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What Is Abstract Photography? (Plus Three Ideas for Getting Started)

What is abstract photography?

The exact definition can be tricky to pin down. It seems that everyone has an opinion, but those opinions can differ wildly depending on who you talk to. Of course, there will always be regional and cultural variants, but let me try and tell you where abstract photography came from.

That way, you can decide what abstract photography means to you.

What is abstract photography?

Abstract photography is no one particular style or technique. It has varied in style and approach for the last century or so.

However, all abstract photographers do have one thing in common: They are always looking to avoid symbolic representation.

What does that mean?

Well, it means that abstract photographers reject the idea that a photograph must always be of something recognizable. Instead, abstract photographers focus on color, shape, and texture.

what is abstract photography
Canon 5D Mark II | Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM | 100mm | 1/320 sec | f/2.8 | ISO 100

It was in the 1930s that abstract photography really became recognized internationally. Early pioneers include Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Weston, and Dora Maar. For some photographers, the process of making images was just as important as the result, which meant that new techniques and new ways of taking photographs were discovered during this period.

Much abstract photography today involves unusual framing and viewpoints in order to try and disassociate the object being photographed from the resultant images. Abstract photographers almost try and trick our eyes and minds into not being able to easily understand what they’re looking at. Such abstract images often use high contrast, sharp focus, and an emphasis on geometric structure.

Now that we’ve answered the question of what is abstract photography, it’s time to try and put the theory into practice.

Here are three techniques you can use to try and shoot your own abstract photos:

Make it out of focus

One of the first things we all learn in photography is how to get things in focus. In fact, our cameras will do this automatically for us if we want them to!

Accurate focus and good sharpness are two of the most desirable traits that most photographers look for in a photograph. So what happens when you subvert that traditional approach?

This bright red photograph (below) was created by using extension tubes to get right up close to a flower. I then ensured that the entire image was out of focus. The colors and patterns become the focus of the image instead of the flower itself:

flower abstract photography
Canon EOS 350D | Canon 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 | Extension tubes | 1/1000 sec | ISO 200

You can take this one step further by turning your image black and white to remove all of the color information. This abstracts the subject even more, moving the photograph further away from the original object and reality:

black and white abstract flower
Canon EOS 350D | Canon 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6 | Extension tubes | 1/1000 sec | ISO 200

For a photographer who is trying to explore what is abstract photography, this approach of creating out of focus photos can be a great way to start. It forces you to think hard about the composition of your images as you play only with light, color, and shape.

Make it move

There are several ways to “make it move” when you’re doing abstract photography. You can move your subject, or you can move your camera.

Moving the camera can be as simple as panning the camera left to right during long exposures to capture the beautiful tones of a golden beach under blue skies. This will create smooth strips of horizontal color across the photograph.

An exciting way to shoot motion-based abstract photography is to attend sports events. The photograph below was shot at a classic car racing meet, the block colors of the barriers and curb creating stripes of colorful interest in the picture:

what is abstract photography? car in motion
Fujifilm X-T20 | Fuji 50-140mm f/2.8 | 140mm | 1/15 sec | f/22 | ISO 100

For creating abstract images with panning, first set a long exposure. You might need a very low ISO and a narrow aperture in order to get a shutter speed that’s long enough if it’s a sunny day.

Then move your whole body to follow the subject with your camera. It will take lots of practice!

what is abstract photography jar
Fujifilm X-T20 | Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 R | 35mm | 1/170 sec | f/5.6 | ISO 200| Layered images in Adobe Photoshop

Instead of moving your camera, you can also try moving your subject. The deceptively simple image of a glass bottle (above) is not quite as it seems. It was created from a dozen different shots, layered on top of each other using a Pep Ventosa technique. For each shot, the bottle was rotated slightly to catch the imperfections in the glass and the slight movement.

Make it repetitive

Repetition is a technique that can be used to great effect in abstract photography. It makes the viewer focus on the patterns and shapes rather than the subject.

abstract photography building repetition
Fujifilm X-T20 | Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4 R | 35mm | 1/340 sec | f/8.0 | ISO 200

Try finding patterns in architecture and then isolating them, rather than photographing the whole building. This kind of approach of looking for details in larger scenes can help you really understand what abstract photography is all about.

If you want to shoot some architectural abstracts, modernist buildings are some of the best subjects. Their clean, smooth lines really lend themselves to abstract photography.

To remove your picture further from reality, you can experiment with color toning the image in Lightroom, or even turn it black and white.

Conclusion: What is abstract photography?

There are many different answers to the question, “What is abstract photography?” And there are many different ways to create abstract images.

What’s important is to try to move away from straight reproductions of scenes and objects that look just like reality.

Try introducing movement, repetition, or even making your images out of focus. Creating abstract photos is a great way to try breaking the rules and pushing the boundaries of what is usually seen as the correct way to do photography!

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Charlie Moss
Charlie Moss

is UK based photography journalist with experience shooting everything from historically inspired portraits to e-commerce photography. Her passion is history of art, especially contemporary culture and photography. You can follow her on Instagram or catch her over at Patreon to find more of her teaching and mentoring resources!

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