How are you? I hope life is good. Today I have some awesome ideas for you.
What I love about photography is that anything, and I mean anything, can be your subject. In photography, we are limited only by our abilities to see interesting things in the world around us and to use our imagination to put them together in compelling ways.
Sounds simple, right? Well, today I would love to talk to you about one of my favourite things. We can call it abstract street photography, but I like to think of it as exploring the streets with my camera and letting my imagination go wild.
For me, almost nothing allows us to use our imagination in such a personal and interesting way as abstract photography. And because I spend a lot of time travelling and shooting cities, abstract street photography is one of the genres of photography I love to shoot the most.
I would, though, offer a caveat. I am not an abstract photographer. In fact, I wouldn’t assign myself to any genre of photography. Too restrictive! There is so much of the world I love to explore with my camera, and so much more to learn, that I have stopped even trying to confine myself and my curiosity.
Today I would love to give you a bunch of different ideas about how you can jump into this liberating style of photography – either if you’re new to shooting in this style or not!
If we’re going to define abstract photos I would start with this quote from the writer Henry Miller:
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world itself.”
Everything for me about abstracts is removing the realism, the candid, the obvious from our images, and making images that, as Miller says, evoke mystery and provoke our minds into thinking about magnificent new worlds.
Abstracts are creating new subjects, new worlds that have sprung completely from our imagination. We are leaping away from the old, familiar world around us.
What’s at your feet?
A big thing I see in my students is how little they look around when observing a scene. People are used to looking in the obvious places – but what about what’s at your feet? What’s behind you, what’s up high, and what’s around the corner?
Having infinite curiosity to explore the space around you from every angle is a really strong sign you are becoming more adept in your photography. Usually I am looking around to find interesting patterns of light, and watching where light is bouncing, streaming and falling.
And I love to find interesting things at my feet. Strange discarded items, colours, patterns, textures, dirt and hidden treasures. The world of the actual street is super interesting.
Always be looking at what’s at your feet!
Another fairly obvious, but often forgotten, place that I look all the time for intriguing elements are walls. I love to shoot things like torn posters, interesting shapes, bad wiring, holes, moss growing, light illuminating a dank and dark wall. The possibilities for creating a mini-universe all of your own is completely open and up to you!
Look at this crazy wall I found in Havana, so cool!
Playing with the shapes, lines and perspective of walls and corners is exciting. You have here in Morocco some very simple colours and lines, giving a nice depth with the angle I chose.
Playing with buildings and perspective in my photos is a favourite. Shooting buildings straight on in a realistic way can be good, but also trying out different angles and perspectives is super fun.
I shot this one below in Paris, and I was intrigued by the shapes and colours of the buildings all slotted together in this small area of the city. I wanted to capture their looming feeling, but I also was really intrigued by the golden disc. It created a strange element, something unrecognisable, and added a quality that meant the buildings stopped being pure buildings but with this perspective became a series of shapes and colours.
It’s also great to use the windows, lines and textures of buildings to fill your frame and disconnect the viewer from the whole scene. I like how the lines of windows converge; it looked to me like the building was being folded in half.
The world is awash with fascinating textures! And often I find things that normally would be ignored or were thought to be ugly, but when you go close in and shoot them, they become quite unctuous and touchable.
The rain on a road with broken tarmac feels like a case in point:
As I mentioned earlier, shooting torn posters on walls is a favourite. I find that you get this interesting mix of poster and wall, which means you can have these strange elements left on the wall, out of context.
If you’ve never looked for torn posters I would encourage you to now. It’s super fun to find how many remnants are left on walls, and the fun starts when you find many stuck on top of each other, each torn and worn. Then there exists an interesting collection of contrasting images.
What I really love too is how the textures of the paper and the wall create their own strong element in the photo. And you know what they say, one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure. How cool that we can repurpose the unneeded and discarded for something interesting and new?
I am often on the lookout for reflections because I am ALWAYS on the lookout for interesting light. And light creates all kinds of interesting effects.
