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How to do Abstract Watercolor Photography

Image: Less about what it is, more about how it makes you feel is this “watercolors” sho...

Less about what it is, more about how it makes you feel is this “watercolors” shot, “Visual Jazz.” © Rick Ohnsman

When you’re ready to make the transition from “snapshooter” to a serious photographer, make photographs rather than simply take pictures, then you’re also ready to begin thinking like an artist.  No longer should you snap a photo to simply record a representation of what you saw.  You will want to begin to think about how to craft your image so that it tells a story, captures the emotion, and involves the viewer in a way that communicates to them.  While the subject and the location still matter, it is also important to consider “how does my image make the viewer feel?”

A Wikipedia article on the famous photographer, Minor White, (July 9, 1908 – June 24, 1976) describes him this way – “An American photographer, theoretician, critic, and educator. He combined an intense interest in how people viewed and understood photographs with a personal vision that was guided by a variety of spiritual and intellectual philosophies.”

I especially like this quote from White –

“One should not only photograph things for what they are but for what else they are.” – Minor White

Image: Water ripple reflections are sometimes distorted, making interesting abstracts. © Rick Ohnsma...

Water ripple reflections are sometimes distorted, making interesting abstracts. © Rick Ohnsman

Photographing “Watercolors”

The use of the term watercolors in this article is not to describe how you might photograph a watercolor painting nor is it about how to use digital tools and techniques to emulate a watercolor look with your photograph.  Instead, we explore how you can learn to see, and then photograph the interplay of light and water to make interesting, and often abstract, images.  Such images will require you to look harder, quietly observe, study and then decide how you will use your camera to capture the image.  You will want to think about how the scene makes you feel and how you will communicate that to your viewer.

A real benefit of making these kinds of photos is – unlike joining the dozens of photographers who might line up at sunrise at that iconic location and all snap away, essentially all making the same shot – these kinds of images will be uniquely yours.

Every image will be different.  In most cases, you couldn’t replicate the shot even if you tried.

There’s much satisfaction in crafting something that is uniquely your vision and creation.

The qualities of light and water

Image: Yes, it’s a wave, but this photo is all about the patterns, colors, and reflections in...

Yes, it’s a wave, but this photo is all about the patterns, colors, and reflections in the sea and surf. © Rick Ohnsman

You may have heard the origin of the word “photography,” based on the Greek words “phos” for light and “graphé” meaning drawing.  Thus, photography is ‘”drawing with light.”

The light that enters our camera lens is either direct (emitted from a source like the sun, or an artificial light source), or reflected (light bouncing off an object and into our lens).  We study the effect of light, and it’s absence, and use it to define the objects we photograph.

Now add water into the scene.  Water can also reflect the light (and the various colors comprising it).  It can also refract the light – bending, altering, and even splitting it into its component colors.

Light waves are changed as they pass from a less-dense material like air to a more-dense medium like water.  Understanding the physics behind how this works isn’t important.  What you as a photographer, a trained observer, and an artist, want to do is learn how to watch for and then capture the interplay of light and water.

Image: Water exists in all three forms in this shot; liquid, solid, and gas. © Rick Ohnsman

Water exists in all three forms in this shot; liquid, solid, and gas. © Rick Ohnsman

The three properties of water

Okay, hang on, just a little more physics here.

Water exists in three states:

  1. liquid,
  2. solid (ice and snow), and
  3. gas (steam, fog, clouds, mist).

How light behaves when it is reflected off the water in these states or refracted through them will become part of your observation training as photographer and artist.

Image: A long exposure blurs the liquid water, but the ice on the rocks is still, a way to display t...

A long exposure blurs the liquid water, but the ice on the rocks is still, a way to display the static and dynamic qualities of water. © Rick Ohnsman

 

Image: A long exposure blurs the water of Avalanche Falls in the Flume Gorge of New Hampshire. © Ric...

A long exposure blurs the water of Avalanche Falls in the Flume Gorge of New Hampshire. © Rick Ohnsman

Image: There are always photos to be taken as this cellphone shot of water cascading down the windsh...

There are always photos to be taken as this cellphone shot of water cascading down the windshield during a trip through the carwash demonstrates. © Rick Ohnsman

Capturing motion

Image: Include the duck for a touch of reality, use the reflection only, or catch a rippled reflecti...

Include the duck for a touch of reality, use the reflection only, or catch a rippled reflection for an abstract, there are many creative possibilities. © Rick Ohnsman

Image: Water dripping down the wall of a building makes for a “realistic-abstract.” © Ri...

Water dripping down the wall of a building makes for a “realistic-abstract.” © Rick Ohnsman

Something else water can do is move.  From massive ocean waves, flowing rivers, erupting geysers, human-made fountains, tiny dripping drops, swirling fog and mist, snow and rain, in many forms water moves.

Our cameras can freeze that motion with high shutter speeds or flash or blur it with long exposures.  Water and how it behaves gives us tremendous opportunities for creativity with our cameras.

Combining still objects in the photo which don’t move, (think a rocky coastline), with water that does (like the waves) in a long exposure, and you create an exciting image that displays both static and dynamic elements.

Image: There’s the realism of the water lily, but over in the corner of the shot… © Rick...

There’s the realism of the water lily, but over in the corner of the shot… © Rick Ohnsman

Realistic or abstract?

There are no rules when it comes to how you choose to depict water in your photo.  It might be quite literal like an image of a waterfall.  It could play a “supporting role,” adding story and color to an image.  Or it could be about how the light interacts with the water; liquid, solid, or gas.  Alternatively, maybe it’s totally abstract – all about the shape, form, line, and color with no concern whatsoever to what the subject might be.

The objective here is to become a “student of light,” observing how light and water interact to create interesting scenes to photograph.

Image: … a complete abstract. © Rick Ohnsman

… a complete abstract. © Rick Ohnsman

Learning by observing

The rest of this article will be about the photos.  Study how I made each one and the way water, in its various forms, is used in combination with the light to make the image.  I have captioned the photos with additional information about them.  See what you can learn and then go make your own unique images.

Image: Water vapor, or what we call fog, create effects with the light. © Rick Ohnsman

Water vapor, or what we call fog, create effects with the light. © Rick Ohnsman

Image: Ice is water in solid form. It reflects, refracts, and alters the light while taking on fanta...

Ice is water in solid form. It reflects, refracts, and alters the light while taking on fantastic forms. © Rick Ohnsman

Image: Reflections on the wet sand make great watercolors. © Rick Ohnsman

Reflections on the wet sand make great watercolors. © Rick Ohnsman

Image: It might come in a bottle, but sparkling water is a great way to add bubbles to your watercol...

It might come in a bottle, but sparkling water is a great way to add bubbles to your watercolors. © Rick Ohnsman

Image: Even where watercolors may not be the main subject, they can play a strong supporting role. ©...

Even where watercolors may not be the main subject, they can play a strong supporting role. © Rick Ohnsman

 

How to do Abstract Watercolor Photography

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Rick Ohnsman
Rick Ohnsman

Photography isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure! Photography is about sharing my personal vision. From the ’70s, with a film SLR and a garage darkroom, college work with 4×5 view cameras, Kodachrome slides and into the digital age, I’ve pursued photography for over 45 years. An enthusiastic member of the Boise Camera Club, I share this common passion and enjoy teaching new members. See my work here – on 500px and on instagram.