Lately, I’ve been really drawn to photography abstracts. I yearn to be able to create abstracts with a paintbrush and maybe someday I will be able to, but in the meantime I’m practicing making better abstracts right in my camera. The best part of making abstracts with a camera is that you can do it with any subject. All you need is relatively low light and interesting color or shapes.
On a recent trip to Mexico I was feeling uninspired to shoot. Truth be told, I didn’t even bring along my DSLR. Because I go to the same location in Mexico every year and because I’m mostly uninspired shooting on a beach, I opted to take along my much smaller and more compact Fujifilm XT-1. My favorite feature of this camera is the old fashion aperture ring that you manually twist on the lens. Not sure what it is about twisting the ring to change the aperture that is so appealing, but it reminds me of the good old 35mm days. With the aperture adjustment on the lens itself, and the ISO control also on a dial, I’m able to access all the settings that I need to create these abstracts without fumbling in the menu structure. I really love that. Maybe it’s because I’m not as familiar with the Fujifilm menus like I am with the Nikon or maybe it’s because I just think it’s cool to have the manual dials.
So given the fact that I’ve already shot most of the scenery before on previous trips, this year I was focusing more on color and texture. Now, instead of stopping in front of beautiful scenes I was instead shooting the most mundane, and in some cases ugly scenes. I can only imagine what people thought when they saw me shooting this hideous shot of a dumpster.
It was the combination of the bright pink, purple, and green that caught my eye. I twisted a few dials and and reshot to get this much more interesting shot. I didn’t even notice that it was a dumpster until I was walking away.
Most of the pictures that I liked as abstracts were painfully boring technically-correct and in-focus shots. I tried really hard to make a totally green photo of big vegetation be interesting, but I couldn’t. So I gave up and tried this instead.
My heart sung when I saw the result and these photos are straight out of the camera. I just love adding extra interest to reality. Nature is beautiful in its own right, but being able to control and alter it makes me feel like I have super powers. I think I’m going to start wearing tights and a cape when I shoot.
You can stand in front of one boring scene for an hour and come up with a hundred different abstract works of art. This straight shot was so boring that I deleted it right in camera, but was happier with the funkier blurry version.
You can still recognize exactly what I was shooting (the various colored vegetation), but I took it a step further and liked it even more.
Those bright spots that you see in the photo above this one are spots of daylight shining through the leaves. I found it a little too harsh and distracting and decided that the camera needed more movement to spread out that light better. I guess you can say that this is a form of “light painting.”
No matter where I was, and what was in front of me, the object or scene became my next potential abstract. While sitting in the hotel lobby complaining that there was no light outside and nothing to shoot I got bored and shot the flowers on the coffee table.
Pretty darn boring, but there was nothing else to shoot. I only had a minute before I had to take off so I quickly changed my settings and shot again.
I want to frame it! Granted not everything produces works of art, but even the subtle abstracts still bring me joy.
So how did I do it? Here’s a photo that I shot at the proper exposure setting without moving the camera.
This is not something that I would normally shoot, but I knew that the texture and shape might lend itself to an attractive abstract. Now I can’t give you the super secret formula to nail it every time because it depends on the conditions and there’s a fair amount of trial and error. Let me just say that the more you do it, the better you get. The first thing I did was crank the aperture down to f22 (or as low as you can go). This is the one consistent setting that I use across the board. I personally use a combination of aperture and ISO to control my exposure, but you can also use manual mode and use aperture and shutter. This is just my personal preference. So next I used my camera’s built-in meter and adjusted my ISO until my shutter was reading approximately 1”. This is where the setting really is determined by the light. In the above photo the setting sun was still strongly shining on my subject. I set my ISO to approximately 400 in order to achieve a 1” exposure. Then I focused on the leaves, started to move my camera about in nice smooth flowing circles (or any sort of swoopy pattern that you want), and I hit the shutter button during the motion. Just to clarify . . . I did not hit the shutter button and then start moving the camera. Instead, I started moving the camera and hit the shutter button while in the middle of the movement. This is what resulted . . .
Obviously the pattern of your movement is going to completely dictate the resulting image and the options for movement are endless. You can pan horizontally or vertically, you can twist the camera clockwise or counter-clockwise while keeping your focus point relatively still, or you can wildly move in organic patterns. One subject can give you dozens of looks by changing your movement and your exposure duration.
As previously stated, you don’t always get something pleasing on the first try. In some cases (depending on the light and the brightness of your subject) 1” may be too long. In that case you can adjust the ISO a little higher. It can be quite a game, but I love the challenge and I love not knowing what my camera display is going to show. It’s always a surprise, some surprises much more pleasant than others. I encourage you to give it a try. Once you get the hang of it your world will change and you’ll start looking for art in otherwise very mundane and boring scenes.
This sort of abstract art will be covered in our upcoming Maine Photo Adventures “Art is Everywhere” photography workshop. We will be spending 2 days in Rockland looking for art in some unexpected places because after all, art really is everywhere. All you need to do is learn how to see it!
Spaces are limited in the Art is Everywhere Photography Workshop. If you are interested, please don’t delay.