I really love creating these kinds of discombobulated reflections:
Having lots of overlapping elements in the frame that take some time to really see what’s happening in the photo. You can do a lot of fun things with reflections like these, creating a sort of ordered chaos:
What can you create with all of the elements around you?
“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography” George Eastman
If I were to pick a subject or general way to describe myself, it would be as a photographer of light. Light is really my main subject. And therefore what light falls upon is really my secondary subject.
I love to chase light, follow it, explore and play with it, and I observe it constantly to see how it’s changing the world around me.
Because light is always changing how we see the world around us. You can be at a scene that looks one way at midday and completely different two hours later, all because of the light.
One of the biggest challenges I see many of my students face in their photography is that they are thinking too much about their subject and not about the light surrounding them.
If people haven’t a deep awareness of light, I always encourage them to spend time just observing the light, seeing what it’s doing where they are now, and then how it starts to change.
Where is the light going? Is it bouncing off a window and creating pools of light on the floor? Is it creating shadows? Is the light warm, cold? How does the light feel and what does that feeling do to your subject?
“Energy and motion made visible – memories arrested in space” Jackson Pollock
Motion is just pure fun in my mind. It’s really about having fun with light and your subject, and totally ignoring reality. The sensation of movement, the colours of it, are wonderful to capture.
I like this idea that these connect with memories too – and how so much of what we shoot, especially in this abstract style, is about things that remind us of experiences, places, ideas, people, books, events, characters from films etc.
We could even say that so much of our photography is about shooting our memories, because what we are curious about, what we notice and what fascinates us is filtered through who we are. Our entire life experience comes into every shot we take.
“I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for.” Georgia O’Keeffe
Colour is a very important subject for me. Almost as important as light! Shooting colours is awesome – and they can be their very own subject.
Colours bring all kinds of feelings to an image; joy, melancholy, danger, fear, fun, exhilaration…. And are often very impactful. What do these colours below feel like?
Abstracts are obviously not about creating clarity, but using the world around us in a new way to make something that fires up our imagination. We are looking for the elements to take on a life of their own. To become something else.
Like in this photo. The shapes of the branches and the barbed wire fence are easy to figure out, but what is interesting is seeing the shapes together, stripped of colour, and only in silhouette. An intriguing contrast I think.
Here we have some great bold colour and a simple strong shape:
In the photo above this is just a piece of an element I found whilst wandering around. It’s nothing fancy or unusual, I just made the shape from the larger whole object, taking the little piece of it that I found interesting, and ignoring the rest.
These shots of mine are not really abstract photography, more surrealism. Surrealism is in a very similar realm to abstraction, because it’s using our imagination rather than being committed to documenting the reality of the world around us.
We can tell stories, reveal people’s lives or just create interesting moments by not making literal, realism-based photos.
Finding quirky moments, odd situations or sad experiences. We don’t need to get everything in frame to tell a story.
We are always working to open up our awareness as photographers, to see more. This is so important because we don’t see anything close to what is actually there in the environment around us. Our brains focus our attention so we don’t get overwhelmed by the billions of bits of visual information around us.
It is why I can take six photographers to the same spot and they all capture something different. So opening up our awareness to take in more visually will help us find more awesome moments to capture.
Shadow and silhouettes
The feeling of silhouettes and shadows can be immensely powerful. The darkness and the shapes they create can bring so much feeling to an image. For example in the photo below I at first used a correct exposure so I got the detail of the man. But it was a really boring image.
So I went down a couple of stops and created him in silhouette instead, and I think it was perfect. The simplified outline of his posture is so much more powerful than having all of the detail.
Here we have the pattern of the repetitive shapes and that is very pleasing to the eye. The brain loves order and repeating patterns create that soothing feeling for the eye.
There we have my collection of ideas for creating engaging and compelling street abstracts. I really hope that sparked some ideas for you, and you are inspired to go out and see what you can capture.
I would love to know if you’ve got some ideas from this article – let me know in the comments below. It’s always great to hear your ideas!
Have a deeply awesome day.
Anthony and Diana
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