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Learn How to Take Abstract Photos

written by: •edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 6/22/2009

Abstract photography is one of the most difficult fields of photography to define - and to take. Here's a guide to help get you into the right mindset for getting into abstract photography, including attention to color, texture, focus, exposure and more.

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    Abstract photography remains one of the most elusive—and ultimately subjective—fields of photography. While many find the various styles very attractive, many are equally at a loss for how exactly to take abstract photos. Even if you aren't planning on focusing on abstract photography, learning abstract techniques can help develop your attention to color and texture in other forms, making it an excellent exercise for even photographers specializing in entirely different fields.

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    Defining Abstract Photography

    Abstract photography has as many definitions as there are abstract photographers. It's a notoriously difficult to pin down. Nor are there any set rules as to what makes “good” abstract photography, even less so than with most art. People describe “just liking” a certain photograph without even knowing why, while others might just shrug their shoulders. The sheer subjectivity of the form makes it even more difficult define.

    Generally, abstract photography is the art of taking photographs with no particular subject or meaning. Probably the most common variety is to make one subject look like another: rust made to look like a sunbursts, folds in plastic like the aurora borealis. A common motif in abstract photography is to make the familiar, the everyday, seem as strange and foreign as a city on Alpha Centauri, or a town of Dr Seuss.

    Indeed, it is argued by many that abstract photography is the most demanding form of photography due to the fantastic creative and imaginative processes that go into creating abstract photos.

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    Examples of Abstract Photos

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    Attention To Color & Texture

    Many abstract photos pay especial attention to color—or the lack thereof. Presenting two otherwise unlike objects with the same or contrasting colors is a common type of abstract photographs, like the red of a dress juxtaposed next to a stop sign, or a single yellow leaf amongst dozens of fallen green ones. Repeating patterns—or a break in repetition—is another common motif in abstract photography, from fractal patterns in trees to a footstep interrupting ripples in the sand.

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    Focus, Exposure & More: Break The Mold

    Forget the rules. Your subject—or lack thereof—does not have to be in focus. Nor does it have to be exposed so it appears perfectly unblurred. Extreme f-stops can similarly lead to fascinating effects not found in other forms of photography, revealing forms, shapes, patterns, color, at different focii that would not otherwise be obvious by our eyes. Show the world in a different light—or a different exposure, f-stop, ISO, whatever, just try to find connections where you or anyone else might not have found them before, harmonies and dissonances in the shapes and forms around you.

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    Technical Requirements for Abstract Photos

    As the sheer variety of abstract photos implies, the technical demands vary considerably. Taking shots of falling raindrops might require both a fast exposure and a low f-stop and a good macro lens, but a photograph of a spiral staircase might need absolutely minimal requirements, just a quirky angle and an unusual perspective.

    Indeed, most of the abstract photography examples in this article were taken with a “mere” point and shoot. Abstract photography can be as hardware-demanding as your personal style dictates. Yes, a lower f-stop might open up new opportunities for your third eye, but nor is it entirely necessary to take beautiful abstract photos. An attention to composition, color and texture is every bit, if not more necessary for taking good photographs. Even if you don't have a multi-thousand dollar DSLR camera, don't feel like you can't take amazing abstract photographs!

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    The Mindset

    Go out with your camera and look at what's around you—look at it differently. Make the familiar seem unfamiliar with a different camera angle, chance the colors of city lights with a filter to make them seem strange and alien. What patterns repeat in the environment around you, and what breaks that repetition? What are the common colors, and what contrasts with them? Ask yourself questions like these—and keep your camera out and shooting. Experiment: try new angles, new filters, new sights and sounds. Change the focus and exposure to create surreal effects of the everyday, blurred silhouettes at a streetcorner or streetlights haloed by shadows. It's all about doing the extraordinary with the ordinary—individual imagination.

Abstract Photography

In this series, you’ll learn what abstract photography is, as well as tips and tricks on how to take the best abstract photos.
  1. What is Abstract Photography?
  2. Learn How to Take Abstract Photos