In 1951, photographer Edward Steichen, director of MoMA’s photography department, organized an exhibition devoted exclusively to abstract photography. The 150 images displayed in the exhibition ranged from works of art to scientific studies, light drawings, carefully planned compositions and works by happy accident.
Today, the people included in this exhibition read like a true “who’s who” in the history of photography: Eugene Atget, Harry Callahan, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston and many others. In his heart was a simple question: was photography as an art form really as realistic and literal as many believed, or was it much more experimental than some thought?
All these years after, the question still seems to be answered. While popular social media hashtags like # stayabstract, #abstractnature, #bluronpurpose, # photoimpressionism, and # urbanabstractions are something, our penchant for abstract photos hasn’t waned over the generations. Abstract photography always fascinates us, leaves us perplexed and surprised, whether we visit a museum or roam 500px.
When we talk about abstract photography in this space, we are referring to images that are not literal. Instead of showing us easily identifiable figures (a person, a building, an object), disassemble them into colors, shapes, textures and shapes. Abstract photos are the ones that stop you and ask “” What is it?”before you realize that the answer was in front of you all the time. Read on for our tips to make the most of this timeless style.
Look at your daily environment
Some of the most powerful macro photos are also the simplest and most accessible; they capture something banal and banal, making them seem strange and otherworldly. The best place to start is near the house; a chipped coat of paint, an old table with a warm patina, an architectural or industrial detail, leaves in your garden or even a canvas you painted yourself can become subjects to practice and refine your abstract photography.
The more you “train” your eye to see things outside of their original context, the better your abstract photos will be. Remove everyday objects from their meaning and purpose, and they become colorful shapes that you can use and reinterpret.
Experiment with your settings
In most contexts, the photographer’s instinct may be to avoid too large openings, too long shutter speeds, and too high ISOs. These steps are important to get the best possible image quality, but for some abstract photos, perfect sharpness and focus is not necessarily the goal.
Extremely low field and bokeh depths, motion blur and grit—considered by most to be “flaws”—can become creative tools for the abstract artist who prefers the experimental to the literal. Whether you’re playing with a split-second intentional camera movement or creating abstract, minimalist landscapes over several hours, there are plenty of ways to incorporate long exposure.
Bring out the macro lens
No discussion of abstract photography would be complete without the mention of macro lenses; extreme close-ups of almost everything, from soap bubbles, oil in the water, and snowflakes to rocks and crystals in the human eye and hand, are inherently abstract. If you don’t have access to a dedicated macro lens, you can take your manual lens, reverse it, and attach it to your camera with extension tubes for a DIY solution.
Use crystals or prisms
Prism photography has gained popularity in recent years—and for good reason. Placing a PRISM in front of your lens allows you to control, bend and control all the available light according to your vision, and it also creates those dreamy rainbows and glass reflections for an abstract turn of your surroundings.
Fly in the sky
Aerial photography is more accessible than ever, and a bird’s eye view can turn even the most familiar places, from beaches to parking lots, into abstract tapestries of texture and color. Be sure to read our drone photography guide to get started.
Discover black and white
As the famous photographer Joel Sternfeld said: “Black and white is abstract.”What he meant was this: the monochrome photos mark a departure from what we are used to seeing and living, so they are already abstract from our reality. Of course, this does not mean that color photos cannot also be abstract; it’s just that black and white can emphasize the strangeness of your subject, obscure the familiar context and turn it into something new.
Remember when we said that a shallow depth of field can create soft, abstract shapes? To emphasize the textures of any surface, be it the bark of a tree or layers of paint, you need to do the opposite and close this opening so that everything is clean. Keep your ISO low and consider using a high power light source to reveal all these details. In this matter, a high megapixel camera will be your best choice. Keep this macro lens and a tripod at hand!
Search for reflections
Reflections are natural tools of abstraction, whether they are on the corrugated surfaces of water or on the shiny sides of buildings. Instead of photographing” the thing itself”, look for ways to find its reflection. Even an old broken mirror or a crumpled piece of aluminum foil you dragged around the house could work. Capture a street photo with the reflection of a person in a puddle? Flip it vertically to create an abstract portrait.