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As mentioned in many of the lessons in this category, achieving abstraction in a photo is a matter of separating the scene you're shooting from its real-world forms and emphasizing the subtle aspects of line, shape, texture and other characteristics. There are several ways to bring those characteristics to the forefront and the manipulation of light is one of the most effective.

In this tutorial, we'll examine lighting types and how to utilize and manipulate them effectively for the purpose of creating abstract images.

Ambient Light

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Working with ambient light, also known as available or existing light, when creating an abstract photo may be the most challenging option. On the other hand, if you're shooting without any lighting equipment, it doesn't mean that you can't use whatever type of light is falling on your subjects to create an abstract.

Making the most of ambient light, be it natural or artificial, is a matter of finding the correct point of view and exposure settings to achieve the best effect. In the photo above, both the camera angle and the high contrast help highlight the bold patterns created on the surface of the water, resulting in a highly successful abstract shot.

Modifying Ambient Light

Softening strong light with a diffuser can help lower contrast, which may produce interesting abstractions of certain subjects by evening out shadows that define corporeal forms.

A more common way to modify ambient light for abstract photography is through the use of reflectors, which can be used to create shadows that enhance texture or form. Colored reflectors can warm or cool tones, and a polished silver reflector can intensify the light from a strong source like the sun, to produce very hard contrast, which often works well for enhancing textures, as in the image below.

Using Reflectors

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Reflectors come in all manner of shapes, sizes, and colors. White reflectors provide clean, soft light. Gold reflectors give light a warm tone that’s quite strong. Silver reflectors are quite strong and can create cooler, harsher light. Silver is often a good choice in low light situations. Although not actually a reflector, a black surface, as included with many reflector kits, can be used to cast shadows or actually absorb some of the light falling on a subject.

Any of these reflectors can be used to help you create the right lighting effects for your abstract photograph. This is one of the easiest and most versatile ways to modify light to suit your needs. Angling a reflector properly can provide exactly the kind of shadows you want in your shot and the intensity of the reflected light is easily adjusted via distance from the subject and/or light source. You can use a more extreme angle to "feather" the reflected light, using the edge of the beam and gradual falloff for softer effects.

In ambient light situations, reflectors may often be the only tools you'll need to create the kind of lighting you need for a successful abstraction.

Supplemental Lighting

This term applies to any light added by the photographer to achieve the desired effect in a shot. Like ambient light, supplemental lighting can come from both natural and artificial light sources. Using sunlight from a window to enhance room lighting, for instance, could be considered supplemental lighting. More often, however, adding light to a scene will be accomplished with one or more artificial light sources and those can be separated into two main types: continuous lighting and flash.

Continuous Lighting

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There are a great number of continuous light sources that can be used to supplement ambient lighting to improve your abstract photos. Whether you use a simple table lamp or something more robust like an LED panel light or a tungsten spotlight, you can achieve countless effects with continuous light sources.

Continuous lighting offers the advantage of seeing the effects immediately when you change light sources, angles, distances, etc. You'll have several color temperature options available with different sources that can be used to match or mismatch white balance for the effects you like. Last, but not least, you can use a wide range of materials to modify the light for soft, diffuse or harsh, high contrast lighting and, of course, color can be added in the same way.


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The most obvious advantage to using flash for supplemental lighting is high output from a small source. On the minus side, if your flash unit doesn't have a modeling light, you'll have to take a photo to evaluate the results of your lighting setup.

In the field, a small off-camera flash will match daylight color temperatures fairly closely, and is much easier to carry and power than a continuous light source. Used without modification, the strong light from a flash at full power can be used to create extremely hard shadows and areas of bright white, both of which can be used to create abstract effects. For more subdued lighting, diffusers are readily available or you can bounce the light off of a card or other object. Colored filters are also easy to find and use.

Techniques with Supplemental Lighting

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No matter what type of light source or sources you're using, there's really no specific technique for abstraction. Keeping in mind that the point of an abstract photo is to de-emphasize the "real" forms of objects in the frame and highlight aspects like form, line, texture and patterns.

Hard side lighting can enhance textures. Flat, soft lighting can subdue recognizable forms. Backlighting can bring out details in translucent objects and silhouette opaque objects. Quite often, the best way to discover the "right" lighting for an abstract photo is experimentation. Remember, you're working in a genre that isn't restricted by many of the conventional “rules”, so let your creativity guide you.

Final Thoughts

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Whether you're working with available light or using your own light sources, one of the most effective techniques for creating abstract images is through the manipulation and control of the lighting in the scene. The same lighting options that can help you represent the "real-world" version of a subject can be used to emphasize the metaphysical aspects of the same subject.

Lesson Summary

  • Ambient lighting may require some manipulation to attain the effects necessary to create an abstract representation of a scene.
  • Diffusion and reflection are the most commonly used techniques when working with available light.
  • Reflectors can extremely useful in most lighting situations to help enhance colors, modify the quality of ambient light, and to create or remove shadows as needed to emphasize the aspects of your subjects you wish to highlight.
  • Supplemental lighting is any light added by the photographer and can be achieved with natural, artificial, continuous or intermittent (flash) sources as needed.
  • Continuous lighting sources offer easier visual modeling of light and shadows prior to taking a shot. There are also a wide range of color temperatures available.
  • Flash sources are generally more portable, extremely bright and well suited to abstraction of subjects by highlighting texture or form.
  • Bare flash tends to add more contrast than many continuous sources, and color temperatures are well-matched to daylight.
  • Any supplemental lighting source can be modified by diffusion, concentration, filtering or other means to help achieve the best effects for successful abstraction.
  • In comparison to more traditional genres, abstract photography allows more tolerance for non-standard lighting techniques. Experimentation with creative lighting setups can produce interesting results when shooting for the purpose of abstraction.


Select one of the types of lighting discussed in this tutorial - ambient lighting, lighting with reflectors or supplemental lighting with continuous sources or a flash - and work to perfect its use in generating a dynamic abstract image. Work on manipulating the light source - it's directional relation to the subject, its intensity, reflecting it, and so forth - to achieve different looks and photographic results.

Further Study