Abstract Vision

What is your definition of abstract photography? Is it simply photographing something that we don’t recognize? Or perhaps does it need to be blurry for it to be considered abstract? Whatever your definition may be, it’s something that I have become interested in from about two years ago. I later found out though, that making an impactful abstract photograph is harder than it seems. Why? I’ll explain below.

To me, an abstract photo would be anything that one cannot easily identify. It need not be blurred. A macro shot of a flower petal, producing the fine details of its petals can also be considered abstract. Any patterns or textures that cannot be identified may also be abstract in my eyes.

When I started taking my abstract photos, however, I decided to concentrate on creating something pleasing to the eye using motion. I seem to have a fascination with motion in photography as I love long exposure landscapes: The movement of the clouds or water yielding silky smooth textures in photographs is just candy to my eyes. Creating this type of photo, however, isn’t simply creating a long exposure with movement. As it turns out, it’s far more complex to be able to make one that is both impactful and pleasing.

This latter statement about creating a pleasing photo is quite subjective so I’ll try my best to explain why I think this is pleasing to my eyes…and hopefully you’ll agree!

In the Beginning…

When I first started with abstract photography, I started in the autumn season with trees. By moving my camera during a long exposure, I was able to get the various colours of the leaves to blend with one another. This blending wasn’t seamless by any means, but it produced something vastly different than what you saw with your eyes. It struck a chord with me, and that’s what got me hooked.

One of my first attempts at an abstract take on trees.

What followed was the hard part. To get the right effect I was after, there were multiple variables to consider: What should my subject be? How long of an exposure do I need? Where should I focus? How should I move my camera? The questions kept coming, and all I could do was experiment to find what I was after. To make things ever more challenging, each of those variables changes depending on the subject I photograph.

Towering Trees

Let’s start with the trees and analyze some of the abstract photos that I’ve taken in the past. The photo above was taken with a shutter speed of 1/8sec., aperture of f/18, and ISO of 100. I simply panned the camera from left to right during the exposure. It blurred the photo as expected, but the outcome wasn’t very pleasing to me. There’s whitespace on the top right (clouds above the trees) which makes it seem like a mistake in my composition. The panning wasn’t straight so the motion takes on a slight curve. And the exposure wasn’t long enough to create what I would say is a pleasing blur. I knew I could do better.

Now let’s take the following photo.

A vertical pan on trees.

I managed to find an area of the scene where I could pan within the trees to avoid any whitespace. This ensured I had the entire frame filled with the blurring of the leaves. I used a longer shutter speed (1/4sec.) to create more of a blur. To prevent over-exposing my photo from the long shutter speed, my aperture and ISO values were the same as before. I tried my best to pan my camera in a straight line to avoid any curvatures—trees are straight, and bending them in a long exposure didn’t sit right with me…I clearly don’t have steady hands.

While I was slightly more satisfied with the resulting photo, I knew it could be better with a little bit of post-processing. While taking these photos can take time, the post-processing portion can also be equally time consuming—and is obviously subjective to the editor.

Now look at this photo below, which was processed in Adobe Lightroom. It’s a crop from a larger composition but I feel like tightening the shot really makes it for this particular image: The colour palette makes one feel a little calmer without the addition of the darker hues of the blues or the greens.

A tighter crop on a vertical pan to produce a more pleasing abstract photograph.

I loved the blending of the colours in this photo. It evokes a soothing feeling. The colours blend together seamlessly creating a sense of calmness that fills you with an uplifting and inspiring feeling.

There’s an endless possibility when it comes to editing, and it all comes down to what your preference may be. On the flip side, a large contrast in colours could evoke a harsher, stronger emotion in viewers. Perhaps it can also be construed as a sign of chaos or instability. It can be quite jarring.

A more chaotic abstract photograph of trees.

Either one can work, and it just depends on what kind of story and/or feeling you as a photographer want to tell/create.

Which do you prefer? Let me know in the comments below.

The Purity of Water

After some time spent with trees, I naturally moved on to another subject: water. Seeing as I shoot sunrises near the lake, I actually wondered why I didn’t start here in the first place. Water was considerably different than trees because it moves. While trees and leaves are mainly stationary and you move depending on the motion you’re looking for, water moves continuously so you need to consider this as an added variable.

A pan of waves after it has crashed down.

This continuous movement of water therefore makes this type of abstract photography less predictive. While some may welcome this random nature, others will not; I find it adds to the challenge and enjoy predicting the movement of water as I create my photos.

Why Pan at All?

If the water moves, can’t you simply take a long exposure of the water without panning and be done with it?

Yes you could, if that’s the effect you’re after. But I find that adding the element of panning adds to the pleasing blur of the water in the end. It creates an effect that simply cannot be created by leaving your lens pointed stationary on the water.

Long exposure with lens pointed stationary at the water.

There’s also the fact that you’ll have a higher chance of over-exposing your photo if you simply do a long exposure of the water without panning and without any added neutral density filters. It may also limit your creativity in taking these types of photos as well.

A pan of the camera on water during a long exposure.

