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An unfortunate and common problem in many abstract photos is an obvious lack of any thought about composition. Ironically, abstract photography is one of the styles best suited to practicing and applying your composition skills.

This lesson focuses on how the rules of composition can be used to improve your abstracts and why abstract photography can help improve your eye for visual composition.

To better understand these principles, let's start by examining the definition of “abstract.”

Merriam-Webster's online resource, in reference to abstract art, reads: “having only intrinsic form with little or no attempt at pictorial representation or narrative content.”In simple terms, then, abstract photography detaches itself from the real objects photographed, relieving the photographer of the responsibility of accurately depicting those objects. This creates excellent opportunities to concentrate your efforts on composition in its purest sense.

In simple terms, then, abstract photography detaches itself from the real objects photographed, relieving the photographer of the responsibility of accurately depicting those objects. This creates excellent opportunities to concentrate your efforts on composition in its purest sense.

Removal of the Recognizable

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For example, in the image above, by allowing the long exposure to eliminate the concrete forms of the objects in the frame, the image is reduced to just its composition and form.

That makes the placement of the elements and the convergence of the lines in the image critical to its success. Because these elements are managed well, this image is a very dynamic abstract.

Emphasizing Form

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Even in abstracts with clearly recognizable “real” elements, form can be emphasized over structure to such an extent that the objects themselves lose their importance to the image.

In the photo above, the concrete steps are completely recognizable. However, their functional forms become secondary, since the strength of the curved shadows and the diagonal composition overpowers the reality of the steps as a functional architectural item.

Even the blown out highlights on the upper right corner of the image don't detract from the overall dynamics since the detail in the steps isn't a primary factor. Enough of the receding pattern of the expansion joints remains intact throughout the image to support the overall movement from lower left to upper right.

Elements of Composition as Focal Points

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While perhaps a bit cliché, the image above illustrates a good example of how we can seek out elements of composition as the driving mechanism in an abstract photo.

The staircase in the photo and its placement within the frame is a classic example of the “Golden Spiral” employed to place elements in a composition to lead the viewer's eye through a series of intersections based on the “Golden Ratio,” to come to rest near one of these intersections.

Unlike many similar images, this one emphasizes the effect through the use of selective focus and clever lighting.

Once again, by removing the emphasis on the staircase as an object, the elements of composition that make this image work are brought to the forefront.

Using Detail Views of Familiar Objects

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The image above is a photograph of a well-known object, the Eiffel Tower. Because the image was taken at an unusually high magnification, the association with the familiar is removed, creating an abstract with strong composition.

The placement of the division of the symmetrical shapes in this image at the center of the frame serves to highlight the symmetry of the composition.

By showing more detail than the typical “postcard view” of the Tower, the repeated patterns within the arches are also emphasized. The lighter tone of the central “vee” creates a dominant shape that's repeated on both sides of the image by the darker legs as well.

Once again, a familiar object becomes a great subject for applying the principles of visual composition by adopting a perspective that causes viewers to see its form rather than the object itself.

Final Thoughts

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As you can see from the examples above, abstract photography and composition skills are intimately related. Reducing the content of a scene to its abstract form is an excellent way to practice composition techniques and hone those skills, not just for abstract photography but for any genre.

As we’ve discussed, using the unrecognizable aspects of a subject will help convey abstraction, as will lighting and using compositional elements as focal points. Give these elements a try and see what you can create in an abstract composition.

Lesson Summary

  • Rendering objects unrecognizable through long exposure or other means is a primary means of composing abstract images, even of the most ordinary, everyday objects.
  • To further the abstract element of a subject, use lighting, depth of field, and other techniques to draw attention to the form of objects.
  • Try using one or more elements of composition as the focal point of an image to enhance abstraction.
  • Photographing the details of an object rather than the entire object will give you more fodder for an abstract image.

Assignment

Practice your new found abstract photography composition skills by challenging yourself to photograph an everyday object in a completely new way. Be it something in your kitchen, an interesting textile from your closet, or an object in your backyard, strive to look for interesting details you can highlight by manipulating depth of field, lighting, and the like.

Further Study