Closure Projects: Abstract Photography

Hiroshi Sugimoto
Ligurian Sea, 1982

Look at the photo above. Isn't it striking? It starts with alight gray at the top and slowly moves down to a very dark gray with the texture of waves. The overwhelming feeling I get when I see this photo is stillness and mystery. The misty middle of the photo could be hiding anything.

The photo above by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto is an example of abstract photography. While it is a photograph of an actual place, it is taken in such a way (in this case with a long shutter speed) to make it abstract. You have to really look at this photo to understand what you are looking at. In a way, this is the perfect example of abstract photography.

Abstract photography is a way to express ideas and emotions in photography without the intention of creating a traditional or realistic image. Often abstract imagery is dominated by colors and shapes and not by identifiable objects. In Sugimoto's image, the main elements are gray bands rather than definable objects. Abstraction (the process of making an abstract piece of art) does not rely on the traditional representations of an object, scene, or identifiable element. An abstract photo shows elements and details that are not usually seen by people. It requires looking at a scene a little differently. Successful photographers of the abstract have been able to share an unusual point of view by looking at a scene or object differently.

What are the elements of a good abstract photo?

By its very nature, abstract photography does not have rules or expectations. That means that you can photograph something that you would normally not conciser good for a photograph. However, there are a few elements that can help you make the best abstract photographs you can.

To make an abstract photo you might want to put a lot of weird things in front of the camera, but abstraction is more about removing necessary elements and focusing on a single component. Try to reach for clean uncluttered abstract images.

A good abstract photo has a clear structural design. The photographer (you) though a lot about where the camera should be placed and how the image will look when it is done. Think about the main point of interest and the balance between shape, pattern, color, and texture in an image.

When you approach an object to photograph, you might be inclined to photograph it in a way that seems conventional on further reflection. Start looking at objects from different angles. Instead of strait-on look at the subject from above for up from below. What about from the back? Objects or places might have a back that are interesting--perhaps more interesting than the front. Walk around your subject and look for interesting angles. Turn your camera upside-down!

Light can come from a variety of places. Obviously, there is the sun. That's been one of our major light sources, but light can come from all types of sources. Flashlights, TVs, light bulbs, candles are all sources of light. When you are thinking about abstract photography, think about how different types of light can create different types of abstract photos.

Abstract photos can be mysterious. The unknown is a powerful tool of emotion. It can make people think of a photo in a different way.  Not being able to instantaneously understand what you are looking at can create an emotional response. Look for image opportunities that emphasize mystery.

Who are the great artists of abstract photography?

To answer this question, open this link in a new window:

For this module, there are going to be 6 separate projects. Each one can be explored on this page or in Canvas. You will use whatever camera you have at your disposal. If you have a camera like the ones we have in class, use that. If you have a camera on your cell phone, feel free to use that. If you don't have access to a camera of any type, you can still go through the exercises and build you abstract vision.

Abstract Photography Projects

CP1. Everyday Objects

Abstract photography involves looking at things in a different way. Beginning with familiar objects in your home is an excellent way to explore everyday objects in a new way. Look around you because the objects you see around you can be a source of inspiration. Plates stacked up in the kitchen can be an interesting study in repetition. A light bulb has many unusual shapes that you may not have explored. A container of soap may provide interesting shapes to investigate.

For this project, pick 5 different objects in your house and photograph them in a different and appealing way. You may want to change your angle or the direction from which you photograph these objects. Look for interesting shapes that can be identified. When you have identified what you think are your 5 best shots, upload them to Canvas. 

CP2. Elements of Design

Using the Elements of Design, photograph an abstract scene that demonstrates each element. 

Upload your 7 images to Canvas.

CP3. Shoot Through

Using a makeshift lens “filter” can help you achieve truly unique and abstract images. Colored filters and gels, for example, can save you from having to edit your photos just to give it an interesting color tinge. Shooting through translucent glass, water, or even a car window on a rainy day can result in distortions and light diffractions that will create unusual but visually interesting images. Don’t hesitate to experiment with other kinds of things you can shoot through to find out how they can affect your image.

Submit what you consider to be your single best photo from this photo shoot.

CP4. Capture Motion (Blur)

Many photographers frown upon subject blurring—but not abstract photographers. By simply moving your camera at the moment of taking the shot, you end up with a mix of different colors, lines, and patterns similar to painting brushwork, depending on the direction of movement. Start with one direction, then left to right. Experiment with circular movements and wiggles. Understand how it affects your images and see what kind of patterns you end up with.

Remember to use a slower shutter speed of 1/10th of a second or slower to successfully capture motion blur. If your shot ends up overexposed, you can go on Shutter Priority mode or use a lower ISO level and/or a tighter aperture. If you are using a cell phone camera, you can alter the ISO to force a blurry picture. 

CP5. Artificial Lighting

Adding artificial light from a flash light or someone else's cell phone can yield unique images. Putting a strong light on one side of your subject can create interesting shadows and dramatic contrast. Back lights can create silhouettes. Holiday lights can create interesting patterns of light. Try to find an interesting light source and use it to create an abstract photo. Submit your best 5 images to Canvas.

CP6. Using Post-Processing 

Photoshop has so many interesting filters that you can use to create an abstract photo. Unfortunately, we don't have access to Photoshop at home, but we do have access to a very similar editing program called Photopea. Photopea is menu-compatible with Photoshop. So, if you remember how to use the software form class, you should be in good shape to use Photopea. If you happen to subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud, feel free to use that. If you are a GIMP user, also feel free to use that tool. I recommend Photopea because it is so similar to Photoshop.

Using the filter menu, try applying interesting filters to create an abstract photo from an existing photo. You can use a photo from a previous project in this module or another photo you have taken.