Notice the difference between the two photos above? The top photo made with the lens pointed at one place during a long exposure doesn’t blend the water as smoothly as it does on the bottom photo, which was created with a pan of the camera from left to right.

See the curve of the water closest to the bottom of the frame? This curve is created because the sensor plane on my camera isn’t parallel to the horizon when I started and ended the pan. The curvature becomes less obvious the closer you approach the horizon since it makes minimal difference at that distance.

Those Waves Though

I live near Lake Ontario, which makes this a great place to experiment with my abstract photography. And since I’m used to shooting during sunrise, this low-light scenario allows me to create these panning abstract photos without worrying about over-exposing them.

Waves crashing down.

Depending on the size of the waves, you’ll have a great time with them. The larger the waves are, the more fun you may have with these photos—albeit the trickier they may be to take. I find that if you follow the waves throughout the long exposure, you have a greater chance of over-exposing the area with all the white foam, bubbles, or splashes created.

Panning of shallow waves by the shoreline.

Since the result may be highly random, it’s a good idea to study the waves and see how its movements affect the resulting abstract photo. The photo can change drastically depending on what stage of the formation you took it at. For example, if you take the photo while the wave is low and starting to form, this will result in a different photo than if you were to take it when the wave is at its peak, or when it is just about to break.

Fill the Frame?

This makes a big difference in how your photo may be perceived. I try and add some variety to my shots by including the horizon and the clouds above the water, and not just take photos where I fill the entire frame with my subject. The former may not work out in some cases though, like when the clouds are dense, forming a solid colour. When you catch the right moment, it can add additional elements of eye candy by creating more texture and context to your photo.

The clouds—or in this case, fog—doesn’t add anything of interest to the long exposure of the water below.

Here are some additional tips you can use for when you try out abstract photography in the water:

  • If you compose your shot around a rock in the water, you’ll get the waves moving in many different directions as it crashes over the rock, making for some great looking photos.
  • If you see a wave coming, follow the wave with your camera, and take photos of it at different stages of its formation. You’ll get different effects at different stages.
  • If it’s a calm day out on the water, don’t fret. The subtle movements of the water can also bring out a lot of texture to a long exposure, creating some very beautiful photos.
  • Try using lenses with various focal lengths to get different compositions. Full frame photos are easier with a longer focal length since you may not have to crop the resulting photo to get what you’re after.

Cirrus Clouds are Great

So, what do I mean by cirrus clouds? Clouds that are thin and wispy, like this:

Wispy clouds are ideal for panning. The clouds sitting above the thick clouds on the horizon are what I consider wispy.

Cirrus clouds are great for long exposure abstract photos as they don’t overpower anything in your photo, and they blend themselves seamlessly with the colours in the sky during sunrise. If you’re lucky enough, you’ll get a great mixture of colours and textures from both the water and clouds all in one frame!

Panning with the clouds above the horizon adds another element of interest to this abstract photo.

Lenses

I touched on this in the previous section, but doing abstract photography with an arsenal of lenses can add to the variety of photos you get. For photos where I include the horizon and clouds, I often use my 24-70mm f/2.8, or my 70-200 f/2.8. The former lens allows me to get a wider view, allowing me to get more of the surrounding areas.

If you want to fill your frame completely, I almost always use my 70-200 f/2.8 since it allows me to get close to my subject. After all, I can only go so far at the beach before I get myself wet!

It’s also nice to know that with a longer focal length (~200mm), any slight movement will result in a blur of the subject. So, you may not have to pan as much with a telephoto lens than if you were using a shorter focal length of, say, 24mm.

Conclusion

Now that you have a basic understanding of what I’m after when I do my abstract photographs, it’s time for you to get out there and make some yourself. The key is to experiment with your settings and panning movement to find the balance that you’re after—don’t just mimic what I do. Create something that you’re proud of creating and showing to the rest of the world.

For those of you who follow me on Instagram (@smaku), you may not have seen many of these photos. Initially when creating these images, I refrained from posting them as I didn’t think they belonged in my feed of landscape photos. However, as I accumulate more of these abstracts, I’ll be sure to sporadically post them on my account.

If you have any tips or tricks that you like to use when you create your abstract photographs, please leave a comment below as I’d love to hear from you.

2 replies
  1. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    Wonderful post about long exposure and abstract photography. I’ve been wanting to experiment more with long exposure but I’m a beginner so I still need to learn how to get the smooth silky look of flowing water. Will definitely take some of your tips and suggestions once I feel confident enough to try my hand at abstract photography. Your images are stunning by the way. They look like paintings!

  2. Taku Kumabe
    Taku Kumabe says:

    Hey Isabelle—many thanks for dropping by, and for the kind words. Everybody starts somewhere, right? The best way to understand and get the hang of this is to get out there and experiment. You’ll learn much faster that way than just thinking about the technicalities of shooting it. No need to wait until you’re confident enough either. Keep experimenting and you’ll be confident in no time. I’m still learning even now believe it or not. Join me on a sunrise shoot one day and I’ll teach you how to begin with this. 🙂

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