Many photographers don’t think of nature photography when imaging abstract art photos. I’ve been a nature photographer for over 6 years now and I can count the number of abstract photos I have intentionally taken on one hand. It’s not because I don’t like them, but simply because abstract photos are not what I think of taking when I go out into nature. I am often focused on capturing the reality in front of me to reflect what I actually see. But adding a level of abstraction to your nature photos is one of the best ways to bring creativity to your work, make your viewers spend more time with your imagery, and increase the challenge of your nature photography.
What is Abstract Nature Photography?
When we first set off to get images for this post, we had a lot of conversations about what constituted an abstract nature photograph. In the end the lines blurred a bit – the subject of the photo may be recognizable after being carefully observed, but the photographer is portraying the subject in a way that it is not immediately or easily recognizable.
We ended up defining abstract nature photography as a type of photography that uses natural elements in a non-literal way. When taking abstract nature photos, photographers use shapes, colors and textures found in the natural world to create an impression on the viewer that is different from reality.
Why is Abstract Nature Photography Worth Trying?
Abstract nature photography is a wonderful way to both expand your creative skills & celebrate the beauty of nature in new ways. Just think of what abstraction does for your photos – abstraction can bring more mystery to your pictures. Abstract photography allows you to use organic shapes, textures, color and light in new ways. It forces you to look deeper at scenes, even scenes you have seen on a regular basis, and it naturally helps you to amplify the artistic side of your photography.
Another good thing about abstract nature photography is that it is challenging (in the best of ways). In order to get a good abstract nature photo, photographers have to learn to look at the world in a new way. Techniques that work for traditional nature photography may not work when you are trying to create abstract works. For example, you won’t always be able to look directly at a scene and understand what your end result will be – we found that it requires significantly more experimentation with both framing and technique to create good abstract nature photos.
Lastly, when you are creating abstract nature photos, you experience nature in new ways. Nature becomes your partner. You learn to react to it in the same way a portrait photographer would do when working with a person to get the best pictures. When you go out searching for abstract nature photos, you will probably find yourself exploring more. You may find yourself noticing more…suddenly a reflection on water takes on new meaning or the pattern on a dragonfly’s wings inspires you. Abstract nature photography gives you the opportunity to create a deeper relationship with the world.
Abstract Nature Photography Techniques
One of the things that we were surprised about when we went out to take photos for this post was just how difficult it was to get good abstract nature photographs, especially if you are used to taking traditional nature photos. We put together a set of techniques to help you start taking abstract photos but ultimately our advice is to get out into the field and try new things. Adding abstraction to the variability of natural scenes is really something to be experienced and reacted to.
Use Soft Focus
One of the easiest ways to create an abstract nature photograph is to use a softer focus. Using soft focus can create a dreamy, ethereal image and naturally leads to abstraction.
To start using this technique, set your camera to manual focus and spend time experimenting with different focal lengths. This will allow you to increase or decrease the amount of blur in your photo. Unlike typical nature photography it will be difficult to determine exactly where you want to point your camera to get a good composition. When you are trying to make a soft-focus abstract nature photo you will need to spend some time working through composition by moving your camera around while looking at the scene as it changes. Try to look at the image as a whole and how the shapes and colors work together. Don’t worry if this takes a little time as this tends to be a very intuitive process. Once you determine a composition you like, take a few pictures at varying focal lengths as slight changes in focus can have a big impact on the overall feel of the photo.
If you are looking for subjects to use selective focus on, look for areas where there are layers of depth, like a field of flowers or a grove of trees like you see in the example above. If your subject is backlit or has light shining through the layers, even better – the combination of layers and light will can help create a sense of depth in your images.
Using soft focus is a great way to create mood in your photos. The blurring that naturally occurs when using soft focus almost forces viewers to be more interpretive in their response to the photo. This means the overall mood has more of a chance of being noticed in this type of abstract nature photography. Pay attention to what mood is being represented in your photos and if you’d like more of a challenge, try to express specific feelings such as nostalgia or even melancholy through your photos.
Get Closer to Your Subject
Getting close to your subject helps you capture the intricate details that you might miss when shooting from a distance. It also helps you show your subject in different ways.
Getting close to a subject in nature gives you the chance to show viewers something familiar in a way they have not seen it before and allows you to highlight your unique perspective of the subject. You can show them a fragment of a natural scene instead of showing the entirety of the main subject.
Imagine you are taking a picture of a tree. In a typical nature photo, you might place yourself at a distance where you can show the entire tree, or a branch of the tree. What happens when you take a closer look? Just like in the photo above, when you get closer you start to pick up the patterns of the wood, suddenly the cracks in the bark take on a new life, and the color changes of the wood become much more evident. Getting closer allows you to focus in on the small details that are often overshadowed in a typical nature photo. For the most part we don’t look at things like trees or leaves very closely. We aren’t used to seeing them up close like that.
As you are experimenting with distance, also try changing your perspective. A slight turn of the camera or a change in height can exaggerate the unfamiliarity you get when taking a close up of a natural item.
