo.
Being out on the streets is an invitation to explore so many fascinating textures.
Some of my favorite textures are the crumbling walls, torn posters, and disused locations of the forgotten parts of our cities.
Capturing textures gives such a feeling of realness to an image, as if the viewer can just reach in and feel the roughness of the wall, the coldness of the pipes, and the grain of the wood.
When we notice the world as a series of different textures, your photos gain plenty of depth. You’re giving people more of a sense of what it feels like to stand where you are standing, and what it feels like to look at what you are looking at.
Street photography is filled with humor. This is natural, given how much we humans love to do strange and funny things.
Humor is also a really fun thing to play with when you are doing abstract photos.
For instance, you can try disconnecting things from themselves:
Or you can just look for humorous objects:
Abstract street photography ideas
The best way to embed knowledge is to practice what you’re learning. Information is often retained only briefly if we don’t make the effort to implement it.
And here’s another reason to practice:
So you can take the ideas and knowledge you find interesting and make them your own. For me, it’s super important that I’m not confined in my photography, and that I’m not restrained by other people’s ideas of what’s right or wrong, good or bad.
So use these ideas as starting points to leap off in your own direction. Maybe take two ideas and see what happens. Or just do an in-depth exploration of one!
The Cambridge Dictionary describes pareidolia as “a situation in which someone sees a pattern or image of something that does not exist, for example a face in a cloud.”
Photographing pareidolia is a fun challenge; it’s about finding things that look like other things.
Easiest for me is to find faces or animals in completely unrelated subjects.
I love shooting reflections because they offer so many opportunities to create really cool images.
But while reflections create naturally busy images, still be conscious of what you are placing in the frame so the whole composition looks pleasing to you, not just chaotic.
Silhouettes and shadow
I shot this one in Istanbul, and I love to wonder what was happening. Was it a morning greeting? An argument? A heated political discussion?
Here, I’ve gone more abstract and I’ve put two shadows together:
What are the objects? Who knows? What do they look like? That’s for your imagination to decide.
We always have a subject when we are shooting ourselves, right?
I didn’t use to enjoy taking self-portraits, but it’s something I do more now. Why?
Because I can experiment and not worry about what the subject thinks!
Take yourself to interesting places, then do self-portraits that play with reflections, color, and light. It will help you understand so much more about photographing people.
Plus, if you’re like me – the main photographer in your family group – at least you’ll finally have photos of yourself!
What’s at your feet?
Ever since I discovered Ernst Haas when I was young, I realized that anything could be my subject. All I had to do was be fascinated by it. That was the only requirement.
From that point on, I shot all kinds of road markings and things at my feet, as Ernst Haas did.
I find this exciting because it elevates everyday, mundane objects into something that can be beautiful (beauty in the mundane!).
We rarely pay close attention to things like the streets we are walking on, yet they offer so much possibility!
We can use perspective in a really cool way with abstract street photography. We can find unique perspectives that present our subjects differently and make the subject look unexpectedly different.
I especially like to shoot upward and disconnect parts of buildings or things I see above me from their whole. The viewer then sees the shapes, the colors, and the textures without any knowledge of where or what it is.
Abstract street photography: conclusion
Hopefully, you now feel equipped to capture some beautiful abstract street photos!
So go out, explore, and have fun with your abstract photography.
Now over to you:
Do you have any abstract street photography you’d like to share? Do you have a favorite tip or trick from this article? Share your images and thoughts in the comments below!