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How to Create Abstract Images in Nature

What is a working definition of “abstract” nature photography? Nature so easily lends itself to subjects realistic and dream-like, but what about abstract? You may have heard it said “If it is recognizable as an object – it is not an abstract,” but let’s challenge that notion.

Abstract pics_0006_Diagonal Lines

There are no clear rules to abstract photography. The object of the photo may or may not be recognizable. Abstract images may contain a small portion of an object or multiple objects. An abstract will often concentrate on a limited area of a subject that reveals a shape, pattern, form, color or texture. Movement can also create abstract images, such as rushing water or the wind blowing a flower. To capture an image in nature as an abstract, you don’t need any special equipment – just a camera, and the most importantly, your own imagination. What matters most is that your photograph reveals an eye-pleasing image, whether you can identify the actual subject or not.

In this article you are not going to find any magical camera settings to create abstracts, because you need to think “outside the box“. Discovering the right setting is often the key to a great abstract. Don’t be afraid to put your camera in manual mode, and experiment with different apertures and shutter speeds. Remember that your aperture will control your depth of field, and your shutter speed affects the sharpness or blurriness of the image. Likewise, normal rules of image composition do not always apply to abstract photography. The key is to become super-observant, looking for even the smallest of objects with which to create an abstract image.

Where we look to other forms of photography to tell a story or record an event, abstract photography is about capturing an emotion. There are five key elements you want to consider in creating abstract images: lines, shapes, textures, patterns and colors:

Lines

Lines are the base element of design, and their uses are the fundaments of any artistic image.

  • Lines that intersect are lines that come from different directions into and out of an image, which can give the viewer a sense of chaos.
  • Curved lines allow the viewer’s eye to explore the image in a smooth free-flowing manner, evincing a much calmer emotion than straight lines.
  • Repetitive lines or lines in repeating patterns manifest a sense of power and predictability, rhythm and movement in an image.
  •  Diagonal lines are more visually pleasing than verticals or horizontals and will lead the viewer’s eyes at a much slower pace than a straight up-down line. (By rotating your camera you can turn your verticals and horizontals into diagonals.)

Abstract pics_0007_out of the fog

Shapes

Shapes are found everywhere in nature, and can be used to create visual meaning in a photo. To capture an abstract image, choose a shape that is interesting and pleasing to the eye. It’s very important that the shape creates an emotional response from the viewer; this is called the “wow” factor.

  • Circles evoke flow, continuity and sensuality.
  • Triangles create a sense of stability if set on their base, or precariousness if set on their point.
  • Squares exhibit stability and order.
  • Spirals create a sense of energy, flexibility and life cycles.

pink flower

 Textures

Texture is created by the roughness of a surface and may seem to be completely random. Textures are often a product of lines. Light and shadow create depth (a macro lens can be useful to capture textures).

Abstract pics_0009_rocks

Patterns

Patterns are similar to textures, but are much more structured. Patterns can sometimes be mathematically composed by Mother Nature, for example; snowflakes and spider webs.

Abstract pics_0001_spiders web

Colors

Colors in abstracts are useful in catching your viewer’s attention.  Look for complementary colors as they will hold your viewer’s attention longer.

Abstract pics_0000_fall colors

Some other tips to get started on your photographic nature abstract project:

  • Photograph common objects. Trees, rocks, gravel, seashells, dew drops – even the most common of subjects can produce abstracts.
  • Use depth of field to capture the image you want. Change your F-stop (aperture) to control your depth of field.  This is especially useful when shooting textures, when you may need your entire subject to be tack sharp.
  • Use motion. Using a slow shutter speed to capture objects in motion can create some very interesting effects.
  • Experiment with your white balance. As mentioned earlier, in abstract photography you do not always need to follow the usual rules of   conventional photography and you are free to tweak your white balance to create interesting colors.
  • Adjust color saturation to create pleasing colors and look for complementary colors.
  • Look for creative uses of light for varying effects on your abstracts.

Abstract pics_0005_rushing water

Abstract Blurs

Another method to experiment with uses camera motion to create abstract blurs. Motion blurs are perfect for those nature settings that lack creative inspiration. This method takes a lot of experimentation and you will throw away a lot more images than you keep, but the rewards are worth it when you finally capture that great image. Look for subjects with lines, bright colors and good contrast, like trees and flowers. Warning: this method can become addicting!

Abstract pics_0003_first light

To set up your camera for abstract blurs:

  1. Set the camera to manual or shutter priority, which ever you are most comfortable with using.
  2. Set your ISO as low as possible.
  3. Set shutter speed between 1/4 and 1/20, depending on what your subject is and how close you are to it. Far-off objects may require a slower shutter speed than closer ones to get the blurred effect.
  4. Adjust your aperture to get a good exposure as you would normally do for any image.
  5. Look for lower light conditions such as early morning or late evening which will allow for slower shutter speeds without the need of using a very small aperture. It may become necessary to use a Neutral Density filter if your scene is too bright.
  6. Set your Focus. It is important to focus your camera on the subject even though your resulting image will not appear to be in focus. Press your shutter release half way down to focus on your main subject (back button focus can be a useful tool here).
  7. Now with your subject still in focus, move your camera to follow the lines of your subject, depressing the shutter as you pass by your main subject, it is important to follow through after the shutter is closed. This will keep all your color tones consistent all the way through your exposure. Experiment with the speed of your camera movement to find the best result.
  8. Repeat, until you get a result that is pleasing.

In conclusion, the next time you are out with your camera, be observant and look for visual details and interesting ways to express your emotional and artistic viewpoint with an abstract image found in nature. If you have any other ideas on how to make abstracts in nature, please share in the comments below.

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Bruce Wunderlich

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr