22 Feb 2008

How to photograph abstracts - part 1

Let your imagination off the leash and photography becomes far more than a means of capturing the literal world however beautifully or skilfully that may be done. Once you start to look beyond obvious reality, a whole new world of shape, colour and form begins to reveal itself. Capturing and portraying abstract design is not just the preserve of painters who have it easy because they can paint what is inside their heads and claim the result to be art. The photographer needs an actual subject, and must think objectively before he, or she, can convey a subjective view of it. Practical skills and visual perception are needed in equal doses to release a subject's full potential.

Of course, you must look further than a simple representation of the obvious world, but unless you just get lucky, those basic practical photographic skills are essential before worthwhile abstract pictures can be produced with certainty almost every time.

And that is where many newcomers to photography come unstuck and need help. The 'abstract' genre is so often an excuse for poor, lack-lustre 'arty' images. It is also where I part company with the teaching methods in many colleges and universities these days. I have lost count of the number of youngsters who have come to me straight from college and told me they only like taking 'abstract shots'. Why? Because they don't know how to photograph anything else. They have not been taught the essential practical skills of photography that will enable them to be fully creative. They have been sent out unprepared and told to 'be creative' as if this by itself will produce 'art'. What utter nonsense. The methods encouraged vary from waving the camera about with a slow shutter speed to angling every composition at 45 degrees. These half-baked teaching methods are cheating our youngsters; filling them with false hopes and denying them access to professional standards though which they might find employment and personal fulfillment.

To me, an abstract picture is one that draws on the less obvious elements of a scene or object such as line, shape, texture, tone and colour purely for their own sake. Often it is the type of image that stretches the imagination of the viewer that is most successful. A picture that puzzles or intrigues; the one that makes someone look twice and then hold their attention.

Start by looking at an everyday subject it might be an interesting modern building or perhaps a river view with reflections. Look for lines, shapes, colour, anything that you can identify as having some visual appeal. Then frame these elements of the subject carefully, placing your rectangle around them tightly so that you isolate them into one strong composition.

The joy of seeking abstract images is that everyone sees things quite differently, in fact some photographers just cannot see them at all and prefer to concentrate on more obvious subjects. It's all subjective and in each individual's eye. Once you start to see abstract pictures, though, you will soon realise that they can be found everywhere in the natural world and in the everyday manmade world as well. So far as my pictures here are concerned, they were all taken purely for the fun of capturing them, and they make no claim to be art… and if I can spot the visual potential of simple subjects like these then so can you.

One of the best ways to start recognising the abstract potential of a subject is to take a closer look at an everyday subject. Try to home in on one particular area of the whole. Find something that has strong colour, good lines or outstanding shapes. Don't fall into the trap of tilting the camera to one side every time in an attempt to inject an unusual angle or viewpoint. This is a hackneyed idea. Try, instead, to compose tightly and if possible crop out any obviously recognisable elements.

Photograph above:

I found this fairground a fertile ground for all sorts of abstract pictures. It was closed during the daytime and the canvas covers of some of the rides have helped provide an intriguing point of view. I like the bright colours and the fact that the clown's picture can only be half seen

1 comment:

Cathy said...

Hi Philip
I really enjoy trying to see the details and abstract elements within the world around me. On my last visit to Kirkcudbright, I spent ages and ages in that wonderful cemetary, just inside the open iron gates, photographing the shadows of the gates cast on the rough textured stone wall by the low morning sun. Getting in close to compose and crop gave me some great abstract images, and that's been a really useful lesson for me.