Brushes in car wash

Brushes in car wash

I’m a huge fan of abstract photography. It wasn’t always this way. At one time, I didn’t understand the appeal. But, after experiencing an exhibit of abstract expressionist painters from New York something was piqued in me.

These images are not meant to be understood, but felt.

In this post, I’ll explain the term “abstract” and why this type of photography is fun and playful and can help us become better photographers. I’ll show examples of my own work, and point to resources for you to learn more.

What is abstract photography?

John Suler, in his book on Photographic Psychology (free online), says that a photograph is abstract when you ask yourself, “What is it?” Ron Bigelow has written a three part series on abstract photography. In part one, he defines an abstract image as:

  • Not representing the subject in a literal way.
  • Communicating primarily through form, color, and curves rather than image detail.

An image with people and other subjects creates a conceptual (thought-based) experience. We immediately label or name what we see in the scene. If the image evokes an emotional response, it may be because the scene has a particular meaning for us or we are reacting to the visual elements – color, lines, textures, patterns – at a subconscious level. We create the meaning – either what it means to us or what we think the creator of the piece had in mind.

With abstract photography, these conceptual labels are not apparent and the viewing experience becomes very different, more visceral or perceptual. Not knowing “what it is” allows us to explore how the image makes us feel, without trying to figure it out.

Chair seat in laundromat

Chair seat in laundromat

Why Create Abstracts?

1. Gives us practice in recognizing the elements of visual design and in composing.

2. We can explore the emotional aspects of colour, lines, shapes, and patterns.

3. Helps us to expand our perspectives and see in new ways.

4. Can help us get out of a photographic rut.

5. It’s fun and freeing.

Seeing in Abstract

Abstract images can be found just about anywhere. I see them on the ground, in textures and patterns, graffiti, rust and buildings, in the sky and in water.

Often, when we move in close, showing only part of a subject, we create an abstraction. However, it’s not absolutely necessary to move in close. In the three images below, I used long shutter speeds and camera movement to create blur. This disguises the conceptual subject matter and emphasizes color and movement.

Thanks to Freeman Patterson and Andre Gallant for my introduction to these ideas.

abstract photography blur

The series of images below are a few of my favourites and show the wide variety of subject matter available for discovering abstract images.

Reflections in Glass

Reflections in Glass

color and shape

Color Blocks on a Wall / Envelopes on a Table

rust street sign

Back of Street Sign

spiral staircase ago

Spiral Staircase at Art Gallery of Ontario

Reflection in Car Window

Reflection in Car Window


Why not give abstract photography a try?


Going Abstract will be offered again in the fall of 2017. It’s a fun, laid back introduction to abstract photography. Learn more and register here.

More Resources

Brenda Gottsband is a master at abstractions from buildings. Take a look.
Abstract Photos Created by Repeating Everyday Household Items
My Flickr Set of Abstractions
Abstract Expression and Graffiti

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This