When working with close up photos, a good macro lens can help you get really close and truly focus on the details. A telephoto lens can also be helpful as it can give you more opportunities to zoom in and get closer to subjects that are far away. But you don’t necessarily have to be doing macro photography or using a telephoto lens to take advantage of a close visual distance, in fact, when you are starting out, we recommend you just work with the equipment you have and get as close as possible.
Move Your Camera Intentionally (ICM)
Camera movement can make a typical photograph look anything but typical. Movement adds abstraction because it blurs details and elongates lines creating something unfamiliar from the familiar.
Intentional camera movement is a technique where a photographer deliberately moves the camera during exposure. It is also a powerful tool for creating abstract art. This technique takes a little practice. Try choosing a subject that has a number of distinct shapes in it. Use a long exposure. The slow shutter speed gives your camera time to capture the movement. Once you are all set up, simply click the shutter button and move your camera. You don’t have to move it that much – a little movement can create a lot of visual interest. In the example above I focused on a group of trees with bare branches, and I moved the camera horizontally a very small amount. The movement changed the light coming through the trees into a pattern of lines separated by strong vertical shapes of the tree trunks.
When you try this technique to get an abstract nature photo, you can use any type of movement: horizontal, vertical, horizontal or vertical at an angle or even rotation. In addition to looking for distinct shapes this technique is ideal when there is a large variation of colors in a scene.
Play With Light
Playing with light can also be a way to create abstract nature photos. Light can help you emphasize the texture, color or shape of your subject matter and sometimes light itself can become the subject of your photo.
Light gives you so many opportunities to create abstraction. In addition to using light to emphasize elements of your subject, look for places where the color of light blends or changes. Try going out to shoot at a time of day when the light is distinct, like at golden hour or when you know the shadows will be strong. One way you can play with light is to look for reflections. In nature, watching how light plays upon a body of water may be the easiest way to start. The photo above was taken of light reflecting off of some ice on a lake. The combination of ice, water and light gives a lot of visual interest to the scene.
Another technique to help you play with light is to use shadows as part of your composition. Think of the light and the dark as a way to ‘paint’ an abstract image. Try to look for shapes and not details when doing this.
Look for Patterns in Nature
At first thought it may not seem like it would be easy to find patterns in nature but if you spend some time exploring your environment you will find there are an abundance of patterns in natural scenes.
Natural patterns can give you a great starting point for creating an abstract photo. You can use them to add visual interest and create a sense of order in your photos. Think of the veins on a leaf or the lines caused by winds hitting a sand dune – these types of patterns, when framed correctly, create an artistic view of nature that many people never notice.
To get started working with patterns, find a focus point. Spend some time looking around when you are outside, look for places where light creates patterns like in the photo above or look for patterns that are on natural items or that natural items create.
Once you have found your subject matter you can try things like playing with the repetition of the pattern you found, like framing waves on a lake in an interesting way. Change your perspective and distance from your subject until you have found an interesting way to capture the pattern. Don’t be surprised if you end up with more than one shot that you like when trying this.
Tips for Composing Abstract Nature Photos
There are several strategies you can use to spark your creativity and start taking great abstract photos.
- Experiment, experiment, experiment
The abstract approach is all about experimentation. Go out into nature and start trying things. Don’t worry if you don’t like what you are getting at first, take as many photos as you can while trying different techniques. Make slight adjustments as you shoot. For example, if you are working with the intentional camera movement technique, try moving your camera several ways when working with a subject so that you can see how different types of movement change your final image.
- Limit yourself to ONLY taking abstract photos during a single session:
Abstract nature photography requires a different mindset than traditional nature photography. When you are out in the field try limiting yourself to ONLY taking abstract nature photos so that you can keep your mind focused on techniques and framing for abstraction and not revert into old tendencies that are common in other types of photography
- Let nature inspire you:
So how do you actually find inspiration for creating abstract nature photos? It’s simple – You have to get out in nature. Looking at other’s abstract nature photos can be inspiring and may be helpful later when you are wanting to refine your technique but if you are just beginning, we recommend you let nature itself inspire you – go explore and take your camera with you.
- Cropping is your friend:
It is difficult to get great abstract images in camera every single time. Sometimes you can get amazing images by cropping your photos to emphasize sections of the scene or to get a higher level of abstraction. Abstract nature photographs are also the perfect type of photo to use when experimenting with custom sizes. Try cropping your photos in unique ways to enhance the abstract nature of them.
Abstract nature photography is a challenging and fun way to add creativity to your photographs as well as capture the beauty and complexity of the natural world. It will work your creative muscles & the experimentation involved will naturally increase your photographic skills. Throughout this blog post we’ve discussed our favorite techniques for getting good abstract nature photos, from focusing on shape, patterns & textures to using your focus or distance to create abstraction.
Remember, the key to taking good abstract nature photos is not just the techniques but the time you spend experimenting and working with nature. Abstract nature photography requires an investment of time and creative energy, but that investment can result in beautiful, evocative, abstract photos of the natural world.
So get out there and start exploring. Use your camera just like a painter uses a paintbrush and start uncovering the gifts that nature is waiting to give you. With some experimentation and a little bit of luck you can capture stunning abstract photographs that will inspire your viewers as well as gift you with a chance to connect with the natural world in a more meaningful way.